Have I Read This Before?

Crafting a new concept and a fresh hook

by Michaela Whatnall

If you take a look at Amazon, you’ll find that over 100,000 children’s and YA print books were published and made available for purchase in 2015 alone. With that much volume, what publishers are looking for, especially small publishing houses like Tanglewood, are books that are going to stand out from the crowd.

When we read through submissions, we’re looking for something fresh, something that makes us excited. Many submissions that we see focus on similar topics, such as the antics of a family pet or overcoming a bully at school. We sit up and take notice when a submitted manuscript steps away from these well-worn storylines and introduces us to something completely new. That isn’t to say we don’t want to read manuscripts about pets or overcoming bullies but, no matter what your manuscript is about, you must always ask yourself this question:

Is my story something new, something that has never been seen before?

We’re looking for one of two things when reading through submissions: a brand-new idea, or a fresh take on a well-known subject.

On the Tanglewood submissions page, we offer ten suggestions to consider when preparing to submit your manuscript. Let’s take a look at suggestion #2:

Look at the market. Know what has been written. It’s as easy as looking through an online retailer or strolling through your local bookstore. While stories with supernatural elements are always popular, we are not looking for a book on a boy wizard or vampires.

As this suggestion notes, looking through books that have already been published is a great strategy for considering if your project has that unique spark, or if it’s perhaps too similar to works that are already in the world.

Not quite sure where to start? Here’s a simple activity that can help you with this research process.

Go to your local library or bookstore and take a walk through the children’s section. Pick up a book that seems interesting to you. Read the back cover. Open the book and read the inside flap of the book jacket cover. Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What’s the hook for this story? A hook is a short description of a book that captures the essence of what makes the story unique or compelling.
  2. Does the hook draw you in? Why or why not?
  3. What makes this book stand out from others that may have a similar theme or concept?
  4. Why might a publisher be excited by this book?

Hopefully, asking these questions will give you some insight into a few of the questions an agent or publisher might ask when they receive a submission.

Next, look through the shelves and notice the trends.
  1. What has already been done?
  2. How would your project fit in?
  3. Are there a large number of books on the shelves that resemble your own project?
  4. How can you push your story further to make the subject feel fresh?

For example, there are shelves upon shelves upon shelves of bedtime stories in existence. If you’re working on a bedtime story, you’ll want to know that you are competing with a flood of other published books as well as dozens of other submissions on the same topic, lulling your young one to sleep. Of course, there will always be room for new bedtime stories, but you need to work to find that fresh hook—a new twist on the concept that moves so far from what’s already been done that it feels completely new, while still achieving the goal of providing a satisfactory bedtime story experience.

Now it’s time to take a look at your own project. Think about what you’ve observed and ask yourself the following questions.
  1. What’s the hook of my story?
  2. How is it different from other books? Is it different enough?
  3. Will it make a publisher or reader take notice? Will it make them excited?
  4. What can I do to take it to the next level?

In her article 5 Ways to Hook Your Reader on Fiction University, Janice Hardy describes a hook this way:

A strong hook pulls readers in and makes them want more….It’s the “ooooh” factor that probably got you excited about the idea in the first place. It might be a plot point, a character goal, or a conflict. It could even be a theme.

When you sum your story up in one sentence, does it sound fresh to you? Or could that sentence describe another book—or many other books—that are already sitting on library and bookstore shelves?

If your hook sounds a little too generic, this may hint at the fact that your story could use revision to stand out from the crowd and gain its own unique identity. If no part of your hook has something new to offer, you may consider putting down that project and beginning anew with a different concept.

Ultimately, what publishers are really looking for is that spark of excitement, that rush of reading something that takes a familiar subject and crafts it into something fresh and new.

At Tanglewood, we’re looking for books with smart and dynamic characters, fast-paced plots, and unexpected character growth; but within those stories, we’re always searching for books that will captivate kids and teens. We publish stories that will make reading fun, and books that offer something new are exactly the kind that will capture a reader’s attention and imagination.

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