Lessons from the Willamette Writers Conference
Last week I attended the 41st annual Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. It didn’t surprise me that a number of editors and agents referred to the standard query letter format as “the hook, the book, and the cook” (as described in last week’s post). What did surprise me was the astounding number of queries agents receive. Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency said she reviews 1,200 to 1,500 a month.
Imagine having to wade through that many emails and letters to find a manuscript that perks your interest, and in a genre you represent. The reality is that agents can’t give more than a few seconds of their attention to each query. Your opening line needs to hook them and reel them in.
A hook is one line (generally) that accomplishes three things:
1) Summarizes your story
2) Identifies the genre or readership (e.g., women’s contemporary, mainstream, mystery)
3) Grabs the reader’s attention so they’ll read on
A Hook Includes:
Your Title. The publisher may change it, but a good working title can help sell your book.
A summary of Your Story. I know that’s hard to do in one line. In screenwriting, it’s referred to as the “log line.” Include:
• The central character(s)
• The central character’s main challenge or conflict
• The location or time period if it’s critical to the story
The Genre. Include it unless it is blatantly obvious from your story description. Agents want to know where your book will be shelved at Barnes and Noble. Ask yourself:
• Is it contemporary or historical? Is it crime fiction or a cozy mystery?
• If you are writing for children, specify the reader’s age range or label it as a
chapter book, middle grade, or young adult
Word Length. Be sure your book is the standard length for the type of novel you’re writing. A 30,000-word mystery or a 150,000-word young adult novel will be a red flag to the agent that this writer doesn’t know his genre.
If your hook is over 45 words, it’s okay to put the genre and word length in a second sentence. Such as, “This is a 75,000-word work of historical magic realism."
Here’s the hook in the query letter for my middle grade novel:
The Haunting of Claire Crawford is a 40,000-word, middle-grade novel about a lonely and imaginative twelve-year-old girl coming to terms with her brother’s schizophrenia by discovering the mysteries of the house next door.
In 37 words it provides the title, the central characters, the conflict, the genre, and the word length.
If you’d like to post your hook in the comments, I’d be happy to provide some feedback. Maybe others will want to chime in too.