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 SC Book Festival

It was a kick to see my book along with Nerdy Chick Ame Dyckman’s at the display for the USC Center for Children’s Books and Literacy!

I just got back from the SC Book Festival and I loved being there.  I’ve been attending for many years, but it was a blast to come back as a featured author. The SC Book Festival features authors across many many genres, and I often attend sessions where the presenters write in genres completely different from mine, because that is sometimes where I learn the most.

After teaching a workshop on Friday to a great group of aspiring authors, I had the opportunity to meet and attend presentations with lots of other authors. I thought a one-or-two sentence round-up of what I learned from these successful writers might be entertaining and enlightening.

Ron Rash: When he did a reading, I couldn’t help noticing that he tended to end most sentences with a heavy word, so his prose has a definite rhythm. I wonder if this is intentional, or just something that came naturally to him after years of working as a poet.

Miranda Parker: Shared her road to publication, which included taking an online course from the  Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, where she was the only female, the only African American, and the only christian in the group. She also told about how her writer’s group collected chapters of her novel and sent them to a publisher without telling her. Their act resulted in a three book deal for Miranda!

Zane: Bestselling author and high-powered publisher Zane entertained us with a great story about hiding her identity from her parents for five years because of the sensuous nature of her books. Her books made her a millionaire long before she quit her day job! When asked what she likes to read most she surprised me by saying, “self-help books.”

Richard Paul Evans:  Super smart and business savvy, Richard was nice enough to share some tips on building an audience with a few of us, one of them being to add a mailing list to our websites. His books are wildly successful, having sold over 15 million copies, so I will be taking that advice!

Amy Carol Reeves: Amy and I were on a panel together! She described how she used her PhD  in nineteenth century literature to craft a book on Jack the Ripper. She also discussed the advantages of  having an agent who is involved in the revision process.

I met many other great people including book sellers, book lovers, and industry professionals.  One thing I took away from the conference, that I hope the aspiring writers did too, was that most of these successful authors mentioned using craft-based books, and taking classes before getting their manuscripts ready for publication. Book festivals like the SC Book Festival are usually free, and a great way to learn from other authors!

This is right before our panel discussion started!