How to Hook a Literary Agent on the First Line of Your Query Letter
Updated: Jan 13
If you want to impress an agent, I have a simple tip to get them to read past the first paragraph, something most queries lack. My blog will go over several ways in which you can impress an agent, but let’s start with the first thing an agent should see.
Before I get to this important tip, it’s important to know some background about querying.
A query letter is the first impression an agent has of not only your writing, but of you as a person. As an agent will be establishing a professional relationship with you, they want to know you are professional. They want to see that you’re capable of following directions, hence why there will be so many rules about submitting your query. Most of all, they want to see that you want to work with them. Of course, all of this matters little if your book is incredible, but if you’re trying to stand out from the masses without a book that would make an agent’s knees weak, then you’re going to have to make sure you’re hiding your crazy, lazy, and careless self.
Just in case you’re not aware, there millions of people out there trying to get their book published just like you. Only around 1% of finished manuscripts will go on to be traditionally published. This is an exclusive club, and if you think you can just waltz through the door without some kind of flashy appearance or a connection, then you’re not understanding how exclusive this club really is.
Well-known agents receive around 10-50 queries a day, and usually spend on average a minute or less reading them. So what should be the first line of your query? The most eye-catching hook of your book? Nope. Your stellar accomplishments? Not yet. Your enthusiasm for writing? Please no. And especially not why your book is so amazing that they better read it or they’ll be missing out. We live in a capitalistic world and books are money. That means the query letter is your cover letter to one of the most limited jobs in the world. You’re going to have to show the agent you’ve done your research and you know their time is important.
You need to make sure you’re addressing the agent personally in the first paragraph. You need to explain why you queried them and how your book is hitting the specific interests they’ve listed. I’ll give some examples below on how you can do this, but first you should know why this is important.
As I mentioned, agents are busy. They only have so much time to spend on your query. It’s going to be impossible to impress them with a single line of story. But show them you’ve done enough research to know what they want, and that your book specifically targets this, and you’ll show them that you have a reason for querying them. This essentially tells the agent, "you don’t have to worry if you’ll like this book or not, I know you will because I’ve done enough research to know what you like." If you can tell them this in the first line of the query, you will grab their attention.
Now this needs to be one step above the general carelessness of “You’re looking for literary fiction.” The more you can define or classify your book’s market to them, the more you show you know how to market your novel to the reader. And if you’re reading this and thinking, “I have no idea how to market my novel to the reader,” it’s likely you need a market-targeted editor. EY Edits can easily help you with this. Knowing your market is the most important element to book sales, and being able to write to that market is what makes a best-selling author. This is what agents are looking for, so being able to express this ability in the first line of your query, further targeted to the agent you’re addressing, is a clue you know what you’re talking about. It displays your expertise in a way that no other one-liner can.
So how do you find the information displaying what agents want? Agents will list on their websites their specific interests, the genres they’re looking for and what they represent. However, this is not specific enough. You really want to do your research and make sure you know what specific things in stories captivate them. There are a few ways you can do this.
1. Read Mastadon, Hive Social or Twitter if you’re looking for personalized messages from the agent. Often an agent will utilize these platforms to express their #manuscriptwishlist or #mswishlist. You might be able to find a desired story that is similar to yours, and if you start out your query by mentioning this, you can guarantee the agent will be reading your whole query and at least a portion of your sample. If your writing is good, it’s more than guaranteed you’ll get a manuscript request.
Not to gratuitously sell myself, but if you are doing this and not getting manuscript requests, this is a good indicator that you need an editor. If your book is desired by agents (currently), and yet no one wants what you’ve written, that usually means your writing has problems an agent can’t solve before selling. This is why editing services exist! Please check out EY Edits for my editing services. This is my specialty!
2. I personally love perusing the website www.mswishlist.com. This website pools all of the manuscript wishes they find from agents. You can search past and present material. I love to use it as a way to craft story ideas I enjoy too. Don’t feel bad stealing an agent’s book idea. This is why they post them!
3. Look at the agent’s blog. Similarly, you can use blogs to find personalization material. If an agent is talking about a specific type of writing, you might mention how your novel utilizes this skill. If they’re talking about something specific they like in a genre they represent, you can mention that in quotes along with how your book follows it. Like I mentioned above, this is your ticket into the club.
4. Interviews with the agent are a great source of material. Take this interview I did with Middle Grade Ninja. You’ll see one of the questions is about my favorite movies. My response is “I love anything Pixar. My dream is to find a book that will be made into one of their films.” So you might see that and think, I have a book that would work well as a Pixar film. I’m going to address my query to her using this information. You can bet all your dollars I’d be reading your query and sample.
Now how do you structure this in the query? As mentioned, this should always be the first thing you say. Let’s take the example I mentioned above about the interview I did for Middle Grade Ninja (please look at this site if you write MG novels). Here is how I would structure the query:
Dear Erin Young,
I’m writing to you after reading your interview in Middle Grade Ninja in which you expressed your love for Pixar movies. I believe my 50,000 word manuscript of MG fantasy, BUNNY HATS, follows the funny, poignant, and uniquely lovable formula of Pixar films, which might pique your interest.
While reading this, I'm instantly thinking, “Wow! I can’t wait to see what they mean by this.” I'm hooked because this is what I love, this is what I'm asking for, and you've shown me you know that. Now I’m going to be reading the pitch looking for how you deliver this, and if I see this in the pitch, I will absolutely be reading the sample, and if the sample is good, I will definitely be requesting the manuscript, and if the manuscript delivers, even if I think it still needs some work, you will have yourself an agent.
To create your own hook, try to fit this basic information in the first one or two sentences:
· Personalized information about the agent and where you found it, direct quotes are best
· How this relates to your novel
· Genre (and reading level if Children’s to YA) of your manuscript
· Manuscript name
· Word count
If you want to know how a pitch can deliver what you set up in your hook, I’ll be addressing this in a future blog. You can also contact EY Edits for a quote on a query letter review to get personalized help with this confusing process.
Follow me on IG @eybookedits for more advice and to continue the conversation! I’d love to hear some of the ways you gather information about agents. If you have anything to add, leave a comment! Writing is a community, so let’s share our secrets!