Bait and Hook


Last week I blogged on the reason why a first book by UnPub usually has to be so much better than the bestseller by Author X, Y or Z. Question four I left hanging so I could devote a bit more time to it. And it was…

Let’s say I don’t have mega-luck on my side. What can I do to make my chances of a first-book-sale better?

The answer is – a lot! It’s a writing (and advertising) device called Bait and Hook. Not Bait and Switch, which a lot of writers (and stores) try, but Bait and Hook. And yeah – think advertising.


I love to tell the story of the way my mystery agent does business. He’s a one man agency, and he gets an average of 35 submission s a day, seven days a week, holidays and vacations included. Some are email queries which he handles with a quick yes/no form letter. He has three:

1. Yes, send three chapters and a synopsis.

2. Yes, send the whole manuscript, and I want an exclusive. (Not used much.) and

3. No thank you. 

That will leave some ten to fifteen manuscripts and three-chapter submissions to read.  *Every dang day!* So, he has a rule of thumb, phrased as a question: How little do I have to read to stop reading today? That is where you, UnPub come in with Bait and Hook, but more on that later.


If the first sentence is not a grabber he sends a rejection. If the second sentence is bad, ditto. If the first paragraph is okay, he’ll set it aside to read further. When he has weeded out all but five, he’ll read the first five pages of each. If nothing grabs him, it gets a no. If something grabs him, he’ll send it to his daughter. She will read the first five pages, and send it back with a graded reply:

  1. You should take a look at this one.
  2. This one is fantastic!
  3. This one stinks. (Lots of those.)

His daughter is 16 years old. She has been his reader for four years, weeding out the non-acceptables. Yeah, a twelve-year-old was rejecting writers’ manuscripts, and doing a great job at it. How sad is it that even a twelve-year-old girl can see when a book stinks? Does that mean that your book stank? No. That day he may have been on vacation and he sent out blanket rejection letters. I know –  *Ouch.* But every agency has days like that, which is why, if you don’t have a personal entrée to an agent or editor, it become a numbers game.


Example: Kim Harrison. Not name dropping here (maybe a little) but she has a great story. (Jump in here, Misty, anytime!) I was a member of a writers group at the time and was mentoring Kim and several other writers. This was back in my work-butt-off-phase of life which I have thankfully left behind, at least a bit. I was also in charge of putting together the mystery author and agent panel for a prestigious writing conference. I had already met (via Internet) the agent I wanted her, and other the writers in the group, to have. I asked him to come to the event. Kim and all the writers’ group were all invited. Mind you – Kim had already written a query to this guy and he rejected her. He met her, liked her blurb, and asked for the manuscript. He read it on the way home from the event and signed her. Well, he asked for a monumental rewrite, but when she delivered, he signed her. And the rest of history.

Every agent I know has a system (criteria is the polite word) to answer the most important question of their day: How much (or little) crap do I have to read to stop reading today? So, UnPub’s job is to blow the agent away. Bait and Hook. Kim tried it via the standard method and didn’t meet the agent’s criteria. So she tried another way and voila, she was in.

More below tag-line, I hope…

At this point in a seminar I usually stop and talk about conflict, which makes the attendees feel like I missed something. No, I didn’t skip over the Bait and Hook part. Bait and Hook is *all* about conflict and marketing. Every writer needs to be able to blurb his book in twenty seconds or less and then give the conflict blurb in twenty seconds or less. These are to be used in verbal meetings and pitches with agents and editors and in queries and proposals. Then that info has to appear in some form in the first paragraph(s) of the manuscript. Let me say that again:


That info has to appear in some form in the first paragraph(s) of the manuscript


Examples? Sure. I’ll use my own current one. Marketing Blurb: Early Anita Blake meets Jack Palance, when a kickass Cherokee Skinwalker / vampire hunter is hired to hunt down a rogue vampire killing off cops and tourists in New Orleans.


Conflict Blurb: Jane Yellowrock has never met another skinwalker, or a sane vampire. When she is hired by the vampire council of New Orleans to track and kill a rogue-vamp who is killing and eating cops and tourists, she is placed in danger of being hunted down and killed herself. And her preconceptions about vamps and their blood-servants is challenged, along with her view of herself.


First two paras: I wheeled my bike down Decatur Street and eased deeper into the French Quarter, the bike’s engine puttering. My shotgun was slung over my back, a Benelli M4 Super 90, loaded for vamp with hand-packed silver-flechette rounds.  I carried a selection of silver crosses in my belt, hidden under my leather jacket, and stakes were secured in loops at my jeans-clad thighs. The saddle bags on my bike were filled with my meager travel belongings—clothes in one side, tools of the trade in the other.  As a vamp killer for hire, I travel light.


I’d need to put the vamp hunting tools out of sight for my interview.  My hostess might be offended.  Not a good thing when said hostess held my next paycheck in her hands and possessed a set of fangs of her own.


In my opinion, it is the best opening I ever wrote.


My definition of Bait and Hook.


Consists of an introduction and development of a central character and / or his conflict.  This is a device that is a mixture of several other devices, used the first time you introduce a character, or open the story, but when it works best, it is almost ALWAYS a mixture of character and conflict together.  It is best seen in the opening of a story.


In BAIT, you are also introducing the TYPE of story you are writing and trying to hook or interest the reader.  BAIT may offer both emotional tone and setting, character and action, or any combination of story.  But its purpose is to introduce, modify, show evidence of change!

1.      In an idea story, you present the idea of the central conflict.

2.      In a character story, you present the main character

3.      In an action story, you start with action crucial to the central conflict

4.      In atmosphere story, you open with the setting, though this type of story is seldom published an Example would be the House of Usher.


As example from very different genres – 

1.      From The Cask of Amontillado.  “The thousand injuries of Fortunado I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge.”  The problem of the author was to catch our attention.  The hero is pictured as patient but resolute, faced by an intolerable situation, and an antagonist, and dangerous conflict is hinted at.

2.      Joe endured Laura’s nagging as patiently as possible, but when she locked him out, he took the car and left.  Problem – catch our interest.  Picture the hero and the antagonist and the conflict in their marriage.  What do we think we know about Joe?  What do we think we know about Laura?  How many possible solutions do we have?  Hundreds.

3.      From A Very Valuable Quality.  “Until the day my sister Susie was jilted, I didn’t know how smart she was.  Up until then I had thought of my sister Suzie as being a pretty brunette whose clothes I might be able to wear next year.  I, Laurie, am 15 and large for my age.  But the day that Henry Brown jilted Susie, I learned that she had brains too.  Brains are a very valuable quality for a woman to have.”  Problem – same.  Heroine is introduced, her problem is introduced, and the weapon of solving that problem.  BAIT by characterization and conflict, with a solution hinted at.

4.      McWhirt sucked on his thumb, the one the fishhook caught.  It was red and puffy, even after he’d soaked it in kerosene, and drank down a half pint of Wild Turkey Whiskey, his old daddy’s sure-fire cure for any cut.  He looked up, squinting against the sun.  Still no sign of the bass boat and Smitty, with the big payoff haul of hooch.  The one that was going to get them out of hock and on the road to wine women and song.    A case of the shivers gripped him, and he took another long swig.  The bottle was almost empty, and him still in pain and all.  If Smitty didn’t show soon, he’d have to get to a doctor.  Blood pizon, he figured.  His old daddy’d died of the blood pizon.  He needed a doctor….  But then, he had to wait for Smitty and the hooch and the new life they was to start for themselves.  He had to….  As a problem – we see the character torn by 2 needs.  His need for a doctor, and his need for fortune.  This is BAIT by characterization and conflict!


Think about your own beginning of novel or story and see if you did the job of BAITING your reader with the opening words.   BAIT…. Like tossing fish-food pellets to koi in a pond.



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