Query: Things you can leave out of your first paragraph

Let’s go over the realities of a query letter:  Your sole reason for sending one is to sell you book to an editor or agent. That means you stick to the business at hand – communicating your characters and plot. Oh yes, genre and word count, too.

That’s it. Class dismissed.

Except that’s not what many writers do. Instead, they get caught up with how to begin a query letter.

It reminds me when my mom taught me the rudiments of writing a letter:

  • Always address your letter with “Dear…”
  • Never start the first paragraph with “I,” because it calls attention to yourself ( and some other reasons that will destroy the space/time continuum).
  • Start a new paragraph when you start a new subject, but make sure to transition into that new paragraph.

Holy Emily Post, Batman. By the time Mom was finished with me, I asked if I could just call. Mom put up with a lot raising me. Good thing I was the last in line. If I’d been first, I’d be an only child.

But it got so that I became hand-tied (as opposed to tongue-tied) when I sat down to write a letter – usually a thank-you letter to my grandmother. I’d stare at the empty piece of paper for hours, wondering how to begin the darn thing. Why couldn’t I just go commando and write whatever came into my sometimes-working brain? Or use the phone? Surely, Grammie wouldn’t mind hearing my wee voice, right?

And this is what I feel about a lot of query letters I see. The author is unsure where to start, so they begin their query letters with all sorts of unnecessary details.

  • I wondered if you’d like to see the full ms, which several publishers are considering?
  • I found your publishing company through Publisher’s Lunch/writer’s conference/one of your authors/Twitter/Facebook/giant billboard on Fifth and Main (you look marvelous, btw)/ bathroom stall/the beagle was handing out flyers…
  • Stop what you’re doing and take the day off…my book is a guaranteed bestseller and will make us all millions (seen it, pinkie swear)

The beauty of a query letter is that you don’t need to start with all the usual platitudes that your moms drilled into your brains as kids. That’s right, kiddies…YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO DISOBEY MOM. Powerful stuff, don’t you think?

I do care that other publishers are considering your manuscript because I can plan accordingly. But I don’t need to be bashed over the head with this in the first para. Let me become entranced with your story, THEN pop it on me that several publishers are considering  your work. And by “considering,” I’m going to interpret that as you have genuine interest – not that you’ve queried other publishers. If I like your story, you can be certain that I’ll pounce very quickly. I’m known for it.

It doesn’t matter to me where and how you found our company. I know our name is out there in a lot of venues and you happened to bump into one of them. How lovely. And thank you for the query. But in the grand scheme of things, it isn’t riveting news. The only time this works is if we have common friends. Name dropping is fine. It won’t necessarily get you anywhere, but it’s nice.

When you open your query with invitations to play hookey, I’m sorely tempted, but unconvinced. However, do know that the beagle takes every invitation to skip out on work, and will take your suggestion seriously and curl up in the sun spot on my desk. But also know this: you’re not the first to suggest I take the day off because you are the answer to my every need. In fact, if I had a dime for every query that insisted their manuscript would “put us on the map,” I’d own Hawaii.

What does “putting us on the map” mean, anyway? We’ve been playing this fun game of publishing for seven years and have several bestsellers, book awards, lovely reviews, and lots of wonderful, successful agents who query us. Does that mean we’re “on the map”? If so, a number of authors beat you to it.

The other annoying thing about this “on the map” thing is the implication that your book is THE ONE that will blast us all into the stratosphere. In truth, you really don’t know that because you’re not a publisher. I love confidence in an author, but I’m not a fan of arrogance. Statements like this make me want to drop acid.

Now are times when I read a manuscript and see huge potential, and get a feeling the lid was going to be blown sky high – but until it actually happens, it’s all conjecture. The marketplace is a fickle mistress and I rarely count my chickens before they hatch….yes, I realize I’m mixing metaphors (blame the lack of enough coffee). So if I’m unwilling to lay claim to a guaranteed bestseller before a contract is even offered, then it would be wise for the author to take the same tack and develop a modicum of humility. Always know that as good as a project looks, there are a lot of things that can go wrong.

Sell me with your story. Nothing else. Just you, me, and your story. Forget Mom and her letter advice. Forget arrogance and sure bets. Stick to the facts and leave out the fluff.

Heck, I’ll even let you start your query with “I.”

2 Responses to Query: Things you can leave out of your first paragraph

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I always try to start with a hook, right under the agent or editor’s name. Don’t worry, I would never send anything to Lynn Behler *FLEES*.

  2. […] Query: Things You Can Leave Out of Your First Paragraph […]

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