Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Does Your Hook Match Your Genre?

In September I had the honor of speaking to the NYC chapter of Sisters in Crime, and one of the things that so often comes up when discussing mysteries is the importance of hook. Hook is what usually grabs an agent’s, editor’s, and even a reader’s attention. It’s what makes us pick up a new book by a new author and what makes your mystery, romance, or fantasy stand out from all the others on the bookshelf.

But is a hook enough? No. One of the things I so often see, especially in the mystery world, is a hook that doesn’t match the mystery. I think there are three basic types of mystery. There’s the cozy, the mystery, and the suspense/thriller. Each type has “rules” or guidelines and an audience of a certain type.

Cozy mysteries are just that, cozy little books that might make you think of your grandmother. Now I realize I’m oversimplifying and there are many non-grandmotherly types reading cozies voraciously, but a cozy doesn’t include a lot of blood and guts, usually doesn’t show the villain’s point of view, and rarely do we see more than one or maybe two bodies. Cozy sleuths are amateur sleuths and often have a love outside sleuthing. The trend these days is a craft or hobby like knitting, crochet, glassworks, rubber stamping, quilting, a bible study group, or bunco.

Mysteries are one step up on the darkness scale from cozies. They are still a mystery, which means the goal is to solve the case one clue at a time. A mystery can still involve an amateur sleuth, but typically the amateur sleuth has a little bit more experience in something that might help solve the mysteries. For example, the sleuth could be a doctor who understands something about diseases or a PI who is obviously not an amateur sleuth, but has the background to actually solve crimes. A mystery can be grittier and darker then a cozy and can definitely include blood and gore.

Suspense/Thriller is the darkest of the three and has a different plot setup. While cozies and mysteries tend to be about solving the crime, suspense/thrillers tend to be about stopping a killer or crime. In other words, often we know who the killer is, it’s not necessarily a whodunnit, but now we must find him or find a way to stop him. Suspense/thrillers can include a potential victim who’s forced to help solve the crime and someone who doesn’t see herself as a crime solver, but has the background experience necessary to help. Typically, however, suspense/thrillers have at least one protagonist who is connected to law enforcement in some way.

Okay, so where am I going with all of this? Each of these mysteries is very different in tone, and just because you are writing an amateur sleuth doesn’t mean you are writing a cozy. A protagonist who is, for example, a medical reporter, might have some interesting things to contribute to a case, but is probably not a cozy sleuth. It’s just not a cozy career. A medical reporter, however, would make a fabulous mystery protagonist. Imagine the things the reporter could uncover that others might not be able to find or even understand. A medical reporter would also be a great protagonist to stumble into a thriller situation where she finds something she wasn’t supposed to and is now on the run.

What if you decided to write a book about a knitter, she’s in her sixties and retired and she likes to garden and knit? What’s the appropriate genre or plotline for that book? I’ll tell you right now, it’s unlikely that she’s going to be hunting a savage serial killer through the Cajun bayous. It just doesn’t fit.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Picking a hook is really important, but it’s even more important to pick a hook that suits your audience. If you are determined to write about that medical reporter, go ahead, but something is going to have to give. You can’t do it as a cozy. So you have to decide what’s more important to you. Are you better at writing cozies and need to come up with a fresh hook or are you attached to your medical reporter and need to consider writing a new sub-genre?