Effective first lines — for query letters

Janet Reid just posted a whooooole bunch of first lines of queries, with a note about which ones worked and comments about how they failed. Note that these are first sentences of queries, not novels. Have that in your mind and click through — these are pretty neat to read. I would probably have written my queries differently if this blog had been available at the time, though I have to say, I don’t really remember exactly how I did write them.

Anyway —

Most interesting failure mode: The querier presented a logline — a summary of the story or at least of the initial setup of the novel — as the first sentence. Those are so hard to write! Many were quite good, including this one:

Richelle Elberg 

A pile of dead coyotes rotting in the desert is shocking, but it’s the discovery of two bloated human bodies–hidden amidst the carnage–that really gives Detective Em Thayer a jolt.

That’s a fine one-sentence summary to set up a detective novel, don’t you think? I don’t think the dashes are necessary, and I say that as a card-carrying member of the dashes-are-great club. But if I saw this description of a detective novel, I would read the rest of the back cover and the first page.

At least for Janet, however, that is not the best kind of first sentence when writing a query letter to an agent. She wants to see the character and the problem in the first sentence.

Some of these are indeed very enticing. For example:


In twelve months, the supercomputer grafted to eighteen-year-old Sil Sarrah’s brain will kill her.


Jenn Griffin 

Batty Betty finds an abandoned young boy in her woods and takes him home–for keeps.



Being on display in a spiked iron cage on the hottest day of the year is painful and humiliating, but not as serious as his other problem.

I would absolutely use the character’s NAME in this sentence. Almost never works to reserve the character’s name, imo. But other than that, I really like this! Would could possibly resist reading the rest of the query?

Here’s another:

E.M. Goldsmith 

Phaedra damned herself by chasing her murderer straight into Hell.

Good heavens, yes, that is a great opening for a query! Also a great description of the set up. This would make a great tagline to put on the front cover of the book.

Kate Higgins 

This time she was absolutely, positively going to win, this time she was going to cheat the right way.

Even better! Despite the comma splice, I love this. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I think this is mine.

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