"It seems important to me that beginning writers ponder this--that since 1964, I have never had a book, story, or poem rejected that was not later published. If you know what you are doing, eventually you will run into an editor who knows what he/she is doing. It may take years, but never give up."
The best secret I can teach you about writing a great query letter is that less is more. Writers feel the need to cram their letters with information, to widen the margins, lengthen the page, even take several pages. They go on about their plot, their biography, they become personal, start up a one way conversation. It is a huge mistake. Years ago Mark Twain said, "I don't have time to write you a short letter, so I'm writing you a long one instead." How true this is. Anyone can write an effective long letter. Few people can write a short one.
Nothing in a query letter should be wasted. As with a resume, every word choice must be deliberate. I'm always impressed when I receive a query which takes up only half a page or less (which is rare). I understand how hard it is for a writer to achieve this, to fight back the urge to tell more, to condense all he has to say to a mere few sentences. More often than not, I'll be intrigued. If he can exhibit this kind of discipline in a query letter, it bodes well for what he can to do in the actual book.
But most query letters don't do this. Most query letters tend to sprawl (which is ironic, since they are limited to such finite space). The first thing you must do is reign in your query. Under no circumstance should a query letter exceed one page. Ever. If so, it is a clear red flag, a sign of an amateur. It is just a convention, but it happens to be a good one--not just because it is convenient for the agent, but because it is a fine test of a writer's skill. Good writing is entirely about economy; good writers don't use three words when they can use one. Word economy not only indicates that words aren't wasted, but perhaps more importantly indicates that all word choice is deliberate. When deliberate, word choice is usually more thought out. When such effort of thought is put into each individual word, an equal amount of effort will often be applied to the whole. Plot choices will be more thought out; character choices will be, as will choices of setting, direction, pacing, progression, journey and all the other elements that go into a great book. Nothing will be haphazard. Their might be spontaneity, but their won't be chaos. This is an important distinction.
The word-economy litmus test for a writer is the query letter. Can he say what he needs to in merely one page? Can he condense a 300 page story to three lines? Can he do all of this and still convey his plot, his background, why his story is unique and worthy? To do so, he will have to make some amazing word choices, exhibit amazing economy. If he is an inherently economical writer, he will know how to do this. If not, it will show. It is not easy. We in the publishing industry know this.
Yet this is your job. I've received many queries that went on for two or even three pages, and often the writer claimed he had so much to say that he simply needed more room. But this is no excuse. If a writer can't achieve what he needs to in one page, his writing is simply not where it needs to be. It is nearly certain that his manuscript, too, will be longer than it needs to be, less reigned in. Writing is about discipline, and the first place to exhibit it is in the query letter.
Part of the reason why writers allow their query letters to sprawl is because they don't realize that a query letter must have structure. Without structure, there is license to have an infinite number of paragraphs, on any number of topics; there can be no plan on how to begin, how to progress, and how to end. Without an overall game plan, anything can happen, and if you leave that window open, anything will happen. Like an architect, you need a blueprint, exact specifications on how you'll proceed. And the best way to do this is to follow what I call the Three Paragraph Rule.
If you look at most query letters, the first thing you'll notice is a haphazard number of paragraphs. It is quite common to see a plot described over the course of two or even three paragraphs, to see biographies stretching over multiple paragraphs, to have filler in between which is neither pitch nor explanation. Successful query letters should consist of three paragraphs. No more, no less. This principle alone will save you. It will prevent you from adding that fourth paragraph, from adding filler or random sentences. It will give you a structure, game plan and direction.
Of course it is still possible to ruin the content within these paragraphs, to go on too long within this structure. Indeed, each paragraph is an art form in and of itself--it must be, if it is to convey what it needs to in such a finite amount of space. Let's start by looking at the first paragraph.
The First Paragraph
The first paragraph should consist of one sentence. This is your chance (perhaps your only chance) to grab the agent, since many agents will be immediately biased--for good or for bad--within a sentence or two. Contrary to popular belief, this doesn't mean throwing out a hokey line, or a hard sell, or a gimmicky sentence, like "Don't throw out this letter!" It means truly hooking the agent, making him want to pay attention. And the way to do this is to immediately demonstrate that you're not contacting him haphazardly.
If a writer queries via a referral, he will always begin with, "I am writing to you because your client, John Smith, recommended that I do so." Thus an agent, whether he likes it or not, must take the first sentence of any given query very seriously, if for no other reason than he risks offending an existing client or editor or other business contact that may have sent him a referral. Thus you have a great opportunity here.
Chances are you won't have a referral, as many writers are not lucky enough to have friends who have great agents and are willing to recommend them. But you can still make up for it. The way to do so is to write something alone the lines of, "I am writing to you because you represented TITLE by AUTHOR, and I feel my book is similar." The way to grab the agent is to make it personal, to make it about him instead of about you. Referencing one of his titles will accomplish this.
More importantly, a personal reference will signal to the agent that this is not a random query letter. It will show that you're approaching him for a specific reason, that you've put a great deal of time and energy into researching the market; it will show that you know who he represents, and the types of books he's sold. It will put a positive association into his mind, as it will make him think of a book he sold which was a success. It will offer a comparison, allowing him to immediately grasp the type of book you're writing and thus to be able to decide if he wants to represent another like it. It will show that you know the market, that you have an objective grasp of what your own book is about and where it fits within that market. It will indicate that you've put care into your writing, since writers who put so much energy into the right approach generally put at least an equal amount of energy into their writing. You will start the agent off on a positive foot, and make him more biased to like the rest of your letter. And since this first paragraph will only be one sentence, it will be amply spaced in every direction, and thus it will be more likely that an agent will actually read and finish it (as opposed to an opening sentence which heralds a 10 sentence paragraph). In this one sentence, this one paragraph, you will have accomplished 10 different objectives.
All of this assumes, of course, that you've already done the weeks or months of requisite research in order to know precisely which agents represent titles appropriately similar to yours. If you bluff, if you don't truly do the research, it will show. I've received many letters which referenced a book I sold, but when I read the rest of the query, I realized that their book was not at all similar. It was just a gimmick to get me to pay attention. When an agent realizes this, he will just be annoyed. So when referencing a book, make sure it is truly appropriate.
But if you've done the research and query a truly appropriate agent and reference a truly appropriate title, then you are already off to a shining head start. Imagine the advantage you now have over a writer who mails off a letter to a random agent and merely begins it with "To Whom it May Concern." Half your battle is already won.
The second and third paragraphs of your query letter are even more crucial: this is where you get an agent to go from merely being interested to actually wanting to represent you.