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    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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He Sang As If He Knew Me

Top Ten Query Letter First Line Misfires

1) I have written a 134,569 word novel…..

2) Would you consider my fictional novel…

3) I have written two trilogies, a novella, and one cook book that I would like to publish.

4) I know getting published is all about connections but I hope you will be interested in me…

5) If you like a hot, sizzling read…

6) I read on your website that you like the “hard to categorize…..”

7) Melanie thought she knew everything she had to know about  men.

8 ) You rejected my first novel when you were an editor at Doubleday…

9) I am a big fan of your fucking blog! And I think you might like my memoir.

10)  There are approximately 35 million Irish Americans who I think would be interested in my novel, Erin’s Locket.

What’s the first line of your query letter?

144 Responses

  1. I forgot to say that I’ll invite the top three best lines to submit their query letter to me for either public or private critique. Love, Betsy

  2. Cooper Cooper, a lonely hairdresser’s assistant who finds solace in her cigarettes, bottles of wine and overweight cat, is no more than the sum of her malignant parts; Cooper seeks the help of her dead husband’s therapist, Dr. Stanley Whitmore, to gain self perspective only to fall in love with Stanley and even more out of sync with herself.

  3. If I could tell you I would let you know.

    But I LOVE that photo.

  4. Anna’s story takes place in Alaska, but not Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

  5. I’m out of the query-writing race, but when I started my first lap, I made way worse misfires than the ones you mentioned. I thought To whom it may concern sounded businesslike. And I was sure including my age was a plus–it would have been if I’d been writing to Williard Scott to get my photo on a Smucker’s label.

    My getting published despite being a complete moron as far as knowing how to write a query letter proves that luck plays a big part in this business.

  6. Franny is no ordinary cat, for she is a cat who can read.

  7. I have the BEST memoir EVER and I KNOW you’ll want to read the whole thing RIGHT AWAY!

    Now, tell me that isn’t an award winning query. Wait, I think I know what you’re going to say! Yes! I’ll send it right in! It’s handwritten on cardboard, so look for a big package.

  8. My first line is: “I’ve read a dozen books, but I still don’t know how to write a query letter.”

  9. Judith is content with her new life as a small-town librarian.

  10. Kleo Clemens starts forming an escape route to the rebel south the moment she has the world’s greatest treasure in her pocket.

  11. Eight-year-old, Ethan Doyle is just a normal kid whose biggest problem in life was to fight for the attention of his busy parents from his older twin siblings.

  12. “I’m an extremely needy person desirous of attention and adulation from people I don’t know personally and so have penned ‘The Sidewalk Smokers Club,’ the research for which has wrecked my health.”

  13. Call me Karen.

    I’m kidding. Would that I were at the query letter stage.

  14. Have you ever wondered how many alcoholic chimpanzees with Alphasmart Neos it would take to recreate the works of Dan Brown?

  15. It was so painful a remembrance, I excised it from my mind. I was just on GoodReads and this girl wrote this wonderful poem and they dissected the hell out of it. I wanted to weep. The stuff that came out of her head resonated, but I guess only with me.

    Wait up a sec. My new query letter will start “it’s okay if you don’t like my words cuz I love them.” And I will use ‘cuz”

    Or, on a more serious note, I have a book that EXPLAINS the way men are and it is NOT a diatribe.

  16. Piggy woo. I hope I haven’t eaten you yet.

  17. In a temporary city called Stampede, everything goes.

    (Stampede Noir: Dark Prose about The Greatest Outdoor Show)

  18. Since both the original and subsequently revised queries are getting me nowhere, let’s just say that’s another WIP.

  19. I love you Betsy. At least while writing this letter I do.

  20. Some people might think having five heads would be useful…

  21. […] extraordinaire gives some classic “don’ts” in her latest blog post, Top Ten Query Letter First Line Misfires. Read them and weep. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  22. “Scott Sole always imagined that his last name made him sound like a teacher who brought a lot to the classroom, not like someone who’d been scraped off a shoe.”

  23. I still wonder how much queries really matter. I mean, they matter, but they aren’t the book. The BOOK matters. Sometimes I wonder if writers aren’t given the gift of being able to write a brilliant synopsis/query OR the gift of being able to write a brilliant book. You don’t get both: so pick. What would you choose? Eventually, even a mediocre query might open the only door you need opened, right?

    Here’s the first line from the query that sold my latest book, straight to my dream publisher. (Re-reading the query makes every inch of my cringe in horror, but reading any query makes me feel that way. In any case, it worked.) (Buy the book in 2012! Please!)

    “Having a sibling with autism is no cakewalk, but (nearly)13-year-old Tink Martin is coping just fine.”

    • Why are you cringing? I think that’s a good query start. You get the general gist of the topic, you get a sense for the tone with the word ‘cakewalk’, and who wouldn’t want to know more about someone named Tink?? But that’s just me, aka unpublished author.

  24. ME, not my. I can’t even type. Maybe some people are also given the gift of being able to reply to a blog post without egregious typos.

  25. How come the one thing we spend our entire lives trying to avoid always ends up being our only salvation?

  26. Thicker Than Wine is contemporary women’s fiction exploring family ties and the role of food in binding the members to each other and to their shared past.

  27. Just to let you know. . . I like your blog very much. I bought your book (on Kindle) and I appreciate your earnestness, honesty and humor. Thanks very much for a no-BS look at the editors’ and agents’ world.

  28. ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ is a collection of characters (some interlinked) living in Africa and Europe, whose lives all undergo surprising and even unwilling evolution: two English snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites; a pregnant Ghanaian woman strokes across a hotel pool in the tropics; Celeste visits her suicidal brother and his lover in Berlin and realises she will never see them again.

    • Catherine – This first sentence would make me want to read more, though I would tweak the opening lines to read ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ is a collection of characters living in Africa and Europe, whose lives evolve in unanticipated and sometimes alarming ways…”

      I’m torn about the “some interlinked” because I think it reads better without that qualifier, though linked stories are probably easier to market (e.g., Olive Kitteridge). I’d consider including that detail a sentence or so down and let the substance of the stories rule in this first line.

    • This is great, Catherine. I think you could use an “about” in the first sentence — “…about a collection of characters…” and I agree with the previous poster that you probably don’t need to mention that some are linked.

  29. “I saw Patti Smith play the Reading Festival in 1979. I was in love with her. In 1981 I rode the Magic Bus to Greece reading a Rimbaud biography all the way. In 1985 I moved to London and ended up in art college with a guy called Damien Hirst.”

  30. A Girl Called Random will appeal to fans of Tanith Lee and Melaine Bryant. This 85,000 word fantasy/adventure novel has something for everyone: irreverence, wit, Good and Evil—and, a twist.

  31. LOL!

  32. “Taylor Ford’s mother is a floozy. The bummer is that she hasn’t fallen far from the tree. In fact, she has her own branch.” – I know that technically I have three lines, but it’s my opening. Thanks for the post and the chance to win a critique!

  33. Read my shorts, please.

  34. The odds of FBI Agent Darcy Harlowe getting an invitation to assist in the bizarre murder case she’s been watching unfold on the Internet are about as good as hell freezing over or her ending her love affair with José Cuervo.

  35. Jennifer’s father is dying. Suddenly her parents’ bitter relationship rivals the sweetly contrived chemistry of a Rock Hudson/Doris Day film. For Jennifer, their seemingly manufactured intimacy unearths buried questions sharp as broken bones. Now her sanity demands she open the door and confront the skeleton in her family’s closet.

  36. You have seen them: watching nervously from the edge of the playground, picking up their screaming kids from playdates, chasing them down supermarket aisles. They are the other mothers, and I am one of them.

    • This is really funny, Linda.

      • Whoops — not supposed to be funny, so I’m doing something wrong! The next line is, “Many parents-to-be worry that their child may have a physical disability, but how many fret that they will give birth to a child with an anxiety or depressive disorder?”

      • Ah, got it. I found it funny as a sort of camaraderie thing because I’m a mom too and I always said ‘not me,’ but find myself being as worried and protective as everyone else. Or my kids are the ones you can hear fighting aisles away. The second sentence certainly clarifies it and changes the tone. I still like it.

  37. As I sat talking to a man with a live body and a dead head it didn’t seem as unusual as it should have.

  38. Elsa planned on today being her death date for months, until her grandmother one-upped her.

  39. My rewrites are done and the queries are set to go tomorrow. Too late to start second guessing now or I’ll put it off submitting for another 6 months. Who am I kidding? 12 months. I’ll just have to wait for prospective agents to tell me I suck even though I would love nothing more than for you great folks to be my first bubble busters. Signed, Scared as Hell to Hear the Truth.

    • ps – that little piggy might actually look cute with lipstick. Here’s hoping at being the cute little runt and not the big sloppy sow.

    • Deb, for a split second I thought part of this was your query opening, and I was concerned. 🙂 “Dear Prospective Agent: I’m waiting for you to tell me I suck, but please feel free to burst my bubble.”

  40. I knew my father for only a very short time as an adult, and I associate two things with him: science and loss.

  41. I see most people are posting the opening lines of their plot summaries. That’s perfectly fine, and maybe it’s more common than I thought to immediately open with the plot description, but I actually find the very first intro sentence is the most difficult. (I have been known to use words like “delighted” in that sentence and actually hit send.) It’s also even easier to go astray in this intro line, like when you decide to compare your work to Twilight or demand the agent to pay attention to you because she is your former sister-in-law’s neighbor or something.

    • It seems to be the norm now on QueryShark to open with the plot.

      Though it may be that those submitting might want Janet Reid’s take on their summaries, anyway.

      Never thought of that . . .

  42. In Night School, Stuart Blake is the only white in his Birmingham African-American neighborhood.

  43. “I’ve noticed that most reality show contestants flog their dead relatives, so I’d like you to know that my novel is dedicated to my mother (she’s not actually dead yet), who was my inspiration … “

  44. Query letter? You mean my hand drawn book cover doesn’t say it all?

  45. Kate always figured she’d wind up in hell one day; she just never imagined beginning every day of the rest of her life there.

  46. “Meet Baxter Bunny, a friend to many on Facebook, Twitter and his personal website.”

    You’re not going to believe it took 3 people and a week’s worth of back and forth emails to come up with that…Now that I wrote it out of context, it seems really boring. I’m rewriting.

  47. I swear on my mother’s tombstone that if you read my manuscript I’ll be your best friend.

  48. I’m not ready to play yet. This question has my knickers in a twist.

  49. Every picture may tell a story, but the family albums I stole from my mother’s house did not; they were merely the selected glossies, the stories she wanted us to be.

  50. The demon Liam has been hiding a romantic relationship with the angel Mikael for centuries.

  51. I agree. Lyra had me with “one-upped.” I’m reading it.

  52. Love this post. Thinking back to my very first query letter, my opening line was cringe-worthy — but not *quite* as bad as those examples.

    I’m not ready to query the WIP, yet, otherwise I’d share my first line!

  53. When I was thirteen years old, my father Robert became my other mother Robin.

  54. My name is Neghuiz Ablici, and I live in a country that is not recognized by the west.

  55. My mother’s pubic hair is thick and black and animal.

  56. “Average Salary for Writers/Authors: $65,960.”

    Fictional nonfiction: http://education.yahoo.net/articles/careers_for_haters.htm?kid=1KA49

  57. “This letter represents my last hope for a stunning literary achievement that will teach everyone who was ever mean to me how wrong they were.”

  58. “My name is Nicholas J. Stevens and I wrote a book.”

    It’s not creative, but I’m not looking for a publisher of query letters. But, I can do much, much better, and I will. I promise.

  59. Eleven year old Dixie has been through a lot for someone her age and her diary was with her every step of the way, that is, until she had to give it up as key evidence against her Uncle Ray.

    Sidenote – I am so impressed by all the entries on here…but I have to say I’m a bit confused as to what should be the first line in a query letter…the hook? or the formal greeting to the agent…? Dear Ms. or Mr. so and so I saw your bio and interests on…(but that seemed to rank in one of the top ten WORST ever!) Yikes, and that’s the direction given on so many “How To Write a Query Letter…”

    • Hi, you didn’t ask and I’m not Betsy and I shouldn’t even be here because I was about to start working on a rewrite I’m working on and instead I’m doing that thing writers so often do and that is, avoiding it–but, I would drop the “that is” and the “key” and the last “her” all to make it tighter, then I might reword so I don’t have the “way” rhyming with the “Ray.”

      • Hey – thanks! Just someone noticing my feeble attempt is great. I didn’t even notice the rhyming. Probably b/c I read it like 20 times before I posted it. And strangely, I took “that is” and that particular “her” out, put them back in, took them back out…aye yi yi yi. I really appreciate your feedback!

  60. Hawp yuh waunt rejawkt meee juzt beecuzz i gawt mi owin waiy uh spallin.

  61. Dear Mrs, Lerner, I know that you know that we are all in this together and therefore you know the importance of creating a unique voice that everyone can identify with, and since this is the case, I know that you will want to help me create a monster that gushes money every time his fingers put a thought to rest, and I know you know this because I have been following your blog for ages now and now let me tell you, right now, man oh man do I have a story for you…

    • Sans the story, here is my soundtrack to entice you to believe I actually Get It and am willing to participate in the totally cool underground rebellion you have going, book publishing, my god, who would have thought. Everyone should have a soundtrack, just in case they get emotionally weak and there is a disconnect between thought and motivation. But, I do have a story somewhere. I mean, it’s in there, somewhere. But anyway, like I said before, if you finally see the light and get up the courage to publish me, can you have this song playing when someone opens the jacket—http://youtu.be/qDQpZT3GhDg

  62. in all my dark despair/& then he looked right through me/as if i wasn’t there

    I am cursed to remember every lyric I’ve ever heard. I’m 59. That’s lots of lyrics, killing me softly with their songs.

  63. “I fucking despise writing query letters.”

  64. When Maggie Fisher, a British tourist, goes missing in an Australian outback town where thousands of abandoned mine-shafts dot the landscape, Nungala, a local Aboriginal girl whose own cousin has disappeared without trace, fears for Maggie’s safety.

    • I think this might be a little too complicated, but I’m not sure why. Not the story, this sounds like a good story, just the one or two sentence sell. Not to be an asshole, but were they playing around a mine and she got buried by falling stone? Or something like that. Or is there an old disgruntled minor who doesn’t know he is obsolete and hasn’t come out of the mine for years and in his anger over not having a recognizable identity sees a piece of ass that sort of looks like a woman and that is good enough for him. Has there been others? Why does anyone not know this troll lives there? Wait! Maggie is a British citizen looking for her roots and she found in an old document that her great grandfather was exiled to Australia, for family reasons, and she is actually trying to find the truth of her identity. It turns out her grandfather has a lust for life that cannot be esplained but it requires the juices of young girls. I would read that story. Unless it is something far more tragic and dramatic, then I would leave it up to the author.

  65. Well, here’s the first line of the query I sent you at the end of September. 🙂

    You represented one of my favorite – and one of the most important — books in my research: Dave Cullen’s brilliant Columbine.

    And here’s the first lines of my pitch, second graf of the query letter:

    There are no “backward messages” hidden in Judas Priest’s songs. But there are plenty of backward messages in our news reports: violent video games turn kids into gun-toting maniacs. Wiccans are Satanists and Satanists are murderers. Heavy metal makes teens kill themselves – or others. Goths and role-playing gamers are destroying their lives. But what if these interests helped kids rather than hurting them? And what if there were millions of kids who play Modern Warfare, study the Satanic Bible, or head-bang to Between the Buried and Me, and do just fine?

    • God, I hate being an asshole, I really do, but what better place to practice it than in the book bizz, and what better place to practice it than here, we won’t get into that. If I were an editor, when I saw those quotation marks in the first four words of your pitch, I would have thrown it into the trash, which literally takes a practiced flick of the fingers. And not to be a TOtal asshole, I employ a girl Friday to take out my trash. He looks too much like a writer, but, again, we won’t get into that. Suckers and slaves will do anything for attention. I hope I made my point.

      • Hi Jeff, I don’t buy for a second that you hate being an asshole. In any case, I suppose it’s a good thing that I wasn’t pitching to you, or to an editor.

      • You got me there.

      • To rectify my extremely tight asshole, therefore baring my often recited nick-name, what is your point? Do the people who listen to or participate in a culture that has been used for political gain actually do the opposite of what their accusers claim? For instance, since you have dragged me into this argument, does listening to Marilyn Manson make you Not shoot up a school? You brought it up. Tell me how Judas Priest, I saw them live twice, by the way, at an Oz fest, literally twice at one show, violent video games, Goths and role players are Not destroying their lives. Give me a pitch. I don’t believe you. I think you are knee-jerkily defending a harmless, childish fantasy that politicians have used to rally the people that have very poor reasoning skills, in order to gain power. Yet, you cannot defend them, yet. You cannot give them a reason that defies even your claim, in your pitch. You gave me no reason to read-on. Give me at least a hint where this is going. Give it to me, and know, wholeheartedly, that I am an asshole. Don’t let it hurt you.

      • Jeff, read the book when it’s published.

    • Beth, you have a great opening intro line. Too bad that it only works for one agent! 🙂 Good luck with this.

  66. “Just because you know you’re an asshole and admit you’re an asshole, does that make it all right to be an asshole?”

    • Poor-folks. You just can’t win. Poor in spirit, poor in heart, easily corrupted, easily swayed with charming promises. Unwilling to nit-pick tiny cracks in the dam. I thank you folks for your easy solutions, I just had a thought for a fairly decent short story. Now, I will go to bed. Hopefully, the bug won’t bite at 4am. Which is a little too early for me. Not even my cat gets me up before 4:30. I’m going! And eat it!

  67. Drew Andrews— with a useless Ph.D. in Literature, who doesn’t belong in Los Angeles, who’s in love with a gay man, whose own mother didn’t care enough to stick around— isn’t a complete loser.

  68. “Adalmund Port returned home to Norwyn from her first job with an arrow in her shoulder and a murdered princess in her arms.”

    …I’m still working on that ‘not having a horrible query’ thing.

  69. The openers are real stinkers, but the piglet picture is about the cutest I’ve ever seen. Ever. I’m in love!!

  70. […] additional info, check out these tips from author, editor, and agent Betsy Lerner … and agent Nathan Bransford has a comprehensive post on queries as well. .gplus […]

  71. […] additional info, check out these tips from author, editor, and agent Betsy Lerner … and agent Nathan Bransford has a comprehensive post on queries as […]

  72. eat shit and die mother fucker.

  73. […] additional info, check out these tips from author, editor, and agent Betsy Lerner … agent Nathan Bransford has a comprehensive post on queries as well. And for helpful, […]

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