1. Your book must be finished. If you are writing fiction, your book must be finished, revised, read by others, revised again, and again, and again before you even think about writing a query. If you look at the traditional publishing process, you'll see that after the querying process, everyone will expect your book to be done. It needs to be done. You do NOT want to blow off an agent by saying, "Thank you for your interest, but I'll need six to eight more months to get this finished. KThanxBai!"
If you are writing non-fiction, you'll need a solid outline, serious source material, a built-in platform, and your first three to five chapters completed and revised before you write a proposal. We'll talk more about proposals later, but let's just call them non-fiction query equivalents for now.
If you're writing memoir, even though it is non-fiction, you will need to treat it like a novel. Unless you're, like, Jon Bon Jovi or something. But us mere mortals need to prove ourselves before an agent will take a bite.
2. Understand your genre and category. No, you do not have a genre-bending stories for all ages. Precisely one person has done that in the history of forever and she was the first billionaire author, ever. You're not her. You won't be her. If your goal is to be her, you need to spend a lot of time talking to published authors who are not her. Again, us mere mortals have to play by the rules. You need to know who you're selling your book to, and you need to know why. You need to understand what agents and publishers will be interested in your work, and you need to know how to talk about your work intelligently.
3. Read other query letters. Galleycat has a collection of 23 letters that worked, across different genres and categories. Query Shark has archives of query letters that made the cut. Writer's Digest has a whole blog tag dedicated to query success stories, with commentary from agents about why those letters worked.
4. Read the techniques of query letter writing. Agent Query has a great post about the basics of query letters. Nathan Bransford has a great post on how to write the letter, mad lib style. (note: please do not leave your letter in your mad lib format, this is a jumping-off point) The Query Shark has tons of archives showing the evolution of query letters as they are revised, moving from garbage to gold.
5. Write your query letter. There's really no way to do this, other than to do it. Get it down on paper (or screen). You can't fix it until it exists.
6. Send out to other people. Send it to people who have read your novel (it's finished, remember?) and to people who have not read your novel. Let them make notes and tear it apart. After, ask the people who haven't read your book to answer a couple questions.
- Who is the main character of my book?If your friend cannot correctly answer all those questions based solely on your query letter, you need to dig in and seriously fix some stuff.
- Who is the villain?
- What is at stake for my main character?
- What kind of tone do you expect my book to have? Funny? Scary? Romantic?
7. Revise. Repeat. If you dig through those Query Shark archives (seriously, go read them), you'll see that the first draft of a query letter usually looks nothing like the one that finally got a bite from an agent. This is not a light revision, slight alteration of word choice and spell check. No. This is like revising your novel. Hack, cut, expand, revise, change, delete, move. (If you didn't do that to your novel, you're not ready to query.)
There you have it. Seven steps to writing a query letter. Questions? Comments? Concerns?