Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Great Query Letter Debate

Is it more effective to start the query letter with a dramatic pitch paragraph or a straight-forward business proposal?

Thing is, I've heard it both ways. My favorite book on writing proposals and query letters YOUR NOVEL PROPOSAL: FROM CREATION TO CONTRACT by Blythe Camenson and Marshall J. Cook (Writers Digest Press, 1999) suggests the straight-forward approach wherein you open your query letter with something like, "I'm currently seeking representation for my completed 80,000 urban fantasy novel ROCKSTAR GODDESS..." Yet, I've also read articles published in Writer's Digest Magazine that said start with the hook, ala, "When June became obsessed with Guitar Hero she never realized it would lead her to become a real-life ROCKSTAR GODDESS!"

So, which is it?

This is where I usually tell myself (and/or my students) to ask successful professionals what's worked for them.

Thing is, it's worked for me both ways. About ten years ago when I was first looking for an agent I sent out a query letter based on the hook 'em approach. I even formatted the letter all wrong, in that after the usual salutation I put my hook line in the center in a larger font. Worse, it was a piece of dialogue, which almost every advice article tells you to avoid in synopses and query letter pitches. It said: "I'm a dyke, not a faerie!" and then my letter went on to explain that this was the complaint of our heroine in my novel and how she was mistaken for a lost faerie heir that would free Northern Ireland from British occupation.

As far as a queries goes, I'm not sure mine should have worked, but from that letter I got a call for a full manuscript from two diffferent agents (both of which passed after reading the beast, however.)

More recently, when I was changing agents I used the straight-forward business approach. I started each letter with the very simple statement that I was seeking representation. Of course, at that point in my career, I could also point to a number of professionally published novels that I had under my belt. However, I had the disadvantage of being still under contract for two books and so they had to be excited about a future project. So, I did what my books recommended and put my pitch paragraph in the middle.

I eventually got an agent that way too.

When a student asks me which way is RIGHT, what do I say? Well, even though the pitchy-hook worked for me, I tend to think that's much, much harder to pull off successfully. Like the problem with writing a good synopsis, it's far too easy to sound cheesy and melodramatic -- both of which are quick turn-offs to agents, I'd think. (Which is why I'm surprised my "I'm a dyke not a faerie" worked at all.) My money says it makes more sense to be professional up-front. If everyone is trying desperately to grab the agent's attention with snappy, clever, witty bits, my sense is that the letter that starts with "I'm looking for representation" stands out as someone who might be easier to work with, you know?

But then I'm only guessing. Each agent is different, too, and who knows what catches someone's attention at the end of the day?

What's your take on the great query letter debate?


Kelly McCullough said...

Having just taught a class on book proposals in fantasy and having read a whole bunch of pitch sheets and a number of queries in quick succession, I can say with absolute certainty that the straightforward business approach would work much better on me. Give me simple and comprehensible every time.

Sherri said...

"When June became obsessed with Guitar Hero she never realized it would lead her to become a real-life ROCKSTAR GODDESS!"

My recent experience qualifies me to write this book.

I'd worry that if I didn't get the hook opening just right it could make an editor roll her eyes. Not a good thing. In my query letters I establish my professionalism first.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I suspect it's like anything else in writing. If your hook is good enough, you don't want to dilute it by burying it (and that one rocked). If your hook isn't truly stellar, being a professional puts you miles ahead of the pack all on its own.

Kelly Swails said...

My latest query was written in professional style and has netted five requests for partials. For me, I think that's the way to go. Any other way and I feel cheesy.

Antony B said...

Last year I stuck with the straight-forward approach and it resulted in some encouraging personalised rejections ("interesting writing", "second chapter was very funny", etc) but in the end - no agent.

Still, it meant they continued to read the sample pages, so I've gone with the same approach this year.