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Peter Brown Hoffmeister

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Numbers In Literary Publishing: You Have One Sentence

Posted: 07/28/11 05:02 PM ET

61 rejections in a row. That's my record. Like DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Or, to be more precise, the exact opposite of DiMaggio's hitting streak. Hitless. More like the old man's 84-day fishless streak to open Hemingway's novella.

61 rejections in a row. Rejections of stories, poems, and a manuscript. But that's not even a record. Jack London was rejected more than 400 times in a row. And without Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner's streak would have been epic as well.

Writers count their rejections. Keep them. Wallpaper bathrooms with the pages. Create post-rejection rituals. I have thirteen of ZYZZYVA's "Gentle Writer...." Xerox copies in my file.

But big rejection numbers are not important. Big numbers in general are not important. No, the number to worry about is one. Because this "one" is all you have working for you. If you are an unpublished writer, you need to consider one. Consider what one means for you as a hopeful writer, as a writer with no credits in her bio.

One.

That's how many sentences you have to impress an agent or editor.

And it's not the first sentence of your manuscript. People will tell you how important that first sentence is. But I'm here to tell you that your manuscript's first sentence will not be read. The sentence you need to worry about is the first sentence of your query letter. I've read interviews where editors or agents say that they read the first ten pages of a queried manuscript, or the first five pages, or the first page. They say that they can tell after reading these short sections. But they're not telling the truth.

Those same editors will tell a different story over a beer or a coffee.

I've sat down with a book editor and asked her how many pages she actually reads at the query stage, and she said, "Zero." I got the same reply from a magazine editor. And two agents. Plus a publisher friend of mine. So what do they actually read when they get a query and manuscript? The cover letter.

And how much of the cover letter? The first sentence.

One sentence.

If you have to ask why, you've never been a literary agent. The last time I met my with my agent she said she was a little stressed because she had 900 queries waiting in her email in-box. When I asked her how many queries she receives per week, she said, "600 to 700." Per week. Writer's Digest and online writers' websites say that the first paragraph of the query letter should be a hook, be informative, and one sentence. This is standard. So you have a one-sentence paragraph to sell your manuscript.

When I decided to try and publish my memoir two years ago, querying fifteen agents, I battled that first sentence. I wrote more than thirty different versions.

I wrote. Deleted. Wrote. Rewrote. Delete again.

I kept asking myself, "How can one sentence represent an entire book? How can one sentence tell enough information without telling too much? How can this sentence be powerful and engaging, yet still be a single sentence?"

And is this a fair expectation of unpublished writers?

Unfortunately, yes. In a culture where the average book browser only reads the back of a book, this one-sentence query requirement is fitting. The jacket is not written by the author, and the first sentence of a query is not part of the manuscript. So books sell -- on both ends -- based on non-manuscript material.

Show economy. Be precise. Hook.

The sentence I used to query those agents was not perfect. At the danger of public ridicule, I'll include it here as an example:

"The End of Boys, a 60,000-word memoir, is a post-pop chronicle of an obsessive compulsive boy, fevered by daymares, a voice, who gets expelled from school after school until he ends up in rehab, runs, hitchhikes, and lives in the Greyhound Bus Station in Dallas, Texas."

A run-on. I wish I could rewrite that now. Shorten it. Replace the word "chronicle" -- which is awful -- and "daymares" -- which is not even a real word. But that's the sentence I sent. And four of the fifteen agents asked to read my manuscript. So it worked for four out of fifteen. It is therefore a working example. Imperfect, but somewhat successful.

At the point of sale, the body of writing doesn't matter. The manuscript itself. But, of course, it does later. After that first query sentence, after the initial sale, and once the book is cracked, the next 5,000 sentences are somewhat important as well.

Peter Brown Hoffmeister's memoir The End of Boys was released by Soft Skull this year. He's written for Climbing Magazine, Rock and Ice, Gripped, and Ampheta'Zine. He holds an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship for fiction.

 

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