Benefit From My Geekage, or: How Successful Queries Open, in Stats

Recently I asked for your take on opening a novel query letter. Today I want to talk more in-depth about the two tried-and-true approaches I mentioned before as well as present a few observations from my research into query letters. You know–in numbers.

Numbers Meme

A couple weeks back I discovered the Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series. It’s exactly what it sounds like: a collection of novel query letters that successfully led to agent representation and book deals. As I read through them I am learning whatever I am able– especially comparing openings, as that’s where the query starts, and that’s your first and most important chance at a foot in the door. If you think of your first sentence as your only chance to get an assistant, and then an agent, and then a publisher to read your manuscript– and of your goal each time as simply to get the reader to keep reading to the next sentence, and the next, etc. until they have read everything– nothing is more important than the opening of your query.

So just how does one open a query letter?

Well, Timmy, I’m glad you asked. After reading 58 successful queries, I was able to find roughly five standard ways that the letters opened:

  1. Relevant Bio. This approach is used mostly for memoirs, though sometimes for fiction, and involves citing specific life experience that somehow supports your novel. And when I say “somehow supports” really I mean “is a founding pillar for”. Frequenting a sushi place or drinking a Kirin does not make one uniquely-qualified to write a book about culture shock and international exchange in Japan. Living there as a student or teacher does.
  2. Referral/”We met when…” Obviously, this approach can only be used if you’ve met either the agents themselves or someone associated with them. (Hint: a good place to network is at writing conferences!) Drawing on a positive, established connection at the start can portray good things to follow.
  3. The Hook. “When Joe Snuffleumpakiss finds a glove inside his mailbox…” “In a dystopian future where all citizens have a computer chip embedded in their wrist…” “If Martin McCharacter thought an enchanted tornado was the worst thing that could bluster into his small Kansas cow farm…” This opening jumps right into the synopsis and the meat of the story.
  4. The Facts: “I am seeking representation for my [genre] book of [word count] about [plot in a nutshell].” Or some variation thereof. This oft-used introduction states the facts right away: what you’re bringing to the table, and that you are looking to do business.
  5. The Homework: “I read [on your website/in a recent interview/in LMNOP magazine] that you are looking for [demographic/genre] fiction.” orΒ “As you represented [a similar title the agent has sold], I thought you might be interested in my novel.” In this approach you show right away that you have done your homework: you’re familiar with the sort of work the agent represents and are declaring that your work may have a place among it.

Which do you think has the best rate of success? I’ll tell you what I found…but why not have a guess first? Here are the five again:

  1. Relevant Bio
  2. Referral/”We met when…”
  3. The Hook
  4. The Facts
  5. The Homework

Out of the 58 successful queries I read in the Writer’s Digest series, here is what I found, ranked from most- to least-often used openers:

  • Most popular: The Hook at 22 queries, or roughly 38%.
  • Second: The Facts at 16 queries, or about 27%.
  • Third: The Homework at 8 queries, or 14%.
  • Fourth: Referral/”We met when…” at 7 queries, or 12%.
  • Last: Relevant Bio at 5 queries, or about 9%.

Now, that’s not to say they were all cut and dry: at least seven blended elements of different openings (e.g., a referral that used the facts, a hook that employed homework, etc.). And those that used relevant biographies to open were for memoirs in most cases, so that might skew the rankings a bit. But you get the general idea.

How about you? How does your query open?

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6 thoughts on “Benefit From My Geekage, or: How Successful Queries Open, in Stats

  1. Thanks for sharing your research, Julie! I always thought I wouldn’t try “the hook” because it just didn’t feel like me (it can be very “in your face!”), but since it does seem to be most successful, maybe I’ll try it whenever I do start writing queries. Maybe it’ll feel more natural than I think!

    • Renee, I felt exactly the same. Even reading some of the letters (which I recommend– they’re a great resource), I felt like those that started with hooks were “hard sells” (i.e., no introduction; treats the agent like a buyer before a person), and yet those seem to succeed. I think agents often interpret an opening with a good hook as confidence in one’s story and writing ability, which can work to the writer’s advantage.

      I definitely encourage you to check out some of those letters, though– they’ll give you a better idea than my description can! Thanks for reading πŸ™‚

  2. I’ve never written a query letter but, with attendance at a writers’ conference coming up, I need to make submissions beforehand. I’ll most certainly be leaning on your research Julie, thank you.
    PS – love the way you occasionally slip new words into the English language πŸ™‚

    • Book submissions, Roy? How exciting– as is a writing conference! Best of luck with both πŸ™‚

      And thank you πŸ™‚ Sometimes my new words are intentional (I take certain creative liberties, I think, being a writer of fiction) and sometimes they sneak in on their own…those are my favorites: the words that feel so natural even I am fooled by them!

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