One of my clients struggled to get literary agents to take her seriously. She had put years into her novel, and yet when she queried agents she got polite but consistent rejections.
But one day, she changed how she went about writing her query letter.
And that’s when her career trajectory changed as well.
Originally, when she queried agents she did what most people do – she started her letter with a request that the agent consider her novel (“I am writing to ask if you would be interested in reviewing my blah blah blah”).
To me, starting a query letter like this is the kiss of death. Of course an author wants someone to consider their project. Why else would they be writing them? By starting off the letter with the most obvious, predictable truth, an author is pretty much guaranteeing as disengaged of an audience as possible. This was my client’s outcome as well.
But three little words would change all of that.
The mistake that most people make when looking to garner interest in their story idea is that they preface all of the good stuff about the opportunity of their story with the banal – with something about themselves and maybe a generic citation of their project.
But that’s not how my client started the query letter that led to her first agent.
Instead, she started it with this:
What happens when you find true love but he finds your best friend first?
Not only did this modified query letter land her an agent, and not only did this lead to her getting a deal for a book that went on to become an international bestseller, but at one point the agent even used her query letter on a blog entry to outline how it exemplifies a great query.
But what are the three words about which I speak?
The modified sentence does a critical thing to compel further reading and a request for more material: it raises curiosity. Curiosity is the driving force behind an effective query because a query’s job is to prompt further action. An agent has to want to know more to actually request more.
Why does the modified sentence raise curiosity? This happens not only because it is shaped as a question, and questions automatically compel curiosity by inciting the need for an answer, but because it is shaped as a particular kind of question.
It is shaped as a question that starts with the words, “what happens when.”
Take a look at those three words. What happens when. By the very nature of posing a question like that, it forces you as storyteller to pose the setup for your story without actually giving away the ending. By asking the reader what happens when some sort of event sets other events in motion, they will have a far greater chance of wanting to find out what those events are by the very nature of people wanting to see how stories end.
If we applied this exercise to a book like Harry Potter, we could ask, “What happens when an orphaned boy finds out he’s actually a wizard who has taken down the darkest wizard in history?” Does this tell the story? Not even close. But it sets the reader up for a narrative with tremendous possibilities.
Another format for this kind of sentence is starting it with the words “What if…” This was rather comically the impetus behind novelist John Irving coming up with his 2001 novella The Fourth Hand. He and his wife were watching a news story about the first hand transplant in the United States, and his wife asked, “What if the donor’s widow demands visitation rights with the hand?” While this sentence was more of a brainstorming tool than the first sentence for a query, it illustrates the power of creating narrative possibility with this kind of question – it lead to an entire novella.
Now, of course these sentences aren’t the only way to start a query. A declarative statement could work as well, much as they do for some of the most compelling passages of jacket copy out there. But whether it’s a “What happens when” question or not, the most important thing you can do in the first sentence of your query letter is write something that compels the agent to read all of the sentences that follow. The value of your query letter is defined by the amount of curiosity you arouse in the reader.
And one surefire way to do that is to ask them a question for which they must find an answer.
This isn’t the only mistake made on query letters. Get my cheat sheet on 5 mistakes people make by clicking here.