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?

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  1. 1. Barbara

    People are looking for one correct answer, but I don’t think there is one. Looking at the agents who blog (a small, but hopefully representative sample of the community), they all want and look for different things.

    I feel like professional is the way to go unless you know otherwise. I’ve never found a situation in life where you’re hurt by coming across as a professional. If there are agents who are so intent on the up-front pitch approach that they can’t look past that, I’m not sure they’d be the best person for me to work with.

  2. 2. Karen Wester Newton

    Well, to some extent, isn’t it a matter of using an approach that represents who you are and how you want to work? If you are truly an unconventional person, maybe you need an unconventional agent. I would compare a query letter to a blind date. If you pretend you like going to baseball games when baseball bores you to tears, it won’t help you any as far as finding a fulfilling long-term relationship. If you prefer slasher movies, you should say so. Otherwise you will find yourself nodding off during SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE.

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Tate Hallaway

Tate Hallaway is the best-selling paranormal romance alter-ego for an award-winning science fiction author. Her most recent novel is DEAD IF I DO is forthcoming from Berkley Trade in May of 2009. Visit site.

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