Tag Archives: Taglines /

Before You Hit “Send”: The Three Essential Elements of a Successful Query Letter

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checklistToday I’m gearing up for one of my favorite annual events—the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference this weekend. I love writers conferences in general, but this one is extra special because it’s in my backyard—which means a reunion with lots of friends and colleagues, and a chance to meet writers from Colorado and all over the country. Hooray!

I’ll be giving a workshop about query letters and landing an agent, so I thought this would be a good time to share a snapshot. Here’s the million-dollar question:

WHAT ARE THE THREE INDISPENSABLE, MUST-HAVE ELEMENTS OF A QUERY LETTER? 

Answer:

  • It grabs the reader’s attention in the opening paragraph (and preferably, the very first sentence). A query letter is a single-page, one-shot opportunity to impress an agent. You can’t afford to waste a single line. Whether it’s a provocative tagline or hook, or a reference to a personal connection with the agent (“We met at the RMFW conference last month and you expressed a lot of interest in my contemporary YA novel, XXXX…”), make sure your opening lines pack a punch. As in good fiction writing, don’t get bogged down in background information (“This is my second novel but the first one I’ve submitted. I think I’ve reached the point where I’m ready to take my career to the next level. Blah, blah…”).
  • It shows off your writing style and personality as an author. One of the best ways to show an agent you are a good writer is to give a taste of your writing style right in the query letter. I don’t mean grabbing the first paragraph of your novel (or a random chunk) and plunking it into the opening of your query—that’s hard to pull off and can be a major turnoff. Instead, try to convey a sense of your writing voice—if the novel is funny, sprinkle some of that same humor in the query. If it’s a light-hearted YA, let the agent hear that. If it’s a macabre mystery, give a sense of the darkness and suspense your story contains.
  • It intrigues, amuses, or shocks your readers—makes them want more. The worst thing you can do is try to tell the entire story of your novel. A query letter is a sip that makes the reader want to chug the whole glass. A good way to master this technique is to go to your favorite bookstore or online bookseller and read the back cover copy of novels similar to yours. What is the tone? At what point does the blurb cut you off, leaving you to wonder what’s next? What questions does it plant in your mind as the reader? Try typing up a few of these blurbs on your computer—not to plagiarize, of course, but copying them will help internalize the kind of rhythm and flow that captivates readers.

Want an example of a query that encapsulates all of these elements? Read this story of a successful query from my wonderful colleague and friend, agent Sara Megibow. It’s about her client Stefanie Gaither, whose debut YA novel FALLS THE SHADOW comes out this fall from Simon & Schuster. I’d have to agree with Sara—this query is pitch perfect. 

Need help with your query letter? I offer a double-pass critique (including a look at your second draft once you have revised) for $45. Email your query, or any questions, to anitaedits(at)gmail(dot)com. I look forward to helping you break out of the slush pile!

How to Hook an Agent: Taglines in Query Letters

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LightbulbDrawing_smToday I’d like to share some advice on an issue that comes up often in my query letter critiques. What can you do when your hook just isn’t grabbing readers? Or maybe your query is missing a hook altogether? One of my favorite solutions is to try using a tagline. It’s an easy type of hook to recognize, and it’s almost guaranteed to get attention if done well.

First, let’s clarify some vocabulary here.

Hooks, Taglines, and Intergalactic Destruction

The hook is one of the trickiest elements to get right in a query, but a good one can make the difference between ho-hum and “tell me more” in your query letter. The term hook is used to encompass a range of possibilities, but it basically means a catchy, provocative sentence or short paragraph at the beginning of your query (usually directly preceding your summary). A tag line is a specific type of hook, a one-liner that you’ll recognize from your favorite movie trailers. Here are a couple of good examples:

 

“Earth. It was great while it lasted.” –Armageddon (That one gets me every time! Humor is always a plus if your subject matter allows for it.)

“Your mind is the scene of the crime.” –Inception (It doesn’t get any more concise and punchy than that. Eight words does the trick!)

“She brought a small town to its feet and a huge corporation to its knees.” –Erin Brockovich (A simple, elegant summary of the gist of the story.)

 

Now here’s one from the cover copy of a middle grade novel:

“Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged.” The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann (So provocative! How could you not start reading this book?)

 

Finally, click here for an excellent example from an actual query. Be sure to read the entire query to see how the tagline relates to the summary.

 

So, what do all of these taglines have in common? They jolt the reader’s interest and emotions. A good tagline can also keep a query letter from sounding like nothing more than a list of events in a plot outline. Or from being just plain boring. They’re the whipped cream and chocolate drizzle that made you order that latte! After reading thousands of queries in the slush pile, I can’t tell you how refreshing this type of cleverness can be. And while they work especially well for sci fi, mysteries, and thrillers, I’ve seen them used effectively in virtually every genre.

So how do you know your tagline has what it takes? Try it out on friends. They don’t need experience or special expertise on queries—the beauty of an effective tagline is that it appeals to everyone. Watch your friend’s reaction closely—a smile, a nod, questions about your story? You’re good to go. Blank stare? Throat-clearing? Diplomatic mumbling? Time to give it another shot!

What are some of your favorite movie or novel taglines? I’d love it if you shared them here!

Need help with your query letter? My critiques are $65 and include a second pass at no charge—I’ll read your revised version and let you know if you’re ready to submit. Send me your query or questions at anitaedits(at)gmail.com.