By Suzanne Strempek Shea
When I responded to the call for submissions to this blog, I quickly scanned the list of available posting deadlines. I wasn’t trying to work the assignment into a quiet stretch of time (though that’s always nice), nor was I pondering the best exposure for my piece (nice, too). I was looking for a hook. Give me a hook and I will deliver.
It’s how I work, and it’s how I’ve worked since my start in writing as a newspaper reporter back when “Argo” was being played out in real life. When assigned to a beat—named the one to cover a community or a controversy long term—I got out the calendars, one for the current year and for the year to follow.
Reporters always need more story ideas than they’ll ever have the time to write, and something always falls through. Whether you’re full-time or freelance, it’s smart to be ready with a list of ideas to plug the holes, and the easiest way to beef up that list is by looking for hooks. Many publications cover or at least give a nod to many of the same major holidays, anniversaries, big days, etc. year after year. Be ready to pitch them an idea for each, and make it something out of the ordinary.
Covering communities, I marked for the current year the big events. I started with the easy ones, the general hooks, including Independence Day. My work really started when I thought about how to make it something different. Unexpected. That’s when the hook became sharpened.
One year I headed up the hill from the town’s big annual festival to see how the Christmas tree farmer who lives there spend his Fourth. On a broiling Independence Day, I dressed as the farmer was, in long pants and long-sleeved shirt, hoping to avoid poison ivy while watching him prune trees into that traditional Christmas tree shape—just some of the work that kept him busy every single day, including a major holiday six months before the one that kept him in business.
When controversy—a proposed professional hot rod track—came to another bucolic town I covered, I marked the following year’s calendar for the anniversary of the first night the topic was broached by prospective developers. A year hence, what would be the status of the project that instantly had residents protesting? For the current year, I marked Election Day. The family in town that gave up their car and got around in horse and buggy; could I hitch a ride to the polls with them the day of the vote on the non-binding referendum regarding the track?
Get a regular writing gig of any kind and your gears will be ever-turning, looking for hooks. Just be aware of a publication’s lead time, and pitch well in advance of that, to give editors a chance to consider your idea, and, should they assign it to you, to give yourself time to do a proper job. A daily paper or online magazine might want your story by 11 tonight. For some hard-copy magazines or journals, you might need to submit something on the winter solstice when the summer one has yet to glow.
Just always be thinking, and thinking different.
The Bark, once called “The New Yorker of dog magazines,” took a back-to-school piece I suggested thanks to Stonecoast grad Joanne Trumbull, who put me on to Kents Hill School, a Maine boarding school for humans where dogs abound. For Super Bowl season, I interviewed folks at the Animal Planet network about the “Puppy Bowl” they broadcast annually during that time (and, by chance—extra hook—it was celebrating its fifth year) as an alternative game for viewers, this one with pups as players.
During the four years I wrote for Obit Magazine I had the death wheel spinning, a wheel with a magnet for hooks. I got out the calendar again.
I pitched for St. Patrick’s day a piece on how the USA was considering requiring for cigarette packaging very graphic images of illness and death, versions of the hard-hitting messages already utilized on packs in Ireland. For the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, I wrote a piece on New York’s St. Vincent’s Hospital, a refuge-turned-shrine on and after the attacks, then a victim of budget cuts that closed it nine years later. And I pitched one for Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, on what it’s like when your birthday happens to be a major death day. It also was the deadline for this piece as well as its handy hook.
On Dec. 7, I celebrated finishing this post. And I celebrated being here in the blog, and here on the planet, where all kinds of story hooks await us, along with the challenge of making each an opportunity to write something as unique as each of us.
Suzanne Strempek Shea is former newspaper reporter, an active freelancer, and the author of five novels and five books of nonfiction. On the day she wrote this bio, she celebrated finishing what will be her sixth nonfiction book, This is Paradise, about the founding of a medical clinic in Malawi.