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The First-Person Query Letter


...and why you should not do it.

The advice we hear all the time is to write your query with the voice of the novel (which makes sense) but to keep it in third person even if the novel is in first person. This is eminently possible, but a little difficult, and every so often a writer has a brilliant idea: I'll write my query in the first-person voice of the first-person narrator, rather than as myself.

Every agent I've ever seen comment on this has said the same: please do not do this.

This is my understanding: when you're reading 100 queries in ninety minutes, you're used to writers beginning with this:

Dear Ms. Agent:
I've been following you on Twitter for six months, and while I can't offer you a red velvet cupcake with a spun-sugar shark on top, I'd like to offer you the next best thing: my novel To Love Again (women's fiction, 90,000 words).

Those alternate with the ones beginning like this:

Dear Ms. Agent:
When Suzie Q's world is turned upside-down by an unprecedented event, she has lots of changes to make in order to overcome her past.

(Your query, by the way, is not as awful as either of these examples. Your query is brilliant, but people who don't read this blog have less-brilliant queries, full of vagueness and obfuscation and declarification. And repetition.)

After thirty minutes of reading vague and unmemorable queries, the agent comes across this gem:

Dear Ms. Agent:
The first time I killed someone's kid, it bothered me for days, but now I've got my routine down cold, and I only do the wimpy hand-wriging stuff for an hour.

Hold the phone. At this moment, the agent is not sure if you're psychotic or whether you're actually threatening her kids or whether you're confessing... What is this?  

And then what do you (you the writer, not you the character) do when it gets time to say, "I have included the first five pages of my story..."  Well, wait, is it *your* story at that point? You've got to break voice to do it.  Do you keep talking like the character and say, "My author has included the first five pages..." Are we in memoir? A novel? What?

Any confusion as to what it is you're querying is bad. Also any confusion as to whether you're threatening the agent's life or children...very bad. Agents do get threatened on a regular basis, and we've pointed out before that writers are more likely than the general population to have emotional problems

But it's not just threats. When you think of all the situations protagonists get into, almost all of them might start off as sounding psychotic, dangerous, or even just plain whiney. 

"When my husband died, I embarked on a year-long journey of self-discovery, complicated by the revelation that he'd been supporting two children with another woman." Agent is going to think "memoir," and scan down for your platform, and when you don't have one, out it goes.

"When the President paged me into his office last week, I never dreamed he would open a Top Secret file and ask me to direct a program smuggling warheads into Belgium." Wow, treason charges, just for you! "I'm sorry, but this doesn't fit my needs at the time because I don't need to have the NSA investigating me for publishing Top Secret materials."

"When I started to hear voices in my dreams, I thought I was nuts, but then I met the guy from my dreams and he told me I was the Chosen One!"  Gee, there's a whole profession of people devoted to helping folks who have those issues -- delete.

That's why it's a problem. Don't do it.


---
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or ejecting stink bugs from the house. She is pretty sure no one reads these author bios. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.  
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5 comments:

On November 28, 2012 at 1:19 PM , Eric Steinberg said...

A good technique I've heard suggested and it worked for me, is to draft the query letter in first-person, using the character's voice. Then change the pronouns for third-person and make any necessary adjustment.

 
On November 28, 2012 at 1:58 PM , Megan Hand said...

Amazing advice, and so true. I can see why and how this would get confusing. Great post! Lol, made me laugh too :)

 
On November 28, 2012 at 2:10 PM , Jane | @janelebak said...

Eric, just don't send the draft and you're fine. :-) Although I suspect for some characters, the voice would be a bit off in third person, but that's what editing is for.

Glad you laughed, Megan. I aim to serve. :-)

 
On November 29, 2012 at 5:20 PM , Teresa Robeson said...

I totally agree with you on this, and think it's great advice, which was why I was completely befuddled when I read the WD blog post about why the query letter for the book "Score" was so appealing to agent Sara Megibow: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/successful-queries-agent-sara-megibow-and-score

 
On November 30, 2012 at 8:41 PM , LadySaotome said...

Hahaha - great post and I love the examples. Drives the point home and makes me laugh at the same time. Thanks!