Probably the single most frustrating thing when trying to get published is just getting someone of authority to read my manuscript. If someone reads my work and tells me I suck, I can handle that. It wouldn't even be painful(ok...it might be a little painful...but pain is part of life).
However, the inability to even get a foot in the door is what frustrates most writers. It's like the old canard about not being able to get a loan until you no longer need it - you can't gain access unless you have contacts, and you can't get contacts unless you have access.
That's where the query letter comes in.
Looking at it objectively, though, as difficult as that might be, it makes sense. One of my favorite hobbies is to wander around bookstores and read random books(yes, I know I'm a total dork). When I pick up a book, I usually read the back cover or inside flap to see if it'll interest me. If it's got an exciting sounding premise, I'll read a few pages. If not, I'll put it down and move on. Yes, there might be the rare occasion when I'll read a few pages based on a cool cover or neat sounding title, but not usually.
Basically, that's what agents do. They have more than enough clients to worry about, in addition to finding the next great novelist, and if you can't grab them from the get-go, you go into the round file, no matter how good your writing is.
So how do you get their attention, and what goes into a good query letter? That's hard to answer because every agent is different. Shit, there have been books written about how to write a good query letter, and a lot of them contradict each other.
There are a few basics I've picked up on and am trying to integrate. First, never be overly informal. You are trying to establish a business relationship, not find a drinking buddy. "Dear Carl"(if the agent's name is Carl, this is probably ok), but don't go for "Yo, what up bitch!" You could also try "Dear Mr. Smith," and leave it at that. At the same time, I wouldn't go with "Dear Agent" - that sounds like you either don't know how to spell their name, or they're one of 500 on a list you're spamming.
I've seen several folks say you should include some kind of note about why you chose the agent. I personally research all of the agents I send queries to, because I might otherwise be wasting my time. No point in sending a horror novel to an agent who only represents cookbooks. Amazingly, I've read countless interviews where agents say about 75% of the queries they get aren't suited to them. So I try to make sure each agent represents the kind of stuff I write, and then I'll put something personal in the first paragraph(maybe an interview I've seen, a bio on their agency website I read, etc.).
Then I go into the story, and this is where it gets hard. Trying to develop a good hook is like trying to write that first great sentence of your novel - you want something memorable, but go too far overboard and all you get is cheese. A good hook should spark their interest to continue reading the query. The rest of the story should be action focused, yet leave just enough to make them want more(ie - they should be curious enough to request at least a partial manuscript). Do this wrong, and it could doom you from the start. BTW, did I mention you're supposed to do this in less than 250 words?
Once that part is done, you need to categorize your work, include its length, and try to place it within the market. Categorize by saying "horror," "science fiction," or "thriller." I try to amalgamate some - like "paranormal thriller" for something like Akeldama - but this can be risky. Next comes length - not "250 pages," because maybe you write in 8 font Courier, but a word count. Most agents won't touch anything from a newbie over 100,000 words. Finally, you need to show where your work fits in the market. This shows you've done your research and can help with marketing your work(yes, most writers just want to write, a hot cup of Joe by their side and their latest awards on their wall, but in the real world, books have to sell). Standard fare seems to be to compare your work to something with similar themes, but one should try to avoid using best-sellers, as everyone has heard of Twilight or The Shining.
The last one is tricky - working in credentials. I've heard good writing trumps all, but I think that's exaggerated. Credentials puff yourself up and let the agent in question know that someone besides your wife thinks you have skill. This means entering contests, getting other stuff published in smaller publications, etc. I'll talk more about my own efforts in this regard in the next post, but it's something that should always help. This is difficult to work in without sounding either awkward or arrogant, but I weave it in at the back.
When all that is done, I'll sign it(something respectful, like, "Sincerely, Russ Meyer," not "A'ight, I'm out biz'nitches"). Then I'll include a contact email and thank them for their consideration.
Since I have yet to get a request for even a partial manuscript, all my advice might be garbage, but it's the path I'm taking now. As I begin to query Akeldama, hopefully I'll get more nibbles. Regardless, I'll keep sending queries and saying my prayers each night(because God responds to our requests for fame and riches).