I am writing this post in part to retract a statement from a previous post. I regret that I stated a fact without thoroughly verifying my sources. The statement was: "writing a successful query is possible."
Of course, it is possible. People have written good queries. It happens all the time. But I want to warn otherwise awesome people against thinking their query will naturally be awesome too.
You are a good writer. It would be weird if you were a bad writer reading a writing blog. You've probably been an exceptional writer since you picked up a pen. You aced high school English. Probably even knocked a few graduate school research papers out of the park. You've written rocking cover letters that got you good jobs. To top if off, you wrote a book.
You're also smart enough to do your research. You've read articles on how to write a query. Read good and bad examples. You know the correct format and appropriate content. You know all the things you're not supposed to do. You're not some amateur who is going to write some gimmicky unprofessional query on pink scented paper.
With all those things true, are you sure you can write a query? I thought so. But since then, I've learned that even though I thought I knew how to write a query, I didn't. Here are some of the things I've learned:
1) Have people critique your query. Lots of people, preferably people who know what they're talking about. I never considered not doing this, but this is how I know all the other things below, so it's worth mentioning!
2) Your hook should be about your main character. For most people, this may be a given. But especially if you created a really cool world or interesting magical concepts, you might feel like a hook about your unique fantasy would be "hookier". Resist the impulse. Bonus points if your hook is about your character's most important desire.
3) The synopsis part of your query should be about your main character. You should describe what your main character wants desperately and then describe what action they plan to take to get it. Then you say what will terrible thing will happen if they fail. Then stop writing! Hint: If people critique your query and say something to the effect of, "I don't know why I should care about your MC." Don't start crying. It just means you didn't follow tip #3.
4) The synopsis part of your query may make your plot sound ridiculously simple. No subplots is a given, but you will need to leave out most of your actual plot too. Just the barest bare bones. It won't adequately describe your richly-layered plot. Just accept it. The good news is that if you strip it down to the minimum, you have more words available to inject your voice and even world-building details (but only if they directly relate the the approved content in #3).
5) Assign your novel ONE genre. Even if your novel truly is cross-genre, be careful saying that. I read that a lot of agents enjoy novels that bridge genres or at least break out of the tropes of their own. That may be true, but I suggest letting the information in your synopsis show them the different sides of your novel. I didn't really consider describing the genre to be a form of the dreaded "telling," but if you over-do it, it is.
6) Unless you can easily think of good comparison novels, just leave that part out. A lot of agents do want to hear about comparison novels, but if there isn't an obvious choice, don't try. You'll just end up making weird and/or inaccurate comparisons.
7) Come to think of it, don't try to describe your book at all. Except for the obvious things, title, word count, ONE genre, hook, and synopsis as described in #3, don't describe your book. You're not an idiot, you know you're not supposed to say that your novel is "heartwarming" or "compelling," but be careful about saying anything about it. Just the bare bones synopsis. MC's want. MC's action. MC's fate if fails. That's all you get to sell it.
8) A query is not like an ad. Yes, we're trying to sell it, but most advertisements make for bad queries. Watched a movie trailer lately? Do you have any idea what it's actually about? Ads use gimmicks, flashiness, and a whole lot of meaningless fluff to get you to buy things. You've seen so many advertisements in your lifetime, these rules may have seeped into your subconscious. Even though you are trying to sell your novel to an agent/publisher, you can only sell your bare bones content and hopefully a little voice you've added in. There are no gimmicks or tricks. You can only sell the core pieces of your story. The only "tricks" that are okay are using your connections (mentioning the bestselling author who is your best friend and refers you to the agency) and learning a little about the agent and mentioning why your book matches their needs.
Thanks to the people of Agent Query Connect and Susan Dennard for teaching me those lessons. On 6/22/11, you'll get to see what query I've come up with after learning the lessons above when it's posted on Susan Dennard's blog for community critique. I have the feeling I still have a thing or two to learn, so check it out and tell me how I did!