Is there anything more wrenching than finessing the first line of a query letter? Laying my author’s soul on the line in this manner takes me back to my early days of job hunting, when a serendipitous connection helped me wedge my foot in the door.
My first job out of college was as a reporter for a small weekly newspaper. Fresh out of journalism school, I accepted this offer over a slot in a department store management training program and a cubicle at an insurance company proofreading policies. (Such was the diversity of my state college’s job lottery.) As a child of Watergate, I was positive this job would plant me on the path of becoming the first female Woodward or Bernstein.
It was a great job, but a grueling one, as getting-your-feet-wet positions tend to be. My editor, a Ray Romano type (not cuddly “Everybody Loves Raymond” Ray but curmudgeonly “Men of a Certain Age” and “Parenthood” Ray), was extremely demanding. In his small shop, the second story of a converted house where the walls slanted crazily, we reporters did everything, from taking photos to writing captions and headlines to inserting typesetting codes in our copy in those typewriter days.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was excellent training for everything that was to come.
We worked four long days, publishing on the fifth. My salary was so low I took a job working our presses on Wednesdays to cover my car payment, shoving the collating machines full of the sections I had finished writing hours before. (This is my personal “I walked 10 miles to school” story that I trot out whenever my children complain about life’s difficulties.) My blue collar colleagues would glare at me when my editor pulled me off the line to tweak a late-breaking story; I came home covered in newsprint.
After a year, I was ready for something else, and began browsing the classifieds. An ad for a communications coordinator intrigued me. Reading further, I did a double-take at the name of the person receiving resumes. The moniker was too distinctive to be a coincidence; I recognized it from the yellowed clippings in my file drawer. This individual, my prospective employer, had been a reporter at this paper only a few years before.
This happy accident provided a great (or risky) opening line for my cover letter: Dear so-and-so, I’m sitting at your former desk at the Pleasantville News (newspaper name changed to protect the curmudgeon).
It got me an interview. Eventually, I got the job. This fellow journalism refugee turned out to be a great boss and writer, a former high school English teacher who taught me about the precision of language, drilling into me the difference between “that” and “which,” a rule I have religiously enforced among writers I’ve edited over the years, to their collective annoyance. Said boss later admitted that while my talent dazzled him (this is not a direct quote), curiosity about the newsroom he’d left behind had been a contributing factor to my first interview.
I’m relating all of this because I’m on the same sort of hunt today to get an agent’s attention— to wow them with the first sentence and make that crucial connection right out of the gate. The Internet affords writers all sorts of background on agents and authors—a kind of virtual file drawer cataloging their likes, pet peeves, favorite authors, query turnoffs, etc.
At the same time, with equal access to this database, it’s a challenge to stand out in a writerly crowd.
It’s slow going. I’m approaching each query as a challenge. Each one gets a little tighter, I think, and a little shorter, which I hear is a good thing. It’s only been a week, barely a nanosecond in query time, but I’ve got a pretty big foot to shove in that digital door.