1. Do your research. Find an agent that reps your genre. But more than that, find THE agent that will give your MS a soft place to land. Put their name into Google (or better yet, Google Alerts) and read any and all articles that you can find. There’s gold in them thar’ hills. If it’s a good interview, the agent will be asked: what are you looking for? what do you like to see in a query? Use their responses to guide your approach. If the agent is on Twitter you’ll also find tidbits of information in their tweets. Lurk shamelessly. Not creepily. Just shamelessly.
2. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. D’uh.
3. Look for opportunities re: submission timing. See what’s unfolding at http://www.absolutewrite.com and http://www.querytracker.net. Query Tracker especially will let you search for the agent, and then view comments that accumulate under their name. i.e. writer_wendy submitted to agent xyz two days ago and heard back in 24 hours flat. Hmmmm. Perhaps that agent isn’t currently swamped with queries…perhaps now is a good time to submit.
4. Find a happy medium between keeping it brief and including your/your character’s voice in your query. Use the agent’s likes/dislikes to guide this decision. If they say they like voice, include it. If they say they want a business letter, leave it out. I find adding voice often means adding words, so it is a real balancing act.
5. Distill, distill, distill. It’s really hard to squish your story down into an entertaining couple of paragraphs – I get it. It’s easy to end up with lots of overlong compound sentences that end up making you feel like you’ve got marbles in your mouth and cotton balls in your brain. Break ’em down. Simplify. Remember the building blocks of story. Grab your reader’s interest and make them care about your protag.
6. And what about the nitty gritty stuff? Here’s the checklist: audience (YA, MG, chapter book, picture book), genre (fantasy, urban fantasy, steampunk), word-count (please note these are tightly tied to the audience…there is a lot of conflicting information out there about this, but here is a good post by Mary Kole on the subject), working title, and completion status. Please say it’s DONE.
7. And what about you? Describe your relevant experience and details – even if it’s simply that you’re a paid-up member of SCBWI – but be short and sweet.
8. And what about the ask? Somewhere in the letter, tell them you’re asking for representation. I often use this as a closer: “I’m seeking representation, and would be pleased to send the full manuscript for your review.”
9. And what about manners? Use ’em. Say thanks.
10. Make your own call. Once you’ve read up on what everyone else says about query letters – Nathan Bransford, Query Shark and the rest – decide what’s right for your book, and do it. For god’s sake don’t listen to me!