The Cursed Query Hook: “If at First You Don’t Succeed…”

It took six months to write the first draft of the manuscript of my novel, The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery. Once it was done, I heaved a sigh and readied myself for the next step: pitching it to literary agents.

Should I have devoted time and effort to revision at that point? Oh, yeah—but that’s another story.

When planning my query, I did some homework. Because I had no publishing contacts whatsoever and lived in (you might say) the middle of nowhere, I needed inspiration. But I’d heard of a recent literary sensation that rose like the phoenix from an unlikely place: Stephenie Meyer.

My daughter was a fan of the Twilight series, and so I checked out Stephenie Meyer’s history. She shared her road to success on her author page:  after seeing her characters in a dream, she wrote a book and sent a query letter to 16 agents. One of the agents was Jodi Reamer at writers House. Jodi fell in love with the manuscript and sold it to a Big Six publisher a month or so later. Oh, I thought, so that’s how it works.

Not my experience. I sent out a batch of hard-copy queries. Every query was rejected. (Save your postage, btw. Email those query letters.)

So I went back to work on the letter. My research said that the first sentence of a query letter was crucial; they called it “the hook” and said it had to grab the agent’s attention. I gave it some thought, and for my hook—my first sentence—I said, “Every young attorney who longs for the case of the century learns a hard lesson: be careful what you wish for.”

It wasn’t bad, I got a couple of nibbles. But I eventually decided that my hook was not a sufficient “grabber” to separate me from the pack. So I changed it. I had read somewhere that it’s wise to compare your book to another appealing book, so I did that. New hook: “If two of your favorite books are To Kill a Mockingbird and Valley of the Dolls, then you should read The Code of the Hills.”

Did I get a response? Yes. But when you liken your work to a Pulitzer-prize winning classic of American literature crossed with a cult classic, it can be tough to deliver. (Note to self: if the comparison makes you blush, don’t use it.)

When I adapted the hook again, fate was on my side. Dan Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone had been a literary sensation, and the indie film version of Winter’s Bone was the black horse nominee for Best  Picture at the Academy Awards.  Like Woodrell, I’m an author from the Missouri Ozark hills, and the Ozarks is my setting. Did I seize the moment?

Hell, yeah. New hook: “If you were intrigued by the “hillbilly noir” world depicted in Winter’s Bone, then you should read The Code of the Hills.”
It was like magic. Requests came pouring in. I snagged an agent; and another agent after that. And ultimately, my Ozarks tale was sold to HarperCollins.
And the moral of my story? It was partly luck (thank you, Dan Woodrell), no doubt about it. But when crafting and sending that query letter, you must remain flexible. Change it out. Mix it up. I truly believe that some agents read only the first sentence; and I believe, as well, that the industry is driven by what’s happening now. So if you have sent out the query letter for your novel and you aren’t getting the reception you’d like: if at first, you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Nancy Allen
Nancy Allen is a member of the law faculty in the College of Business at Missouri State University. She practiced law for 15 years, serving as Assistant Missouri Attorney General and as Assistant Prosecutor in her native Ozarks. When Nancy began her term as prosecutor, she was only the second woman in Southwest Missouri to serve in that capacity. During her years in prosecution, she tried over 30 jury trials, including murder and sexual offenses, and she served on the Rape Crisis Board and the child protection team of the Child Advocacy Council. THE CODE OF THE HILLS is her first novel. 

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  1. What an interesting story. And it all hinged on just a sentence. So glad it worked out for the author!

  2. Lance, it's crazy--but that hook is tremendously important. You could be Harper Lee, sitting on TKAM--but if the first sentence of the pitch is flat, the agent will never see what a treasure the book is.


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