Selling Your Idea
The objective of your query is to show why your book is needed, how it differs from other books on the topic, and that there is a large potential readership for your book. The best book idea in the world will languish in your desk drawer if you can't sell an agent or editor on these key points.
The first paragraph of your query is the hook; it should grab the attention of the agent or editor and compel him or her to read on. Anecdotes, questions, or comparisons can be effective techniques to evoke interest. Sometimes you can even adapt the first paragraph of your book to create an effective lead for your query letter.
The News Angle
Next time you read your daily newspaper or favorite magazine, pay attention to the first paragraph. Notice how the writer seeks to capture your interest and draw you into the story. There are several widely used techniques in this type of writing, any of which can form the basis of your query lead.
News stories tend to have straightforward leads, with the broad message up front and the promise of details later on: “The state legislature yesterday passed a budget that will lower income tax rates but raise fees for everything from vehicle inspections to fishing licenses.” If you own a car or like to fish, chances are you'll keep reading to find out how the new budget affects you.
While on the alert for effective leads, also pay attention to those stories where your interest slumps before you reach the end of the article. By analyzing others' writing, you can identify styles and techniques that work and separate them from styles and techniques that don't.
Feature stories in both newspapers and magazines are usually more circumspect in their approach. They may begin with a close-up and give you the broader picture later: “Mary Jones can tell you anything you want to know about her childhood. As with so many people who suffer from Alzheimer's, the details of her life on a small farm 80 years ago are far clearer in her memory than what she had for lunch today.”
Facts and Figures
Sometimes the quickest way to make your point is to cite impressive statistics or juxtapose seemingly contradictory facts, like this: “Two-thirds of American adults are overweight, even as private gyms report a 42 percent increase in memberships and fast-food chains stumble over each other to tout their new, healthier menu options.”
With this kind of lead, you give a factual representation of an issue and raise a question in the reader's mind. If Americans are exercising more and eating more healthy foods, why are they still overweight? You can answer this question in your query letter.
You also can spark interest by summarizing a problem or issue: “Recent public health crises over SARS and avian flu show that modern medicine has neither the arsenal nor an effective strategy to control dangerous and often drug-resistant viruses.” With this kind of lead, the reader infers that you have the solution to the problem. Of course, your query (and ultimately your proposal) must live up to that expectation.
Avoid passive sentence constructions; they are clumsy and they slow down the pace of your writing. An active voice lets your writing sing, and that is music to an agent's or editor's ears.
What's Most Important?
If you're stuck on how to begin your query, try thinking like a reporter. Without looking at your manuscript or proposal, ask yourself this question: “What sticks out in my mind about this project?” The answer is your lead. The thing that you remember best, without a fresh look at your own notes, most likely is the most important thing to share with others, and it belongs at the beginning of your query letter.