Many writers struggle with this aspect of writing, hence the half-funny, half-sad stories we read of editors and agents receiving full manuscripts from authors trying to opt out of queries. We can talk for an age about our writing if someone broaches the subject, but trying to follow specific guidelines and rein in our loquacity is difficult. I certainly haven't gotten the process down to a science, but as I said in A Plethora of Edits, it can be helpful to hear how other writers go about it; and besides, the subject of queries has been rattling around inside my head for the past several weeks.
Like most writers, I don't exactly enjoy writing queries. The Soldier's Cross was torture, as I had never written one before and knew next to nothing about editors, slush piles, and all those gory details of getting published. So I researched obsessively and culled through just about the entire archives of Query Shark before drafting my own. By the time Wordcrafter rolled around, I knew more but was a little rusty on the application. I read more Query Shark (the mainstay, I admit, of my query-writing process). Then I went back to the arduous business of beating out a catchy, cohesive synopsis.
This month the time for me to write queries toddled around once more, this time for The White Sail's Shaking. I did my usual perusal of the Query Shark archives, more for fun than anything else, and then sat down (with much trepidation and many "meh!" feelings) to begin. After the obligatory "Dear Whatever Your Name Is" (but don't say that: I'm pretty sure that's an automatic reject), I always start into the brief story summary. This isn't crucial, and many writers prefer to start off with something like this instead:
Thank you for the opportunity to submit to Blah Blah Agency. TITLE OF MY AWESOME NOVEL is a 90,000 word YA/adult/middle-grade/what-have-you historical fiction/romance/yada yada, set in...
This allows writers to brief agents or editors on the marketing details of the novel. One benefit to this approach is that it doesn't waste the agent's time: they can see right away what genre the book is and the age and sex of its intended audience, crucial elements to their decision process. The con of this approach is that it isn't terribly catchy. It's necessarily pretty formulaic, and although it works for its purpose (summarizing the more humdrum details of the book), it probably isn't going to capture the writer's unique voice - which is another major thing agents are looking for.
Neither method is wrong, and I seriously doubt a writer will be turned away for choosing one over the other. Personally, I prefer to leap straight to the story itself with a hook that (hopefully) piques the reader's interest. I try to keep it short and catchy, or, if it turns out to be longer, I at least try to keep the first phrase snappy. Since I don't have other authors' queries to pull examples from, here are the opening lines of my queries for The Soldier's Cross, Wordcrafter, and the current draft of The White Sail's Shaking.
Fiona is not so bad.
Justin King writes fantasy. He never expected to be living it.
Being a failure comes naturally to Tip Brighton.
These hooks should segue neatly into the next part, a one or two paragraph long summary of the plot. For The Soldier's Cross, the hook leads the reader on to Fiona's self-satisfaction and her "good enough" philosophy. Wordcrafter foreshadows the upheaval in Justin's life when it turns out that "fantasy" is a bit more uncomfortably real than he expected. The White Sail's Shaking captures Tip's mindset and paves the way for the conflict between honor and glory that follows. Sometimes these hooks are in a paragraph unto themselves; what follows then is the meat of the synopsis.
I'm not very fond of writing summaries. I never enjoyed it in school when I had to write book reports, and what is this but a book report on your own novel? However, a little before starting my query for White Sail's I came across a "Back Cover Contest" over on the NextGen Writer's Conference; I didn't enter, but I did find the basic outline and the examples provided in the rules to be very helpful. The outline covers the five or six points that the synopsis on the back cover of a book almost always covers.
Character - Setting - Conflict - Action - Uniqueness - Mystery
I like my hooks to start out with the character. After all, the character is going to drive the rest of the synopsis, and waiting to introduce him or her can often lead to confusion. Then in the rest of the summary you weave in the character's setting, including the time period if it's historical fiction; the conflict and action, which will often be very much related; and the mystery, which constitutes a sort of question at the end. Note that the mystery doesn't have to be a direct question, like "What is heroine going to do?" but can be an implied question.
I left "uniqueness" out, as it tends to be a rather nebulous concept. Obviously everything you just wrote should communicate to the reader that your story is unique in some, if not all, of the elements mentioned above. For myself, I tend to think of uniqueness as more related to the next part of the query: the marketing details (wordcount and target audience, mentioned above) and the thrust of the story itself. Here is where you can show what sets your story apart. Maybe it's in a unique time period; maybe it approaches a particular theme in a unique way. For White Sail's, I wanted to point out that the story is a sea novel, but differs from the classic works of Patrick O'Brian, C.S. Forester, etc. in its themes. Never, ever, ever say that your book is similar to someone else's, but different in that yours is awesome and the other author's is rubbish. Besides the fact that such an approach is the height of arrogance, it will be just your luck to find out that the agent is a huge fan of said author.
After you finish this bit, you write up a brief bio. Many authors, I've found, like to write these in third person; I find that a little awkward, but whichever works best for you will be acceptable. You'll want to keep this pretty short, especially if you don't have many credentials, and avoid saying things like "This is the first novel I've ever written." You might briefly mention what prompted you to write this particular story ("I had a dream about it" doesn't count). Whatever you write, it should be professional and writing-related, not a list of likes and dislikes. As a sample proposal I read recently said, unless your book is about knitting, saying you like to sit with your labradoodle and knit scarfs does not constitute a bio.
I conclude after the bio. Always thank the agent for their time: it may be their job, but being polite is just, well, polite! Also mention if you're submitting to other agencies at the same time, and then close with a neat "Sincerely" or "Regards" or whatever professional conclusion you prefer, add your name, and then your contact information. And after a massive amount of edits, you're ready to send it off to agents and take that first step into the great wide world of the publishing business!
In summation, and for the sake of tired eyeballs, my query outline looks something like this.
(but use their name, if at all possible)
(one or two paragraphs; they may ask for a multiple-page synopsis later,
but in the query you should always be brief)
(wordcount, audience, uniqueness)