[found on maxbarry.com; by Max Barry]
“The Query Letter
The idea of a query letter is to take this book you’ve written, this incomparable masterpiece that took five years and destroyed your marriage, and summarize it on a single piece of paper while still leaving enough room in the margins for a publisher or agent to scribble, “Sorry, not for us.” You have to try to pitch your book in such an intriguing way that the publisher immediately writes back to you, demanding to see sample chapters (or the entire manuscript). This may sound tough to do, but in truth it’s even harder. Your query needs to stand out from the other 80 the editor is going to read that day, but avoid amateurish gimmicks, like $50 bills.
There are plenty of good web sites on how to write a query letter and approach agents/editors. Some of them are:
One thing you must do is say what sort of book you’ve written. This is what agents/editors will be scanning for when they read your letter: is it a thriller, a comedy, a rural human drama? Most writers, including me, find this very difficult to do, and tend to produce descriptions like, “It’s kind of a futuristic science-fiction comedy-come-romance set in Medieval France with a strong anti-war message.” This is why authors should be banned from describing their own novels.
So I suggest enlisting help: have your friends read your book and ask them what novels they think it’s similar to. Then at least you’ll have a rough genre to start from. Also, for practice, try to describe your book in a single, short sentence. Ask people if it sounds interesting, and rework it until it does.
This is very much personal opinion, but I think a good description often combines something common (“It’s a detective story”) with something original (“where the PI has a terminal illness”). The common part grounds the story, letting us know what ballpark it’s in. The original part shows it’s something special.
Update (May-07): If you’re interested, I’ve posted my old query letter, which I sent out while agent-hunting in 1998. It’s kinda cringe-worthy reading it now, definitely over the top, but since it worked…”
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