Monday, January 26, 2009

Writing A Query Letter - Part One: The Hook

This series of articles was first published on the QueryTracker blog. I wrote them, so I'm going to post them here as well.

Okay, people. We all know that to secure a literary agent, you need to write a stellar query letter. You can get feedback at various writerly sites, but none better than the QueryTracker forum. People there are nice, honest, and want to see you succeed.

I know, I know. There are literally hundreds of websites where you can go to find out how to write a query letter. But, um, the fact is, you don't want just a query letter. You want a great query letter—one that sets yours above the others.

I know, I know, I know. There are literary agents who have blogged on how to craft these suckers. They're right. They have good advice. I'm no literary agent, nor an expert, but I did take a class at a conference on writing a killer query. We had to submit our letters before the class and the published author teaching the class reviewed them. Mine wasn't like, awesome or anything. But it did, ahem, win. I didn't get a publishing contract or even a bar of chocolate. I did get a round of applause for my hook and several nods from industry people. You know the kind. The nod of approval, large initial bend with several smaller nods of the head. One editor said she'd definitely like to read my book from the query letter. She did. I got rejected. Life goes on.

So I'm going to share what I learned in the class. It made my query better. The instructor taught that there are four parts to an effective query. I'm only going to talk about the first one today, and we'll visit the other parts soon.

Part One - The Hook

You need a good hook. Scratch that. You need a phenomenal hook. Something that really grabs the reader and says, "Read this! It's gonna be good! Then request my full!" In my opinion, the hook should do two things. 1. Grab the reader (aka the agent) and propel them through the whole letter. 2. Sum up the main plot of the novel.

Here are some I've used/written:
Jonathan Clarke has everything a seventeen-year-old boy could want—except for a beating heart.

This screams fantasy of some kind. At least to me. Or maybe that screaming in my head isn't supposed to be there…Anyway, I had a couple of full requests using that hook. I think it's quite grabby and it does tell the main plot, the driving force behind much of the novel. This dude, Jon, he really wants a beating heart and you better read to find out how/when/if he gets one.

Then I rewrote the book, which of course changed the main plot. So the hook changed to this:
Sixteen-year-old Annie Jenkins must control the magic to balance the realm—it's too bad her unknown abilities are hidden beneath her inhalant addiction.

I received a few more full requests—and a few more rejections. Apparently I can write a pretty good query letter, but not a good novel. Oh, and I'm a lover of the em-dash, what can I say? But this hook does, again, tell the main plot. All in 23 words. (I know, mine are kinda long.)

Sometimes the hook can be a little longer, like this one I wrote for a different novel:
In a world where Thinkers control the population and the Rules are not meant to be broken, fifteen-year-old Violet Schoenfeld does a spectacular job of shattering them to pieces. (29 words, but no em-dash! Go me!)

This hook A) Hopefully propels you to read the rest of the letter, and B) tells the main plot of the novel. That's what you want your hook to do.

I don't think there's one right way to write the hook, but lots of wrong ways. The point is, you need a hook. A good one. A strong one. A sharp one.

Your job: get out your whetstone and sharpen those hooks!

Look for part two of Writing the Query Letter - The Setup tomorrow.


Kathy McIntosh said...

Thanks, Elana!
I'm at the querying stage (again) and needed just such reminders. Your examples help bunches.

Jess of All Trades said...

Very very helpful. Still wrestling with my query hook. We might be long-lost sisters - I too am a fan of the the Dash. I think it comes from reading too much Emily Dickinson.
(I really do love her. I'm not just saying that to sound smart...I don't think.)
Anyway, thanks for all the useful tips!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that. I went back and looked at my queries... I need an amazing hook that draws people in like a whirl pool.. thanks a bunch

Lacey J Edwards said...

I think I have a decent summary down, but I have no hook! Bleh! Thanks for the examples, Elana. I too, love the em dash!

K. L. Hallam said...

Thanks. I too, am a lover of the em-dashes, I mean addicted to them. But i've been shown the way to a em-dash free world, for the most part.

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