Query Letters #2: That First Sentence (or, Writers, it’s Attitude Adjustment Time)

Don Corleone

Query Letter Scans--It's Strictly Business

This is the Second Entry in Our Queries Series.

Literary Agents. Do. Not. Have. To. Read. Your. Query Letter.

I write this so stridently to reduce your anxiety.

Time and again I run into unpublished writers who believe, sincerely, that the literary agent’s job is to read and respond to to their unsolicited queries. This is NOT the agent’s reality.  The lit agent’s job is to effectively and collaboratively guide the careers of the clients who have hired her to represent them.  She is paid for this work, either through the deferred compensation of a commission or, less frequently, on an hourly basis.

The agent is, fundamentally, a sales rep. She pays for her kids’ piano lessons only if she picks the right bunch of products to sell–the right author/company.

You’re the boss. Your query to an agent is your job posting.

Why does this matter?  Because, as Don Corleone said, “It’s not personal, Sonny.  It’s strictly business.”

Your First Sentence in a Query is the Money Sentence

The typical established literary agency sorts through hundreds of help-wanted ads (query letters) each day, scanning each quickly to decide which job to apply for. 

And, just as you would when hunting for a job on Monster.com or Craigslist, she reads the first sentence to determine whether the position offered  grabs her interest, matches her skill set, and promises reliability and longevity.  If there’s no match, she goes on to the next.

If she thinks selling your product might be the right business decision*, she continues reading.

Keep her reading.

Grab her interest, engage her trust.

“Interest” is Grabbed through Content; “Trust” is Engaged through Style (and Flattery and Name-Dropping)

Don’t be coy in your first sentence; lead with your strongest sales point.  If you’re a self-published wonder, list sales figures right up top.  If you’re tops in your field, brag immediately.  If your idea has been lauded on the latest Oprah equivalent, say so right away.  If you’re writing in a genre you know she’s hot for, put it up front.  If your story is your best feature, jump in.  If your education sets you apart, list it.  You don’t have to be brilliant.  You just have to make the agent want to read more.

You are asking the agent to work for you; she needs to know she can trust you.  How do you prove your professionalism in your first sentence?  

  • Use proper grammar
  • Get rid of typos 
  • Mention mutual acquaintances, if they exist; authors she’s represented if they don’t
  • Show you’ve done your homework (investigated your competition, reviewed her website)
  • Place your book in the context of other successful books up top, if that’s your strongest suit

Four Killer (Mostly Real) First Sentences**

“Horse crazy girls.”

Why this kills, even though it’s not grammatical:  it makes me want to read more.  Don’t you want to know what comes next?  It grabs both trust and interest because we all know girls can be horse crazy.  I know there’s a potential market segment out there already, even thought I don’t even know yet if this is fiction or nonfiction.  I suspect the writer is professional, brave and innovative.  

“Saw that you’d be at the San Francisco Writers’ Conference, checked out your website, and really liked it–good old typewriter sounds!”

Why this kills:  it makes me want to read more.  Mission accomplished!  More analysis, although it may be obvious:  this writer tells me he’s serious, creative and personable, even though the tone is conversational and again breaks some grammatical rules.  Serious because he’s done some homework.  This employer (author) seems as if he’d be a good boss for me.  Also–shows a match between my quirky personality and his.  

“Back in 2008, my friend Susie Q recommended I query you about a novel I had written (NAME OF NOVEL).”

Why this kills:  I have to read more. Susie Q is a publishing mucky-muck.  

“I’ve written a novel, Novel with Intriguing Title, based on my screenplay optioned, most recently, by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio, and previously by Baltimore/Spring Creek with Red Hour Productions.”

Why this kills:  I have to read more.  The writer has led with a very strong suit–although in practice an optioned screenplay does very little to sell a book.  But the writer has proved he is trustworthy enough to read on; other professionals have liked his work.

Four Deadly (Mostly Real) First Sentences**

“I am forwarding these words with delight and submitting thirty pages of my manuscript for a Business Book.”

Bet you know why this job posting was quickly dismissed.  Poor writing, passive voice, strange words, nothing interesting.

“What if the one woman you thought you could trust threatened to kick you out of the house?”

What if?  You’ve probably read plenty of posts about using questions in queries.  They don’t really bother me as a device.  What bothers me is that this is boring.  It shows me that this writer’s sensibility is different than mine.  She thinks this is a hugely interesting situation, the most dramatic in her book; but it doesn’t engage me.

“People are tired of fad diets that claim to hold the keys to weight loss, only to be disappointed.”

I don’t want to keep reading, even though I agree people are always tired of fad diets.  What stops me here is the combination of a relatively trite notion and poor writing.  If I’m being pitched a new diet, that first sentence had better convince me the author has a giant platform in such a crowded field–and something new to say.

“My name is Fred Jones.”

Right.

Three Meh (Mostly Real) First Sentences (and is “Meh” an Adjective?)**

“I have recently completed a novel entitled The Seventeenth Rejection and I am seeking representation.”

I probably would read on to the next sentence, but I’ve already got a negative “ping!” in my brain. I don’t care when she finished the novel, and I know she’s seeking representation, so this is kind of wasted space.

“I would be grateful if you would read NAME OF MY BOOK, a novel I intend to sell to a fine publisher.”

Same as above.  I do like the “I would be grateful,” which I find courteous, but the clause is unnecessary and triggers a subconscious “ping!”

My Really Great Novel” is a 97,000-word novel set in the 1920s in the Midwest.

And again–here I’d definitely keep reading, as it’s fine and informative.  But my interest and trust has got to be engaged–if the phone rings, I might not remember to apply for this job.

 *There’s a little lie up top–of course the “business” end of the decision is influenced by love of books & a desire to find the next great (if not commercial) novel.

**I pulled all these first lines from real queries, then changed them up to protect the innocent (me).   Except “Horse crazy girls,” that’s a direct quote.  The author of that query is Heidi Furseth.

 

Comments

  1. Yippeeee, someone who recognizes that “meh” is an adjective, and a great one. I’m thinking a great query goes back to a great premise for your book, don’cha think? Because I think everyone, agents included, are looking for an emotional hook to get them intrigued. Like those “horse crazy girls.” I also think you need to change the format of your post box, because, damn, these fonts are small and hard to read. Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks, Rachel–and you’re so right about my fonts! Still a newbie…working on it tho!

      • Whoops, forgot to address your main point. Yes! It’s all about the book. That’s what makes me crazy–all this calculated thinking about “rules,” when the truth is, writers who focus on their craft first, and their calculations second, are writers who succeed.

  2. I’m just starting my query quest, and I wonder about the queries I’ve been sending. I’m happy with my hook sentence and the query does a good job of representing the book, but should I personalize the query for each agent? Should I mention their website or why I chose to query them? I had just assumed I should get into the meat of the query right away and not waste time …

    • Hi Stacy,
      Thanks for asking and yes! Absolutely personalize each query. Lately I’ve been getting queries blasted out to my email by groups like Scriptblaster, etc., and I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to read something that’s sent out by a machine. That’s the extreme–but definitely make it personal. Not cutesy, but remember these are real people reading your queries out there.

      • Thank you. I always make it personal for each name, but I never know if my opening line should be the hook or WHY I’m querying them, etc. I guess that’s my worry.

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