At the risk of having all the aspiring writers in the whole Interweb misapply this in a way that will somehow come back to haunt me, I would like to direct the eyes of those trying to write The Perfect Query Letter to this list written by novelist J.M. Donellan.
It’s true that what he wrote is not a query of the sort we usually think of; but he is writing something he wants people who don’t yet know him to read. Further, the astute reader will observe that he has written something whose ultimate goal is to get the reader to click through to something else entirely. That’s what we do when we write a query. And Donellan’s is an example of attracting the reader that works brilliantly: he made an editor who didn’t even think she was interested in being pitched find herself clicking through in the midst of a busy day. Note what he does–and what he doesn’t do:
First, and most important, he’s got a dead-on perfect opening line:
When I first arrived in India I was working on a novel about a rockstar sliding into insanity.
Rockstar? check. Insanity? check. I’m interested. Personally, I suspect if you don’t recognize that rockstars and insanity are interesting, you may not be human and are therefore going to have a much bigger problem with the novel form than your cover letter anyway. So part of why this opening line works is that it demonstrates a massively compelling theme. However, it also does another very important job: what folks in the sales world call qualifying the lead. If you’re not interested in rockstars and insanity or, more to the point rockstars on the brink of insanity, then you are not his target market. You should move on, and so should he. See how you both saved time?
Second, he doesn’t try to persuade the reader that what he’s on about is important. It’s interesting and has a definite, personal voice. That’s enough to get the reader to move on to the second sentence, which is arguably the most important job the first sentence has.
Third, and possibly most important of all: he doesn’t expect the reader to hang with him while he finds the thing that will keep her interested. He has figured out what his message is and what aspect of it will hook the unsuspecting reader. And that’s where he focuses his opening.
There is, of course, no universal formula for the perfect opening; there is only the opening that encapsulates your message in such a way that your target audience, i.e. the people who will naturally love your story, cannot fail to be intrigued. It’s what your mother always told you: just be yourself, and the right people will like you. All you have to do is be yourself at your most fabulous. That’s true whether you’re writing a pitch or a story–or, dare we suggest, trying to Meet Someone.
But we were talking about writing queries.
When you’re writing your query, just like when you’re writing your novel, it helps to apply your own reading experience. Pretend you’re in a bookstore or on the interwebs. I’m not going to ask you to objectively evaluate your own work: of course you can’t do that. But you can consider the way you shop in a bookstore: which is a fairly accurate metaphor for the editor or agent trying to find the next project into which she will sink weeks or months, except for the fact that you probably don’t spend nearly that much time on a book you pull from the shelf at your local bookstore.
I can’t speak for you, of course, but when I am in a bookstore shopping, I consider the pitches on the outside–the jacket art, the title, the back cover copy. Each of those things can incite me to read further; none of them is likely to make me decide to put the book down once I’ve chosen to look at it. What makes the critical go/no-go decision for me is on the first page.
It’s the first sentence.
As writers, we don’t like to hear that. As readers, we can admit, if to no one but ourselves, that it’s true. If the first sentence of something which you have no pre-existing reason to read does not intrigue you, are you likely to proceed to the next?
Of course not.
Neither is that editor you’re pitching.
Remember that queries, like the first paragraphs of novels, exist primarily to get the reader to read on. Make them want to know more. And for goodness’ sake, listen to your mother and be yourself; accurately represent the story you’re selling. Otherwise you are just wasting everyone’s time. Including, believe it or not, your own.