By day I'm a professional copywriter, so I approach query-writing from a slightly different angle than most novelists. We're trained to be as efficient with our words as possible, especially those of us that do technical copywriting. How quickly can you get your point across while still making the steps clear? Can the reader easily follow along without getting lost?
Writing a query is exactly the same. So here are some tips for writing a query that I bet you've never guessed would actually work.
1. Break your plot out into single-sentence "steps." What's your starting location? That's your first sentence. What is the next major "step" in the story? That's your next sentence. Treat your story like a technical manual. Get us from Point A to Point B as efficiently as possible. A common problem in query-writing is to linger too long on descriptions or emotional states that, in the grand scheme of your story, are implied and can be skipped over.
2. Determine the end point of your query. The "end point" of your query is very different from the end point of your novel. A common pitfall in a query is trying to tell the whole story in three short paragraphs (including the ending)--but the point of a query is not to tell the whole story. The point of the query is to capture the agent's interest so they request a partial or a full portion of your manuscript.
And what's the best way to capture a reader's interest? Ask questions, and leave them open. Create a mystery and let it hang, unresolved. In a query, I rarely get more than a third of the way into the story before laying out the stakes: what is the character's primary conflict in the story? What drives the whole narrative forward?
I know you have a lot of great plot points waiting in the middle of your manuscript, even some great ones at the end--but they don't need to be in the query. Save some juicy treats for the agent to find when he or she requests a full.
3. Don't be afraid of skipping story elements. The query doesn't need to touch on every step in the sequence of events leading up to your "end point." You don't need to explicate how everything came to be leading up to your character's main conflict, or tell the agent all the rules of magic in your world. Get the steps of your story (from #1) in a neat row, and then focus on those essential steps, making sure that everything in your query shows how the character gets from one step to the next, leaving out everything else. If a certain character flaw is essential to a decision made that leads to the main conflict--tell us about it. Otherwise, leave it out. Trim the fat. Axe any adjectives that don't fit the above criteria; don't write about any characters that aren't major players in the conflict, but be sure to tell us about the ones that are.
4. Do many drafts. Start over each time. Queries are short. There's no reason not to try many different things, many different approaches, until you find one that works. The most common issue I see in queries is when the writer becomes attached to a certain sentence or paragraph, and during revisions, he or she can't seem to leave it behind--even if it's broken.
The best remedy is to just start over. Each time you go back to your query, start from scratch. Think about your story from as great a distance as you can manage, and without looking at your previous drafts, rewrite the pitch. It sounds like a lot of work, I know. But trust me. It works. And if something from a previous draft was really so brilliant, it'll find its way back in.
5. Write from your character's perspective--and then swap the pronouns. I can't remember who told me this peculiar little nugget of advice, but it's a good one.
If you're like me, and struggle with getting the voice of your character across in the query, try writing the query from your character's point of view. Especially if your manuscript is written in third person, this can be really helpful in grasping the personality and voice, since third person narratives tend to be lighter on both of those things.
Then, once you've written it that way, just swap the pronouns--switch every "I" with a "he" or "she" or the character's name. I know, it sounds utterly strange, but give it a try. You'll be surprised.
Good luck! And remember: get help from your friends. Ask people you trust to look over your query and give you feedback before you send it out to agents.
Read more of Kiersi's writing advice and querying tips on her blog, The Prolific Novelista, or follow her on Twitter at @kiersi.