Hook and Theme: A Post For Writers

Me with fellow panelist Megan Miranda and moderator John Claude Bemis. MG author Stephen Messer was also on the panel.

This time last week I was in Charlotte NC at the SCBWI Carolinas conference. It was an honor to be included on the faculty this year. During the conference I critiqued manuscripts, participated in author panels, and attended some inspiring speeches and workshops! So… can I boil down all that happened in an info-packed weekend into one blog post? No way. But being around so many authors and so many enthusiastic writers who long to see their books on shelves has made me think about this question: What is the MOST IMPORTANT thing an aspiring author can learn?

The answers to this question may vary, depending on who you ask, but here is my answer.

Writers must know the difference between theme and hook. The theme of a book tells us what it is about. This Wikipedia definition is accurate: a theme is the central topic, subject, or concept the author is trying to convey.

When I ask aspiring authors to tell me the HOOK of their book, they often describe the theme instead.  But the hook is different from the theme. It is the part of your book that pulls the reader in, but it is also the part that NO ONE ELSE has ever thought of before.

It’s true that no two characters, no two settings, no two plots are ever exactly alike. But slight differences between characters, settings, and plots are not enough to set a manuscript apart. For a manuscript to stand out, it must present a truly original idea. One that will make editors and agents wonder how you thought of it in the first place!

When I looked over my conference notes, I saw that some of our most esteemed speakers echoed the importance of presenting editors and agents with truly unique work.

During SCBWI President Stephen Mooser’s workshop, he gave us this advice on character:

“Think about who is someone that editors have never seen.”

This goes hand in hand with advice from Harper Collins editor Molly O’Neal whose keynote included the thought:

“Collect your ideas from where no one else is looking.”

Our words alone do not set us apart as writers. But those unique ideas, the HOOKS, will set us apart instantly. Think about your manuscript. How can you make it completely different from anything else out there? Once you latch on to that idea, you are one step closer to publication!


Theme: A girl who discovers the truth about her world, and her quest to find her mother, and safety.
Hook: A girl who discovers that her father can read characters out of books, and her quest to find her lost mother, who disappeared into a book, and safety.


The Quotable Nerdy Chick: Martha Graham

This photo of Martha Graham and Bertram Ross was taken by photographer Carl Van Vetchtan

Martha Graham (1894- 1991) was an American dancer and choreographer whose influence on modern dance has been compared to Picasso’s influence on visual art. She worked as a dancer and choreographer for more than seventy years. Graham received many awards for her contributions to dance including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Read more about her amazing life HERE.

  • Some men have thousands of reasons why they cannot do what they want to, when all they need is one reason why they can.
  • The only sin is mediocrity.
  • There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
  • Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.
  •  ‘Age’ is the acceptance of a term of years. But maturity is the glory of years.

The older I get, the more this nerdy chick appreciates that last quote. Especially the word glory!

Anne Marie Pace: Author and Award-winning Cookie Baker!

I met Anne Marie Pace the same place I met several of the Nerdy Chicks interviewed so far: at the Workshop for Writers at Chautauqua, sponsored by the Highlights Foundation. One of the best things about that week was connecting with others who took writing seriously. A writer who loves words, loves playing with words, and keeps working with words until she gets them right, Anne Marie was one of those writers.  And she does it while raising four children. To me, that is impressive and amazing. Three of Anne Marie’s picture books have been published and there are more to come! Her latest, Vampirina Ballerina is almost too adorable for words. It is the perfect treat for this Halloween!  Thanks so much for joining us today Anne Marie! 

You’ve got to be thrilled with the art in Vampirina Ballerina. The black and pink together is both stylish and genius! How do you feel that Pham’s illustrations enhance your words? Did you work together to decide on which images to use? Definitely, I’m thrilled.  LeUyen Pham’s work brings so much depth to the book.  We did work together more collaboratively than authors and illustrators are often able to, thanks to our editor Kevin Lewis.  Some of the visual humor was originally in the text, but we took it out of the text because Uyen’s art did the job without my words (an example would be Vampirina’s inability to see herself in the mirror).  But much of it is Uyen’s contribution.  My text had some small things in it that Uyen then developed into book-long threads; for example, I had the line “resist the temptation to turn into a bat,” and Uyen took that and ran with it from end paper to end paper.  I couldn’t be happier with the book.

I can see why!  It’s a great book.  Back when I met you, you were working on a middle grade novel.  Now you’ve had three picture books published. How did you have to change your mind set to write picture books?  Picture books and novels have many things in common, of course—the need for plot, characterization, and so forth.  You just have 5000 times more words in a novel, which has its pros and cons.  In my own work, I suppose that in my novels, setting tends to be very important, almost a character, if you will—but in picture books, setting is up to the illustrator.  Novels are so much lusher—picture books are spare.  I don’t think it’s a mindset as much as a skill set, and I acquired the basics from studying good picture books. Honestly, I still have a lot to learn.
I often tell writers that recognizing that they have more to learn is important to success. That’s probably one reason you’ve been successful! Now that you have several books out in the world, what do you think was the biggest obstacle to your achieving success? Oh goodness, to answer that I’d have to define obstacle and define success, because we all define those so differently.  Hmmm—how about this?  Letting life’s ordinary moments get in the way of writing, and worrying when life’s extraordinary moments get in the way are both obstacles I’ve needed to overcome.

In addition to writing, you’re a mom to four bright children. How does your family help with your writing process? They seem to understand that we are not always going to have a three-course dinner on the table. There is usually clean underwear.  That’s a joke.  There is always clean underwear.  You just might have to look for it on the dining room table, where there is no dinner.

It’s definitely hard (impossible maybe?) to be a published domestic goddess!  What is one of your favorite achievements that you can credit to being a nerdy chick? I wanted to perfect my chocolate chip cookie recipe so I did a lot of reading and research on the chemistry of baking, then followed it with many, many trials.  I’m happy to say that the resulting cookie won a blue ribbon at the county fair.

Award winning chocolate chip cookies… maybe you are a domestic goddess after all! Here’s something we try to ask everyone: If you could give your middle school or high school self one piece of advice, what would it be?  Well, since this blog is about NERDY chicks, I’d probably tell myself not to worry about trying out for cheerleading and to stay on the English Team.  Be true to yourself, Anne Marie!  I would also tell my middle school self not to curl those bangs under.  Ai yi yi, those were some bad bangs.

Do you have a personal “theme song,” perhaps one that speaks to your inner nerdiness? It’s not super-nerdy, but I’m very inspired by U2’s “Magnificent”:  “I was born to sing for you/I didn’t have a choice to lift you up/and sing whatever song you wanted me to.”

Very nice! I love your answers, Anne Marie! To find out more about Anne Marie, visit her website, or like her on FacebookAnd if you want to make a bat headband for your little Vampirina, Anne Marie shared  instructions HERE. 

Here’s a Happy Halloween Wish from Vampirina! You can see more Vampirina art like this on her Facebook page.