A few months ago before I was ever thinking about querying, I wrote a post about it (read it here). That post has lots of good info on work-shopping your query as it relies heavily on years of teaching composition. Today I wanted to talk about what goes in the query though.
I recently wrote about 100 queries...most of them sucked, one did not. It's out on submission and doing relatively well. But I had to write all those icky queries first. I learned through failure. I would write up a query and come home and read it to my husband, mail it my critique partners, and post it on forums. My CP's would give it a passing grade, but more like a C than an A+. The forums offered suggestions. My husband ripped it to shreds. I love that about him, because he was right every time. I got caught up in trying to boil down my 300 page novel to a paragraph, and while I did it pretty effectively a few times, the results were meh. No spark. It was only by working on it again and again with other people's help that I got it to somewhere I was happy with. Then last weekend I did an agent workshop online and she critiqued my query and liked it! If you have a chance to do a workshop, do it! It's invaluable.
The point is that writing a query is hard and it will take time and heart ache unless you are a flippin' genius. Now what I did in my query won't work for everyone, but I think the basic principles I used and learned from others might. If I ever do get an agent, I promise to share it. For now, let me share some tips that might help you write a query.
1. Stick to the first 30 pages or the inciting incident. The fabulous Kristin Nelson suggested this and it changed my life.
2. This should go without saying, but make sure all your info is personalized and correct and that you follow submission guidelines.
3. Write a query that makes people want to read a book.
I have read so much advice about the proper form, exactly how many paragraphs you can have, what info has to be in there. Fact is that all those elements can be there and your query can get as dry as toast, or you can totally break all the rules and have a compelling query, or you can do just like they say and get tons of requests (good example of a query that works and breaks the rules here). All that matters is that people want to read the book. Agents are human and they want to be seduced into a read like everyone else.
How to do this? First write a standard query. What do you like about it? What is absolutely essential? Can you focus on those elements? Is there tension evident? Do you give a sense of the protagonist's stakes? Now experiment, focus on drawing out one or two elements from the original query. Now read 100 book covers in your genre. Which ones make you open to the first page? Why? Okay. Rewrite query over and over. Ask people who have read your book if it conveys the narrative. Ask people who haven't read your book if it makes sense. Tweak accordingly.
And always have a bottle of wine handy.