February 1st, 2011 by Charlene Teglia

“I wish I was specialCreep, Radiohead

Every word, every story, is special to the person who writes it, generally speaking. But is it really special? Will it stand out in a crowded market to an agent, an editor, a book buyer? Will it compel a reader to pick it up in a market where books compete with TV, video games, movies, and other forms of entertainment?

It can be helpful to put on your reader hat and imagine finding your book in a bookstore, eye caught by the cover, picking it up to read…your one-sentence story hook. It should, as the term implies, hook the reader’s attention. Would it hook yours? You are, presumably, a fan of the genre you’re writing. What books do you love most? What storylines do you find irresistible? What aspects of those stories do you hate or find cliched and overdone? What story would you love to find done with a new angle or twist? Does your one sentence convey that here is something special, worth a reader’s attention?

One good way to test this is to try to come up with a strong one-sentence description, like the kind you find in TV Guide or IMDB describing a series episode or a movie. If you can’t come up with a single gripping sentence, maybe your whole idea is too vague, too weak, too generic.

I analyzed a project of mine this way last week, and I had to conclude; no. It’s not special, there’s nothing new or compelling about it. It’s a tried and true storyline but in a competitive marketplace with more new writers competing for readers’ attention every day, that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough to be competent and to come up with a story a reader has already read a thousand times. Not unless something about it really is special, unique, compelling, the same but different in an irresistible way.

So I went back to the drawing board, and I found an approach that really is compelling, a different take on a classic kind of romance. That story will get written and published eventually. My not so special idea? On the scrap heap. If it’s not something I can honestly say I’d want badly enough to devote my small percentage of free time to as a reader, it’s not worth my time as a writer. I’m going to have to spend far more time in that story world than any consumer will as the creator of it. It had better grab me by the throat and not let go, and it needs to do it in a single sentence. Because with all the competition for attention in the entertainment world, people need a reason to read any further than that.

Unless your name is Stephen King, “Because I wrote it” is not going to be reason enough. Remember that regardless of the size of your backlist, any story of yours a reader picks up may be the first time they’ve heard of you or read you, and if you don’t knock their socks off, it might also be the last.

We’re not selling self-help or instructional work, where being an expert might be enough to carry you and compel a reader to buy. We’re selling entertainment, escape, fantasy. So we have to capture our audience’s imagination and we have to do it right up front, right now.

Take your current project and put it to the one sentence test. Can you condense your idea into a single compelling sentence that you would find irresistible as a reader? Would it hook your attention and engage your imagination and get you to read further? If the honest answer is no, don’t be afraid to scrap it and start over or to re-envision and re-imagine your core idea until the answer is a resounding, “YES!”

Recommended reading:
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Writing the Breakout Novel/Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass

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13 comments to “Special”

  1. S.C. Wade
     · February 1st, 2011 at 9:26 am · Link

    I don’t need a one-line hook to attract me to want to read, as not all hooks can really do that. While a good hook can interest me, some stories needs more than that, so I give them a chance. But I know I’m not your average person, so I know what you’re saying.

    Analyzing one’s work to see if it’s compelling or different is definitely good advice. You could have a good story but going at it in a wrong angle. You could be putting a cliche plot in the foreground but one of the sub-plots would be more exciting and original. Our first ideas/drafts aren’t always the most original but within the first idea/draft could be an original idea.

    “Remember that regardless of the size of your backlist, any story of yours a reader picks up may be the first time they’ve heard of you or read you, and if you don’t knock their socks off, it might also be the last.”

    That is very true; I never really thought of that. Ideally, I know it’s true but I never truly considered it.

    Good post!

  2. Cathy Yardley
     · February 1st, 2011 at 12:02 pm · Link

    First, love the Radiohead quote! :)

    I totally agree with this post. With digital publishing and the increasing number of self-publishing, the market is more flooded than ever, and it’s hard to stand out from the crowd. If you’re sticking with traditional publishing, your editor is going to need to pitch your story to a salesforce: it HAS to have a memorable hook, or it’s going to get overlooked. And it’s always a good reminder to push yourself, your craft, and always bring your A-game!

    Great post. Thanks!

  3. Jordan Summers
     · February 1st, 2011 at 7:02 pm · Link

    Charli, GREAT post!!! Dh and I were having this very conversation last night. These days you really have to look at things clearly. Competent no longer works. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but a useful one.

    Also, as an aside, love the dry noodle test. Plan to try it myself at some point. Thanks for the tip. :)

  4. Charlene Teglia
     · February 1st, 2011 at 7:15 pm · Link

    Analyzing our own ideas is hard, but it’s a skill that can be developed and can save a lot of time and headaches later. And yes, you never know at what point in your body of work a reader will discover you; it’s good to remember that every book you publish is the first book for somebody.

  5. Charlene Teglia
     · February 1st, 2011 at 7:16 pm · Link

    Thanks, Cathy! I didn’t lead with “you’re so !@#$ing special”, keeping it work safe. :mrgreen: And yes, I do think it matters now more than ever to push ourselves to bring our best.

  6. Charlene Teglia
     · February 1st, 2011 at 7:19 pm · Link

    Glad you liked it, Jordan! It is hard to acknowledge that a book that would’ve sold 3 years ago will get a pass today, but on the other hand, we have more options today. Still, the same problem stands; you have to stand out.

    And yes, the uncooked lasagna noodles are a win. If you try it, you won’t go back.

  7. Raine
     · February 1st, 2011 at 11:06 pm · Link

    Excellent post, Charli. :)

    All very good points! I just need to remember not to be so hard on myself that NOTHING seems compelling enough. :roll:

  8. Charlene Teglia
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 12:14 am · Link

    Raine, it does help to use some objective standard so you don’t go to extremes of love/hate with ideas. Plot by Ansen Dibell and Save the Cat both have good checkpoints on whether you really have a solid story and whether it’s one that’s important enough to you to invest in.

  9. Kemy
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 12:32 pm · Link

    Hello Charlene, I have a question for you, On your book cover for Animal Attraction, I noticed that it is also a product that you can order through Vista Print to be placed for promotional reason, which I did. I am using that same photograph for promotional reasons for my upcoming novel that is due out in 2011 Shadows of Obsession. Can you clarify, and let me know who hold the copyright for this particular photograph that you used for your bookcover, you or Vista Print. You can check out my website, under the thumb tag Shadows of Obsession, and see what I mean.
    My website is

    Love and Hugs

  10. Charlene Teglia
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 12:58 pm · Link

    Kenny, the cover was designed by St. Martin’s Press’ art department so the copyright on the cover belongs to them. The original image used to create the cover may belong to the creator of it and may be available for reuse under certain conditions for a set fee, but I can’t tell you where to find that information. If Vista Print is offering the image for sale, presumably they have the information you need and can give you the terms for purchase/use.

  11. Charlene Teglia
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 1:00 pm · Link

    Also: I strongly recommend you don’t copy the cover designed by SMP if you do use that image; that would be a copyright violation. Images can be reused but designs must be unique to avoid those kinds of problems.

  12. Kemy
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 4:09 pm · Link

    My book cover is professionally designed, however, thank you for responding. Good luck with your writing.

    Love and Hugs
    Kemy 😎

  13. Sasha White
     · February 2nd, 2011 at 11:56 pm · Link

    I would’ve put the F*%^ing in. LOL I LOVE that.

    Loved the post too!


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