There’s really no one absolute, ultimate formula for writing a query. But there are certain…guidelines, if you will, that if followed will NEVER steer you wrong.
1. ALWAYS Start With The 3-4 Paragraph Query letter format: (Then tweak it, slightly. As needed. But only if you MUST.)
Paragraph #1 – This is 1-3 sentences of absolute HOOK. This is not where you proclaim your epic dystopian setting or talk about intergalactic power struggles, unless that is THE most important thing an agent needs to know about your book. Usually, you want to use this paragraph to introduce your MC (or main character) and the trait or conflict that makes him/her SPECIAL (i.e. someone an agent/editor/reader would actually WANT to read about.)
Smallville, YA SF/F – “Sixteen-year-old Clark Kent doesn’t really fit in at his high school, probably because he’s an alien from another universe. On the upside, his super strength and invulnerability give him some mad crime-fighting skills, and would be a big hit with his fellow classmates. Unfortunately, Clark has to keep his super side secret, unless he wants to end up in a government lab.”
Paragraph #2 – Depending on your genre, this will either be the “intro to the love interest/antagonist” / major escalating incident paragraph. Think of it in terms of status quo = paragraph one. But when paragraph two gets added to the mix, the status quo is going to go out the window and well…things are gonna get cray cray. (And yes, I do hate myself a little bit for using that term just now.) Usually, this paragraph is 3-4 sentences long and starts with some variation of: “But when…”
Gossip Girl, YA Contemporary – “But when the controversial ‘it girl’ Serena van der Woodsen–aka Blair’s former best friend–returns to Constance Billard unannounced, Blair’s queen bee title might be in serious jeopardy. Because Serena has a tendency to ‘accidentally’ steal things that Blair wants the most–like Blair’s boyfriend Nate, her chance to attend her first choice college, her mother’s affection, and of course the attention of the mysterious yet all-powerful buzz blogger, Gossip Girl.”
Twilight, YA Para/Romance – “But when Bella finds herself falling instantly and irrevocably in love with Edward, the mysterious and brooding school hunkazoid, paranormal hijinks ensue, yada yada yada.” (You get the picture, right? I refuse to write any more, lest I alienate millions of Twilight fans and make myself sick in the process.)
[Optional] Paragraph #3 – Some agents want this, some don’t. But I’ve never seen an agent who considered this information a “deal breaker.” Again, depending on your genre, this paragraph will do one of two things. It will either a) Sum up the “stakes” of your story and hint at the looming climax of the book, or b) Reveal a secondary major conflict or escalating event. (i.e. “Things get even MORE cray cray when…”)
The Hunger Games, YA Dystopian – “If Katniss doesn’t survive the Hunger Games, her family will likely starve. Her name will be forgotten, and the Capitol will continue to send dozens of innocent children to their deaths each year. But winning the Hunger Games means she’ll have to join them, in order to beat them.” (Summary of overall theme/stakes)
Hanna, YA Suspense – “Just when she thinks she’s finally eluded her pursuers, Hanna’s father suddenly reappears, shattering her world with the truth: Hanna isn’t her father’s daughter after all. She’s his experiment.” (That wasn’t the most well-written example, but you get the general idea. It’s the secondary escalation, i.e. ‘the plot thickens even MORE when…’ paragraph.)
Paragraph #4 – This is a 1-2 sentence (tops) description of WHERE your book will fit in the grand publishing scheme, and WHO will want to buy it. It’s not the place to talk about how this book is sure to be a NYT bestseller, and it is NOT the place to explain what your influences are as a writer. (i.e. “I first came up with the idea for this book whilst walking my dog, Magneto. It was a brisk November afternoon, and I’d just decided to enter that year’s NaNoWriMo….” Just…NO.)
Note: if you ABSOLUTELY must, you can mention whether or not this book is standalone or part of a series (usually only necessary in the SF/F genre, but even then it’s still not technically necessary because if an agent wants to know if it’s a potential series, they’ll ASK you.) And if you simply CANNOT help yourself, this is also where you can mention your writing credits. But, as my agent likes to say, “I don’t really care if you’ve won any awards, I care whether or not you wrote a great book.”
THE GREAT GATSBY is a 200,000 word work of adult literary fiction, and will appeal to fans of Charles Dickens, George Orwell and other long-winded authors.
Final note: Please DO NOT use the word “fiction novel” or any variation of those two words in the same sentence, please. Fiction and novel mean the same thing in publishing speak, and using both of them makes it look like you know nothing, John Snow.
2. Doing Your Research, instead of Trial and Error.
Here are some GREAT links to research before and during query writing:
Hundreds of Do’s and Don’ts of Query Letters, with specific examples, can be found in the infamous Query Shark Database.
Also, it’s not in operation anymore, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Miss Snark. She tells it like it is, and her archives are still QUITE helpful.
Finally, you can find out how other people got THEIR agents by reading Dahlia Adler’s Perpetual WIP Q&A series.
3. Stalk some people who know what they’re doing and/or have been there before.
If all else fails, you can always follow agents and agented writers on twitter and stalk the #AskAgent and #TenQueries feeds, for more Do’s and Don’ts of query writing and query etiquette.