So what's a query?
A query is your one-shot, first-impression, and one-page letter that you send to an agent to try and entice them to read your book. There are some agents that skip these and read your first page, so don't slack off on your revisions and rewrites. They will come back to the query letter to get more info if they like it, so ake it as good as possible. A crummy query letter says to the agent that you've most likely didn't do your homework (uninterested) or that your MS isn't going to be very good either. You've only got one shot, make it count.
The first thing I think to do is to look at a few queries that have already found agents and even publications. A good place to start for this would be the lovely people over at Writer Mag. They've had a couple of really nice query breakdowns in parts, Part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. There's a fifth one, but I couldn't find it.
QueryShark is a great place to get a feel for what does and doesn't work in a query. Make sure you visit and take notes.
Notice how the queries are very short, less than a page. Long queries that go on and on and on and on are not very good to agents. Their time is limited and they want to know that you have the panache to succinctly say what you need to and not ramble on about things that don't have to do with your MS.
So, now that you've got a good idea of what a query is, it's time to write your own.
Agent Query has the perfect 'how to write a query' post. Definitely check that one out.
First, address it correctly. Few will bother with a letter addressed to "Dear Agent" or "Yo, homeboy!" People have names, and agents are people, too. Use their name. You should have researched agents in depth by now and know specifically which ones you want to query anyway. You wouldn't send an article about the best fishing rods to use to W or Cosmo, would you? Make sure your agent represents what your book is.
If you write historical romance fiction as a rule, but this time you've written a YA novel, your agent doesn't have to represent both genre's. This query is for one book, and one book only. The fact that you have several books available is nice, but it doesn't belong in your letter. You agent might ask later if you've written any other books, but that's for later. That's icing on the cake. We're doin' the beef.
The body of the "letter" is basically broken down into three short paragraphs:
1. The Grab
This is usually a one-line hook for your book. This is the essence of your book, what makes the agent want to keep reading your query and hopefully your MS. Make sure its something that really piques the interest of your reader. I've found that my local library posts the taglines of books in their online search engine, so make sure to check yours, too. It's easy to browse thousands of book taglines this way.
Examples taken from Agent Query:
Bridges of Madison County
When Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into Francesca Johnson's farm lane looking for directions, the world-class photographer and the Iowa farm wife are joined in an experience that will haunt them forever.
The Kite Runner
An epic tale of fathers and sons, of friendship and betrayal, that takes us from Afghanistan in the final days of the monarchy to the atrocities of the present.
The Da Vinci Code
A murder in the silent after-hour halls of the Louvre museum reveals a sinister plot to uncover a secret that has been protected by a clandestine society since the days of Christ.
Into Thin Air
On assignment for Outside Magazine to report on the growing commercialization of the mountain, Krakauer, an accomplished climber, went to the Himalayas as a client of Rob Hall, the most respected high-altitude guide in the world, and barely made it back alive from the deadliest season in the history of Everest.
The Perfect Storm
The true story of the meteorological conditions that created the "Storm of the Century" and the impact the Perfect Storm had on many of the people caught in its path; chiefly, among these are the six crew members of the swordfish boat the Andrea Gail, all of whom were lost 500 miles from home beneath rolling seas.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
The memoir of Dave Eggers, who at the age of 22, became both an orphan and a "single mother" when his parents died within five months of one another of unrelated cancers, leaving Eggers the appointed unofficial guardian of his 8-year-old brother, Christopher.
Also, Book Roast has good description paragraphs.
2. Tiny tiny tiny tiny synopsis
Here, you have to take your entire novel and condense it to a single paragraph. Yeah, i'm not kidding. One. Tiny. Little. Paragraph. But you can do it.
So think of it this way. You had trouble writing the gist of your book in one sentence, right? Now, you get a whole paragraph. About 150 extra words. Here’s your chance to expand on your hook. Give a little bit more information about your main characters, their problems and conflicts, and the way in which adversity changes their lives. Read the back flaps of your favorite novels and try to copy how the conflict of the book is described in a single, juicy paragraph. You can do this. You really can. You just have to sit down, brainstorm, then vomit it all out onto the page. Afterwards, cut, paste, trim, revise, and reshape. - http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx
State the title of your book, in ALL CAPS. Mention your word count, too.
3. About You.
The best discription of this come from, again, AgentQuery. (It really is the best)
Paragraph Three—Writer’s bio: This should be the easiest part of your query. After all, it’s about you, the writer. Okay, so it’s a bit daunting, especially if you’ve never been published, never won any awards, hold no degrees from MFA writing schools, and possess no credentials to write your book. No problem. The less you have to say, the more space you have for your mini-synopsis. Always a plus.
If you do choose to construct a writer’s bio (and you should), keep it short and related to writing. Agents don’t care what your day job is unless it directly relates to your book. Got a main character who’s a firefighter, and that’s your day job? Be sure to say that. Otherwise, scrap it. Education is helpful because it sounds good, but it’s only really important if you’re offering a nonfiction book about A.D.D. children and you hold a PhD in pediatric behavioral science. If you’ve published a few stories in your local newspaper, or a short story in a few literary magazines, or won any writing awards or contests, now’s the time to list the details. Don’t go hog wild, but don’t be too modest either.
If you don't have any awards to list, or reasons that you're the best person to author this book, talk about the agent. Tell them why you've queried them. Tell them that you follow their blog, follow their client lists' blogs, and that you've read several books that they represent and that you really think your MS fits in with what they represent. Because you have, haven't you?
Agent Nathan Bransford has a quite nifty post about what to do if you don't have publishing credits.
Don't say that you found the agent on such-and-such a search engine. This is the mark of a n00b, and nobody likes a n00b. Keep it professional. Keep it under one page. Don't include blurbs.
So that's it! Of course, make sure to thank the agent for their time and consideration and let them know that the WHOLE manuscript is available upon request.
And then sign it.
And then put some contact info in there.
And then put it away. Yes. Save your email as a draft, save the word file. Spend at least a day away from it, not thinking about it. Then go back and proofread. At the very least, have a couple of new eyes look it over. Maybe change the font size (temporarily!) and print it out. Things look different printed out. Read it out loud. Even in public. If people laugh at you, just remember that you'll be laughing when you get your contract because your query was awesome. Take that, wanker.
And don't forget the advice from Linky Friday a couple of weeks ago:
Agent Janet Reid talks about what works with her plus 85 posts labeled Query Pitfalls.
Agent Lucienne Diver has query do's and don'ts.
Agent Colleen Lindsay dissects queries, lists why she may have rejected your query, and what not to do when you get rejected plus 77 more helpful query posts. Also, don't forget her valuable #queryfail experiment on twitter.
Agent Nathan Bransford's basic query formula (in mad-lib form) plus he has over 90 more informative posts on how to write a query letter. One worth mentioning in particular is his Anatomy of a Good Query letterpost.
Agent Jessica Faust gives a query overview.
Agent Kristin Nelson's 5 things to help you query stand out in the crowd plus 85 more query posts.
Agent RachelleGarnder also has a basic winning formula plus 25 more posts about query letters.
Don't forget the wonders of the query critque, such as Query Shark and Editorial Anonymous' Query Clinic series.
Now that you've written your killer query, follow the legendary Miss Snark's advice: Write well, query widely. Ignore anything that says otherwise.
Go back to the submission guidelines of your agent. Does he say to include the first three chapters? Does she say to include the first 15 pages? Does he say snailmail only? Make sure you look at each submission guidelines page and alter it for each agent. Most are different, and while it's a bit of a pain, if you follow the rules, you're more likely to not be annoying and get your query read.
And then make sure you send it from the same address that you listed in your query for professionalisms' sake (including emails).
Of course, while I think I have a good grasp of this, i'm unpublished so i'm not the last word. Seek as much help as you can and do enough research so that you feel comfortable with it and you've made your's the best that it can be.