I thought we had ten seconds. We don’t. In an interview with the ‘Writer’s Digest‘, Literary Agent Barbara Poelle stated:
“Sometimes it really is only, say, four seconds; a first line can close it down for me…”
Four. Seconds. Think about that. It has taken you months, if not years to write, craft, revise, re-craft, revise, scrap, re-write, revise, and finish your manuscript.
Everything that you have achieved through personal growth and self-development boils to down to four seconds.
You will also note that my voice has changed for this blog post. It’s a little more serious, and you would do well to take note. This is serious.
Four seconds is the time it takes to read a text message, and that’s all you have.
Literary veterans, whether traditionally published, perpetually unpublished, or published in the indie industry know what I’m talking about. For those that don’t, here are a few home truths for everyone to digest.
- Most new Literary Agents have 2 jobs. I’m not talking about that of agent and editor. I’m talking about agent and part time librarian, or cashier at your favorite retailer. Seems crazy? It’s not. If you’ve ever had monetary obligations then you’ll understand the need to make money.
- Most Literary Agents receive, on average, 200 queries a week, and contrary to popular belief, they aren’t just flouncing about from meeting to meeting, nose squarely ensconced in their phone just waiting for your query to ping their mailbox! Agents are hard working, ‘not enough hours in the day’ kind of people.
- Agents don’t have time set aside to read queries. They check them on the train in the morning, on their lunch break, and in between cuddles with their children at night time.
So, you literally have four seconds, because their time is that precious.
I can hear you now: “But, my work is precious! I missed x, y and z to write it, and it took x amount of (insert months or years here) to complete!
Exactly. So why do so few writers spend so little time on the query? I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again : The query is as important, if not more important than your manuscript!
I’ve written some very successful queries for some not very successful books, but every one of those requests shot my work into the literary stratosphere. I have become something of a query master over the years, and I want to help every single one of you reading this.
You can have written the most incredible book that the world has ever been welcome to read, but no-one will ever see it if your query falls flat.
Four. Seconds. To tell your entire story? Now that’s overwhelming.
Go to your bookshelf and pick up a random book. Now, turn it over, and begin to read the back cover.
I picked two from mine.
- One Choice; decides your friends. One Choice; defines your beliefs. One Choice; determines your loyalties – forever. One Choice can transform you.
- Dazzled by the golden prince, Mary’s joy is cut short when she discovers that she is a pawn in the dynastic plots of her family.
What do both have in common? At first glance…nothing. One is Divergent by Veronica Roth, and the other is The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory.
But they do have something in common: they are both hooks.
This is your four seconds. This. Is. It.
Imagine yourself in a bookstore. You pick up a book, turn it over, and begin to read. That first sentence/paragraph determines whether or not you read on. You’ve probably read hundreds of hooks in your lifetime. How many of those hooks enticed you to keep reading and ultimately purchase that particular book? Probably a very small percentage.
Query hooks should always be treated like the back jacket of a book. Like the back jacket, your opening sentence/paragraph should move the agent to read on, and your four seconds become ten.
Every hook should encompass the following ingredients:
- The premise of the book
- The emotional tone of the book
- The stakes
Everything in one. The hook evokes excitement, intrigue, and a will to continue. Without it, an agent will likely pass on your manuscript, and your next paragraphs will never be read.
The formula to a successful query are:
- The Hook
- The Conflict
- The Resolution
Examples are my jam, so that’s the only way to get my point across…but I couldn’t just make up plot ideas on the spot for manuscripts that don’t exist.
Having reached out to the Twittersphere, a few brave souls have allowed me the opportunity to read, dissect, and re-work their queries so that we can all learn together.
This week, I am highlighting the work of @JesseSmithBooks. Thanks for helping us out Jesse Smith! You’re a trooper!
I’m just going to paste Jesse’s original query body below. I’m omitting the actual letter itself – that’s a completely different blog post – as the Hook really should be the first sentence after you type Dear Ms. Wonderful Agent. So, here it is:
Title: Arthur is Dead Length: 150,695 words
Genre: Noir fiction
Log Line: The antihero’s quest for redemption in the dark modern world of business and politics
The Hook: In Arthur is Dead, a failed quest for the perfect business model sends the new CEO down a dark spiral of bad decisions. But can he reveal his brother’s murderer, without breaking a deathbed promise? Lance Maypole narrates the story of his rise to power, his fall from grace, and his struggle for redemption in the fast-paced and sometimes violent modern world.
Alternate genres: Literary fiction, Mystery, Dark humor, Modern retellings & reimaginings, Arthurian retellings
The 1-paragraph synopsis: Lance’s competitive nature struggles with his better judgment when he meets Cindy. She is the perfect woman; but tragically, she is already engaged to his brother, Arthur. Years later, the startup enterprise loses a tremendous amount of money pursuing an elusive “Holy Grail” business model concept. Lance is left in charge of the company when Arthur departs to pursue a path in politics, running on a platform of global unification. In his absence, Cindy comes to Lance to ask for help dealing with a stalker who is harassing her on social media. Lance tracks down the “troll” and brutally murders him. Having committed this transgression, Lance begins a torrid love affair with Cindy. Everything comes crashing down when the affair is discovered by Cindy’s son, who goes by the hacker forum screen name, Mordred. Shortly thereafter, Arthur dies under suspicious circumstances. Lance suffers a nervous breakdown, and Mordred rises to CEO in his absence. Scandal, losses, new competition, and the insider trading investigation cause Gavin and other members of the Board of Directors to call for the dissolution of the enterprise. Lance returns to try to salvage the family business. In the final courtroom showdown, Lance must face Federal charges that he headed a criminal conspiracy intent on sabotaging his own company for the purpose of profiting from an insider trading scheme. After narrowly winning the court case and conducting some soul-searching, in the end Lance is reconciled to his long-suffering wife, Elaine.
Absolutely no offense to Jesse, but I lost interest pretty early on. He fell into the same trap that we all do/have in the past. Too much info!
Trying to squish a synopsis of the entire work into one sentence is frigging hard! So hard, that we get lost in the emotional connections that tie us to our work and are unable to step away from the waffle. To us, every detail is important!
I reached out to Jesse to clarify a few points, and here is what I came up with instead.
Disclaimer: Only Jesse knows the true theme of his work, and though I did ask questions, my re-work might not accurately depict the story that he was trying to tell. Names have been changed at the author’s request.
Here it is:
Hook: In love with his brother’s fiancée, married man – Lance – consumes himself with the seduction of the business world; until he does the unthinkable – takes another man’s life in order to protect Cindy’s honor.
Conflict: When their love affair is discovered, Lance’s downward spiral into the pits of an insider trading investigation begins.
Resolution: Will he rise like the phoenix, on a blazing trail of fire? Or will his brother’s untimely murder unman his life long quest: Every Man’s Search For Immortality – the legacy of his family.
Details come in the synopsis, and only if the agent wants to pursue your work.
Which version would entice you to buy the book if you were browsing the book store?
Which version do you think would likely capture an agent’s attention?
Because the hook is so important, I’m going to highlight one more query in today’s blog post. This one comes from the desk of @Exsanguinated17 . Again, Natasha Dee has very kindly allowed me to read through her query, dissect it, and come out the other end with a revised version.
Here is her original version:
‘Proximity’ is a dramatic novel of a young rambling woman named Adrianne who finds herself trapped in the world of the undead. Her journey begins with her boyfriend shamelessly lying to her about being a vampire. She is told not to ask questions and to ‘just’ trust him; but his plan falls apart quickly when they run into Darrius, an actual vampire.
Darrius is cold and cruel from the very beginning. He does not like being mocked and that is the only reason he chose to reveal himself, even though he is in the Gold District. Gold District is a lenient district meaning they are lenient on their humans. They have Court mandated ball gatherings which are required for Protectoris and their humans. Unfortunately for Darrius and Adrianne, he is left as her Protectoris. He now has to protect their secret by protecting her; no matter how badly he wants to sink his teeth into her neck and end her incessant rambling.
Adrianne is a rambler but she is also a cutter; and not a very modest one at that. Her life has been a whirlwind of issues since her mother killed herself when Adriane was just six years old and her brother was kidnapped shortly after. Darrius soon finds himself sympathizing with her; something that he would never be caught dead doing for a human.
Like Jesse’s query, my eyes grew heavy before the end of the first paragraph. Too much detail, honing in on things that she, as the writer, feels significant as opposed to what will draw in the reader.
With this one though, I got a good sense of what the book was about, and so I re-worked Natasha’s query below.
Disclaimer: Only Natasha knows the true theme of her work, and my revision might not accurately depict the story to its full potential. Names have been changed as per the author’s request.
Hook: Emotionally broken, Adrianne is duped into thinking that her boyfriend is a vampire; until the cruel and terrifying Darrius reluctantly reveals himself – a walking, talking, member of the Undead Underworld.
Conflict: Living in the Gold District is challenging for any vampire, and left with no choice but to serve as Adrianne’s Protectoris, Darrius reluctantly succumbs to the discipline required of all Protectoris: Protect, serve, and don’t eat your charge.
Resolution: But Adrianne’s secrets run deep, and soon Darrius is forced to not only protect her from the dangers of the Underworld, but ultimately…herself.
So, here’s the thing about both queries. Initially, I found my mind wandering, but having taken the time to really read them both, these manuscripts actually interest me, and if they were on a bookshelf, I probably would read on.
But an agent isn’t going to do what I did. They won’t power through to find the good stuff, or e-mail you to ask about the theme etc.
You. Have. Four. Seconds.
I hope that this entry has been helpful. Next week we’ll look at The Conflict, and dissect another query!
Please follow the very brave @JesseSmithBooks and @Exsanguinated17 for more info on Jesse and Natasha. So glad to have had the opportunity to chat with you both!
That’s it for now. A lot more to come next week!
I leave you with my favorite Hook of all time. Though written in a simpler time, when queries were nothing more than a letter, if Tolkien had needed a hook, this would have been it. It haunted me then, and it still haunts me now, sending chills up my spine as anticipation overwhelms all else:
One Ring to rule them all,One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.