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When you write a query letter, you don’t need to describe every detail of your book’s content in the letter’s very first line. Most literary agents prefer that a query letter begin with the basics—genre, title, and word count:
Please consider my 90,000-word science fiction novel, Night Storm.
However, if your book lends itself to a quick summary, you might consider using a log line to open your query letter.
A log line is a very short description of the characters and main action of your book. If used appropriately, a log line or brief summary in the beginning of your query letter will capture not only the core story of your book, but also its essential energy and momentum.
Here’s an example:
Please consider my 90,000-word science fiction novel, Night Storm, the story of a shy fifteen-year-old boy who must save his small Midwestern town after a mysterious thunderstorm causes his father and others to go missing.
Self-help and how-to books can also benefit from a brief description in the first line of a query letter. When a how-to or self-help book’s intention isn’t clear from the title, a short description can help:
I hope you’ll be intrigued by the proposal for my book Breaking The Rules, which teaches people how to free themselves from years of ingrained bad habits.
Seems easy enough, right?
The trouble with introducing your book with a summary in your query letter’s first line is that it’s really hard to do well. And if you start with a not-so-great opening line, you might lose your reader’s interest before he or she even gets to the second sentence.
Here’s an example of a bad log line for a novel:
Please consider my 90,000-word science fiction novel, Night Storm, a story of alien abductions during thunderstorms, father-son relationships, and a boy’s quest to save the world.
In the above example, each element of the book’s plot is presented in a way that feels more “nouny” than “verby.” There’s no momentum.
A bad first line descriptive phrase…
- Offers vague or unclear information in a way that isn’t intriguing. (Example: A man decides to quit his job.)
- Presents isolated facts, as opposed to an exciting story. (Example: The tale of three sisters, their husbands, and the trouble with 9-to-5 jobs.)
- Focuses too heavily on themes instead of action and character. (Example: A story of love and determination during World War II.)
- Goes on too long or just doesn’t grab the reader’s attention. Some books simply don’t lend themselves well to summary, and forcing the issue can hurt more than it helps.
Query Letter Chestnuts: The Three Opening Lines That Rarely Work
Excerpted quotes from characters or descriptive passages. Some writers pick out a favorite book passage and plunk it down right at the beginning of the query letter. We don’t recommend this strategy. Few agents will wade through your character’s speech to get to the basic information (genre, title, word count) that the query letter should have started with.
Plus, just because a certain snippet resonates with you, doesn’t mean it will resonate the same way with agents. As the writer, you have an emotional attachment to the characters and the action. Agents don’t. And it’s rare that a line (or three) will instantly create a deep level of attachment.
The rhetorical question. You’ve seen this one before: What would you do if you discovered your spouse was cheating? What would you do if you were a trained assassin and your next target was your best friend? Unless your rhetorical question is really good, skip it. The “cheating spouse” angle has been explored ad infinitum—so this rhetorical question doesn’t add anything new. And few people ever think of themselves as trained assassins. Only use a rhetorical question if it is engaging in a very specific and emotionally surprising way.
The big promise. Some writers will start their queries with a spectacular statement: My book, Title Here, is the next Harry Potter, the next Hunger Games, the next Gone Girl—and I hope you’ll get back to me ASAP to let me know if you’ll want it before Oprah does. Agents are unimpressed—and a bit put off—by hubris; don’t give agents a negative impression of you or your book in the very first line!
Is A Log Line Right For Your Query Letter?
If you want to try for a log line-esque summary in the first lines of your query letter, be sure you focus on what’s surprising and magnetic about your story. Then write your descriptive phrase over and over again until you get it exactly right.
And if you’re even a little concerned that your log line might not be deeply compelling—leave it out. Better to start your query letter with a simple statement of the facts than to hurt your chances with a first line that flops.