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It’s Hard to Get By Just Upon a Smile

Let’s go back to basics. Query letters. Here are ten opening lines from letters I’ve received or concocted.

Dear Betsy: I am a huge fan of your blog and The Forest for the Trees, which I recommend to everyone I know.

Dear Ms. Lerner: Your agency website says that you like the hard to categorize.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I have written a fiction novel of 130,000 words called The Lost Letter.

Dear Betsy Lerner: Have you ever been afraid, really afraid?

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am a Harvard graduate and a Buddhist.

Dear Ms. Lerner: I am a survivor.

Dear Betsy (if I may):  I was about to give up writing until I read your book — I am the wicked child.

Dear Miss Lerner: Part memoir, part travelogue, this is the story of my return to Los Angeles.

Dear Betsy: My novel, The Launching of Fawn Roth, is about a young woman a lot like Lena Dunham.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am writing to you because of  your personal interest in mental illness.

If you were an agent, which one would you respond to?

Anyone want to float their opener?

51 Responses

  1. If you were an agent, which one would you respond to? None.

    Anyone want to float their opener? This is either actual or concocted and I’m either brave or stupid but here goes.

    Think Ruth Madoff earning less than minimum wage but able to keep her tips.

  2. Dear Betsy
    I am not seeking representation, but would like to tell you that finding your Foresty Tree book gave me something important, an understanding of who I am as a writer, and something perhaps even more important, new friends who I’ve never met in person, but are great people, without whom my life would have been less than it is.
    Thank you. You made a difference.

  3. oh twist the knife why don’t you

    But I’d respond to #1– they at least know something about you and, though unsaid but implied in that query, your personal interest in mental illness.

  4. I would not respond to any of them.

    Float my opener? I am tired of querying. Tired of carrying my beggar’s bowl from door to door. But I do it anyway. It’s reached the point where I no longer know what to say or how to say it. But I say it anyway. When the responses come back, if they come back, sometimes I wait for days before I read them. Then I read them anyway.

    This is madness.

  5. Not a single one. In fact, I’m astonished by how artless these queries are.

    Here’s mine:

    “Dear Betsy,

    After reading a short story I’d written, Joyce Carol Oates said that I didn’t need to take her course in creative writing because I already know how to write. I hope she’s right.

    My novel, (blah, blah, blah)….


    Josephine Carr

    Meanwhile, how the hell are you, Betsy? I miss the posts, but I understand why you don’t do it as often. Still, MISS YOU.

  6. The wicked child sounds like trouble.

    • Well, the wicked child writes what she wants. She isn’t afraid of what her family thinks of her writing. She is brave and perhaps naughty. (I am a wicked child.)

  7. Dear Ms. Lerner: Your agency website says that you like the hard to categorize

    • This one gets my vote, too. (Maybe just because they didn’t say enough to turn me off yet?)

      I’ve been through so many opening lines of my own that I’ve lost count. The most recent is: “Three months before our wedding, I was in the States getting a marriage visa when my French fiancé called to say, ‘I can’t marry you.'” Straight to the point. And if an agent isn’t interested by that first line, they’re not going to be interested in the book either.

  8. i would not respond to any of the opening lines because, although some are sensational, none seem personal.

    i’ve written a collection of interconnected short stories based on the life cycle of expatriates living in present day Hong Kong. i’m thinking it’s futile to query these days. because it’s short stories. because it’s not what you write but who you know. i try not to care. it ain’t working.

    here’s a quote from the opening story: “You already know how the story ends: high above a futuristic city, Rutger Hauer, wearing blue underpants, morphs into a gargoyle.”

  9. Ick. My heart goes out to all of us. Writers, agents, queryers, readers of slush.

    Did you invent that mental illness one?

    • Ugh–Agreed. Reading these feels like I’m reading someone’s diary. I’d choose them all if I could just for the courage it took to put them out in the world.

  10. I believe you concocted the one about being really afraid, and the mental illness one. The personal touch of the first one at least makes a connection that shows they did a little research on you before sending the letter.

    I’ve read slush and cannot tell you how many times, “I am a survivor” or “this is my travelogue memoir Eat Pray Love story” have come up….

    I, too, miss your posts! I was an avid follower while you blogged regularly.

  11. Gosh my query letter used to start out ‘Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites; a pregnant Ghanaian woman strokes across a hotel pool in the tropics..’ to introduce the collection, then a tiny blurb about myself. I’m about to try querying with a new project in the UK, and I’m already feeling flattened by the silence.

    I wouldn’t mention mental illness or my admiration for The Forest for the Trees (though it did kickstart my writing efforts and I am grateful). I think these things should be professional, a little secretarial.

    I do miss the hardy banter on this blog.

  12. I think she made up the letter where the writer addresses her by her first name.

  13. You know I’ve seen a lot of what the world can do, and it’s breakin’ my heart in two, and if’n only I could sell my hard-to-categorize goofy book, maybe I wouldn’t lose my apartment and have to leave San Francisco to the 1%ers–but hey, it also happens to be a damn fine (goofy) book. Of interest?


    The Honorable Alexandra Jones
    Mayor, Goof City

  14. I’d like to think that I would read on to see what the books were about—just because someone stepped on one of my personal query opening peeves doesn’t mean they won’t stick the dismount.

    Then again, I don’t receive hundred of queries a week and my personal query opening peeves don’t have thousands of stomp marks all over them, so I can afford to go easy on hypothetical, potential clients.

    I tend to skip the personal until the end . . .

    Dear Ms. Lerner,

    Ex-con Judith Thompson’s current life as a a small town librarian may not be as exciting as running with James Blaine’s “To Catch a Thief” outfit, but after leading her last retrieval team into a fatal trap, the quiet routine is both penance and relief.

    . . . but maybe I should reconsider?

  15. I would answer all of them, and promptly. For some, it might be a personalized form letter, but it’s just too easy to throw a little something out there to ease the solitude.

    I would respond more directly to the last one, because the hook worked.

    • You renew my faith in humanity, if only for one second before I realize you are not an agent. Pity.

    • I’m with you on that one, Frank. From job applications, to craigslist inquiries, to asking friends for favors, there’s nothing worse than the endless silence of no response. If you don’t have the time or patience to send a stock response, Ms. Lerner, I’d hope you enlist the help of an assistant whose only job is to send them on your behalf. First off, it gives someone a job, and second, it’s an act of kindness to all those who are waiting for nothing but a little support. A lot of nice things turn bad out there.

  16. Respond to? I am a Harvard graduate and a Buddhist. Smart, spiritual, why not?

    Dear Betsy,
    There is a gray, striped cat with a white tuft under its chin sitting by the side of the road. I hope it will move before the morning traffic rush begins. I sit by my window often.

  17. The first sentence of a query letter…not unlike putting a noose around one’s own neck, then waiting to see if the agent will pull the lever.

    Personally, I liked #9…

    If I were querying….I would put an opening line about the story first, and leave personal tidbits for the closing.

  18. Sometimes a story is too big to stay inside, and it oozes out, onto paper, in hopes of freeing that which has been crowded out for so long. That is my story’s origin. Nothing more. But writing gets shared, first by those who connect with the writer and later by strangers who connect with the story and, finally, with any luck at all, it connects with one brave agent.

  19. OMG Betsy I love this. About nine years ago, I queried an agent in the state where I live not because he handles what I wrote but because he lives where I live. I was so frustrated with what I was getting, or not getting from New York agents, that I figured I’d give a country-boy the nod, with my query and first ten pages. I was tired and frustrated and so mad at the (no answer means no) process and system, that my first line of the query was, “All I need is for someone to read my god-damn book.”

    Ha…the guy actually sent me a non-formulaic reply. He politely said that besides the fact that he didn’t handle my genre he found my sample pages, as presented in my query, confusing. Duh,
    aside from my stellar first line, I sent him the wrong query. It was a first draft stupid-letter, relating to a different book which was never finished.

    Observation: all agents are New York agents.
    Advice: Never send a query during Letterman’s Top Ten.

  20. I’ll bet you get some real doozies with #2.

  21. Dear Betsy: My novel, The Launching of Fawn Roth, is about a young woman a lot like Lena Dunham.

    Except I’d prefer an opening like Your Majesty, or some other appropriate saluation.

  22. No. 1. That opening line will at least hook me long enough to read the next line. And if that’s half decent, I’ll read the next. And so on.

    Nos. 2 – 10: Too writerly, too form-lettery, too red flag-y.

    Disclaimer: I wrote a pitch letter to Betsy for my first book, which she read and accepted and got published. I had not read a book or a blog about publishing so I had no idea that what I was writing was actually a “pitch letter”; if I remember, I started the non-pitch letter by mentioning the fact that we had both lived in the same quaint village on the Long Island Sound. And the letter was illustrated. I have often wondered how on Earth that ended up working out.

    Anyhoo, I am in the position to read a lot of pitches (local magazine columnist) and I am amazed at (by?) how dumb a lot of them are. Cliche, not funny when they are trying to be, and narcissistic. Since when did the mere fact of being a parent become an “achievement”?

    Anyhoo. I recently interviewed a young writer, a new grad from a four-year mid-level college with a journalism degree, and yes she told me that she is writing a FICTION NOVEL.

    No wonder I hate to leave the house.

    • What I take away from your Betsy story above.. in a query letter, it can’t hurt to be yourself.

    • Hi Vivian,

      I had no idea you illustrated your query to Betsy. No wonder she took you on!

    • Please contact Herb or myself with any questions. I submitted a tech writing bid against the guy who wrote that. There must have been half a dozen more whoppers in the first two paragraphs of his bid, and I didn’t get the job. Maybe I’ll add writer of fiction novels to my credentials and see how it goes.

  23. A resounding “no” to the queries listed above.

    But how about this:

    Dear Ms. Lerner,
    Seeing as how the national debt crisis is solved, the environment is in tip-top shape, and people all over the world just generally get along, it seems an opportune time to ask if you’d like to read a book about someone with real problems.

  24. 2 and 8.

    Dear Betsy Lerner,

    My whole life I was afraid of cats. That all changed today when you posted that cute photo.

    Yours sincerely,

    Fraidy Cat No More

  25. Here’s Celine’s query/summary for “Journey to the End of of Night.” A sure winner for all wannabes.


    • I’m pondering including, “I don’t think my summary will make you want to read the book” in my next query.

  26. Definitely the last one- probably what Fyodor would have used for Crime and Punishment

  27. Only slightly off the subject, but here is proof that query letters are a breeze to write compared to Match.com profiles. And, this is why I am still single: http://sherrystanfa-stanley.blogspot.com/2013/10/a-match-made-in-hell.html

  28. “I hear you’re looking for the next Fifty Shades of Grey. This book won’t be that big. But it will appeal to all the people who are too proud to read Fifty Shades, but like some sex in their snark.”

  29. Writing query letters is a bit like you’re stripping off your skin and finally, raw, asking a stranger to tell you that you’re beautiful. It makes writing queries really difficult for a lot of writers (who tend to be self-loathing introverts who are racked with doubt), because it isn’t just about writing, it’s about opening yourself up to be judged. So I wouldn’t really judge a query by its opening line, I don’t think. I’d be apt to skim for the high points and read the first page of the submission instead. Then I’d decide.

    Reading other people’s queries makes me cringe. It’s just too much need, want and vulnerability.

  30. (But I’d skip the fiction-novel one. Just because, really, by the time you’ve written a novel and researched querying, you should know better.)

  31. I’d pick the one about LA and the Harvard Buddhist. Query letters are terrible things. I hate writing them. I’d rather graph equations, eat raw onions or do an hour on a stair master.

  32. If I had the gumption and a story ready for publication (and the world moved along MY axis), my query would read:

    Ms. Lerner:

    I am a storyteller. My medium is the written word. Enclosed are a few pages of the story I have to tell. Read them if you like.

    Query: Would you like to read more?

    Thank you for your time.

    Most Sincerely,

    (Noah N. Particular)

    I am too young and dumb to the business of publishing to think that this directness (bullshit free!) just might work. Realistically….?

    • It’s not actually direct or bullshit free to not tell the agent what your book is about. What if you’ve written literary fiction and she only takes thrillers and romance? This letter wastes her time, and she’d be unlikely to read further. I say this with love in my heart. Direct is great, though – check out Query Shark for direct letter examples that don’t dick around.

  33. Dear Ms. Lerner:

    Anyone can be hard to categorize. I prefer categorizing the hard.

  34. I’m considering a lobotomy. Maybe if I could start fresh like Harrison Ford in “Regarding Henry,” I would just care about love and peace, and no longer want to be a writer. Then it wouldn’t matter if I could come up with a good opening line for a query. I would just be happy. And then, when I die, someone would find all my writings and call me the next Emily Dickinson and wonder why I never pursued publication.

  35. No. 2. And I love that kitty 😍

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