- Use the same voice and tone of your novel. A funny, quirky query sets up expectations of a funny, quirky novel. Dark query, dark novel. Look at your adjectives and verbs in particular. They should show you the tone of your story. Try giving your query to someone who hasn't read your book and ask them to tell you what they expect based on the blurb.
- World build just a little. Enough that we understand it's a fantasy world or a contemporary one, but we don't need names of all the places, especially if they're weird.
- Use specific language. Look at this example:
When <character name> learns of an evil overlord threatening the safety of his world, he is determined to defeat him. After multiple narrows escapes, <character> learns of a prophecy that tells him he is The Chosen One and is the only person who can defeat the Dark Lord.Along the way, <character> meets some new friends, including a very pretty girl, and is sorely tempted by a mysteriously powerful object. Many of <character>’s friends fall or betray him, including his mentor.Finally, <character> faces the Dark Lord, the fate of everyone resting on his ill-prepared shoulders. Will he manage to escape yet again?What story is that? Try guessing the comments. I bet you'll be right, since it describes about a hundred different stories. Vague descriptions are useless.
- Clearly state your genre and category using universally accepted terminology. You didn't write a YA/Adult crossover romantic suspense horror fantasy. No. You didn't. Define your work.
When writing a query letter, DON'T:
- Give away the ending. The letter is supposed to entice people to read more. Find the climax of your story, and stop just before that point in telling the story in your query.
- Ask rhetorical questions. It's too easy for a busy agent to answer them flippantly, and your query then gets ignored.
- Use outliers as your comp titles. Do this exercise: List the first ten books you can think of in your genre and category. Ask a reader who is not a writer to do the same. Don't use any of those books. Twilight, Harry Potter, Eragon, Hunger Games, The Help, etc. Any of those books that "everybody" has read, any books that people say "I don't usually read, but I loved that book." are not good comp titles. They're too exceptional - the rules don't apply to them. The rules apply to you.
- Make predictions about your own success. This goes both ways. Don't predict that you'll be a mega-bestselling-genius, and don't predict that you'll be a bargain-bucket-dwelling-loser. Just don't mention it. Let your writing sell itself.
- Insult anybody. Ever. Not the agent, not yourself, not other writers. Never.
- LIE. Never. Not about anything. Don't lie about how many sales you've had or where you've published or the importance of your role in writing organizations. Don't lie about where you went to school and who you studied with. Don't lie about meeting an agent at a convention, don't lie about awards you've been given, or places you've been published. Don't lie. There are plenty of first time authors who get published without ever having any credentials.