Is there anything more important in a query letter than the hook? You get one sentence–the first one–to grab an agent
by the throat and convince her/him to read the second sentence, then the second paragraph, then request an excerpt. One sentence to carry the essence of years of work, months of rewriting and weeks of stress.
How do you write that sentence? Noah Lukeman is generous when he gives you five pages in his book, The First Five Pages. Hah! No writer gets five pages. The query letter is one page, and I’m betting most agents don’t read the whole thing. The great hooks are all used…
Call me Ishmael (Moby Dick)
Mam died today; or yesterday, maybe, I don’t know (The Stranger)
As Gregor Samsa aawoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect (The Metamorphosis)
So, accept it, whatever you write will be second to those. Here’s a group of first lines I collected from NYT Bestsellers. See what you think of them:
Hood got partnered up with Terry Laws that night, another swing shift in the desert, another hundred and fifty miles of motion on ashphalt, another Crown Victoria Law Enforcement Interceptor that would feel like home.
He should never have taken that shortcut
Eamonn Dillon of Sinn Fein was the first to die, and he died because he planned to stop for a npint of lager at the Celtic Bar before heading up the Falls Road to a meeting.
The naked child ran out of the hide-covered lean-to toward the rocky beach at the bend in the small river.
If you’re like me, none of those even got close to Call me Ishmael. Like I said, all the good ones are taken.
I found this list of hooks on a writers site. They are proferred as what agent’s call great hooks, gut-grabbing openers to query letters. Granted, a query letter does not a novel make, but you’d think if people could write great query letters, it’s an indication of their skill as a novel writer. I was heartened by the following. Hey, I can do this good, even on my normal days:
- The body comes down the river…
“Under a low sun, pursued by fish and mounted by crows and veiled in a loud languid swarm of bluebottle flies, the body comes down the river like a deadfall stripped clean.”
–The opener of Finn, a Novel, by debut author Jon Clinch [Random House]. From his agent Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management
- A brother shows you who you are…
“A brother shows you who you are – and also who you are not. Your family has a certain flavor or smell unlike any other. It has an ethos, perhaps even a mythology all its own. You are a ‘we’ with your brother before you are a ‘we’ with any other.”
–The hook for the anthology Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry by David Kaczynski, about his brother, Ted, known as “The Unabomber” [Jossey-Bass/Wiley]. From the agent for the project, Andrew Blauner
- Plunged into the world of an American teenager…
“The reader is plunged into the world of an American teenager living in a bewitching foreign city while attempting to rebuild her shattered life after the death of her parents.
She finds herself in the most typical teenage condition – falling in love with the most untypical person imaginable: an eighteen-year-old Resistance fighter who died in 1942.”
–The hook for Sleepwalking, by debut YA novelist Amy Huntington, which sold recently in a major 3-book deal, ($500K and up) for publication in Summer 2011, 2012, 2013 [Harper Children’s]. From her agent Stacy Glick, Vice President at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management
- My new book is narrated by a dog…
“I am a Seattle writer with two published novels. I have recently completed my third novel, and I find myself in a difficult situation: My new book is narrated by a dog, and my current agent told me that he cannot (or will not) sell it for that very reason. Thus, I am seeking new representation.”
–The hook in an initial query from “emerging” author Garth Stein, whose novel The Art of Racing in the Rain ended up snagging a $1.2 million book deal and has so far sold more than 750K copies; on the New York Times best seller list for the past 31 weeks [Harper]. From his (new) agent, Jeff Kleinman, Folio Literary Management
- A chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident…
“The Beijing ‘08 Olympics are over, the war in Iraq is lost, and former National Guard medic Ellie McEnroe is stuck in China, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers.
When a chance encounter with a Chinese Muslim dissident drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.”
–Opening hook of a book proposal by debut author Lisa Brackmann for Rock Paper Tiger [Soho Press, June 2010]. From her agent Nathan Bransford at Curtis Brown, LTD, San Francisco
- A personal training course for amping up your creativity…
“Can sitting in front of a light box increase your creativity? How about listening to Bach’s Italian Concerto in F major? These are, believe it or not, crucial questions to the survival of humans.
In The Creative Brain I’ll present a personal training course for “amping up” your level of creative thought and productivity. The strategies in my book are based on findings from neuroscience that identify seven specific brainsets (the biological equivalents to mindsets) associated with creativity.
I’ll outline techniques that will guide readers to reproduce these brainsets, thus increasing creative ideas and motivation. (And by the way, the answer is ‘yes’ to bright light and “no” to Bach’s Concerto.)”
–The hook from a proposal for The Creative Brain by Shelley Carson PhD [A Harvard Health Publication at Jossey-Bass/Wiley] submitted by her agent Linda Konner.
Reading this list, I’m more than ever convinced that finding an agent has nothing to do with the size or quality of your words, but whether your inner bubba is their inner bubba. Tell me your great hooks. I promise not to steal them.