Rhythm and the Hook
Well everyone, yesterday was my husband’s birthday, so I was out of the office (side note, if you are ever in Glendale, AZ for whatever reason and you like German food, do yourself a favor and stop by Haus Murphy’s. Amazing food and beer delivered by thickly-accented blonde waitstaff — pretty much perfection.). Today’ I’m back in the saddle to talk about queries.
A query letter is comprised of three paragraphs.
1. explain why you’ve chosen to contact this agent
2. The Hook
3. A courteous close, where you list any sales or relevant credentials you may have.
I think paragraphs one and three are fairly self-explanatory. Sure, you will torture yourself over them, and you should, because every word counts, but salutations and bios are not the hard part. The hard part is The Hook.So I’ll be talking more about that in a hot minute.
Salutation, hook, bio/close. That is what comprises a query letter. But that doesn’t define the whole. What a query letter actually IS: a writing sample. It is an attempt to intrigue the reader, in this case a prospective agent. Your goal is to interest them enough to get them to ask for more.
How to do that? Here’s the practical advice I’ve gleaned over the years from blogs and conventions like Pitchapalooza (hosted by the always awesome Changing Hands Bookstore). I’m going to assume y’all already have had some exposure to this stuff before, but I just want to share what’s made the biggest impact on me.
You can’t glom your whole plot into a few sentences. So don’t try. Instead, give a taste of the plot. Touch on it, but don’t be summary. Write in your own, particular style. If you try to cram the whole book into a few sentences, you will not be able to give the agent a sense of your style. Instead you’ll have something reminiscent of a high school book report. Use telling, vivid details to show what makes your hero stand apart from the pack. Try starting with action. Start with the whistle of falling bombs, whatever the equivalent is in your book. Be sensory.
Keep in mind that you will be drafting this query dozens of times. That’s cool. Embrace it. Get crazy, get out of the when/then box. This falls under “totally unverified opinion of a non-professional”, but I have a particular dislike of the when/then after/but before/yet formula. Because it’s formulaic. Because it’s soooo popular that the agent has to see a zillion when/thens a day, you know what I mean? And because the when/then combo sets you up for a droning rhythm of iambs. Prose has meter too, guys, and it really shows when you only have a page. Let me hit you with an exaggerated example:
When Riven Dumbname gives his cat the gun, he never dreams of what is yet to come.
Yeah I rhymed it too, but seriously I could go on for pages of when truffle humple scoodle poodle naddle do; flibber flobber tibby wobber hoopty hoo. DO YOU HEAR IT? I CAN’T UNHEAR IT. I have no proof, (again, this is Opinion Time) but my gut tells me this construct is a really good way to get an agent ready for a nap.
So let’s try that opening line in a more immediate manner. This is just total spitballing; I have given myself permission to be as wack as I want to be.
The cat has the gun and Riv has the kibble.
Riv Dumbname has three regrets: these damned chinos, that fourth boilermaker, and giving his cat the gun.
“Drop the nepeta cataria and nobody gets hurt.”
Riv Dumbname is staring down the barrel of a Colt .45. The slinger? His eleven-year-old poly-dactyl tabby, Sir Throckenbrock Percival Mittens.
Five minutes on the crazy train and I’ve already got a couple of ideas to play with. The second pitch is strongest imho — the chinos and the fourth boilermaker tell us a lot about Riv, and even hint at the setting, the construct of the sentence has some flavor, some punch. Of course I’d tinker and tweak and write a dozen drafts, but that’s the name of the game. Now I’ve probably got room for two more sentences to flesh out Riv, the cat, and the actual conflict, but the stepping stones are there.
It’s ugly because it’s true; for any given project, you get ONE SHOT with any particular agent, and you are in heavy competition. Yes, there are lots of agents out there, but some of us write in particular genre niches where honestly there really aren’t that many fish in the sea, certainly not the mythical “hundred agents” we’re told to query. So rather than writing just one hook, write twenty and tweak and rewrite the best of those twenty. I can hear you groaning from here, but I am in the middle of this process right now myself and I promise you it does get easier the more you do it. Blind poll your friends and have them select what hook they like best (NOT while you stand there looking like a hungry dog, for goodness sake). Do that and you’ll soon start to get a feel for what draws attention, what entices, what leaves them asking for more.