Ok, I've had a few people ask me about queries. Now, granted, I haven't been in this particular stage of publishing for very long yet, so I'm not very experienced with it. But I have been looking into it for several years. Hopefully this post will be helpful.
A query (for those who don't know) is an official letter than an Author sends out to literary agents and publishers, pitching his/her book. The agent or publisher will read the query and decide whether or not they are willing to represent/publish the book.
But as some people might know, agents and publishers are usually very picky about what they represent. After all, your writing is what is getting them paid; their reputation is on the line. You need to convince them that your book is worth all the time and money they will invest into it (and believe me when I say they will invest A LOT of time and money into it if they choose to represent/publish you). You need to prove to them that your book will sell and let them know what audience it will sell to. And you need to let them know that you're not just throwing yourself into the publishing process blind: show them that you know what you're doing and that you're willing to work for your success.
All of this will be shown in your query. (Pluss pitching the book)
Daunting, isn't it?
"But how", you ask, "will I fit all of that onto one page?! It'll never work, I tell you! I'm doomed!" (and actually, that's really close to my first reaction.)
Well, for starters, a lot of what was mentioned above can be shown through how you approach your query. Though I hate to say it, words alone can't save you here. Well, actually they can... but ONLY if you approach your query with a sense of business. The query is your writing resume and the publishers/agents will look at your query much as a potential employer will look at a resume to see whether or not they want to hire you. So your query must sound professional.
But you must also use your own writing voice. The agent/publisher wants to get a small glimpse at your writing style and see if it fits their taste. Never believe that an agent or publisher doesn't have good taste because they rejected your work; maybe it just isn't what they prefer to read. Or maybe they've even recently published something vaguely familiar to what you're offering (which happens all the time).
That said, the first and foremost thing that every author must do before sending a query into the critical jaws of a litterary agent is to do your research.
That's right: homework.
You want to show the agent that you know what you're doing so make sure you DO know what you're doing! Look into litterary agents. Look up agent and writing blogs. Ask questions. Check out books. Look into Writers Market. Ask questions. Study potential queries of other writers. Go online for help if you need it. Ask questions, ask questions, ask questions...
I think you're starting to get the idea.
Only after you've researched, when you think you understand the process of querying and publishing pretty well... only then can you write and send your query.
Here's a basic form for a query letter that I found on Nathan Bransford's blog. (Here's the link if you would like to check out the actual post: Query Mad Lib. And if you haven't checked his blog out yet, please be sure to do so: it's filled to the brim with all sorts of helpful writing advice.)
Dear [Agent name],
I chose to submit to you because of your wonderful taste in [genre], and because you [personalized tidbit about agent].
[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist's quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist's goal].
[title] is a [word count] work of [genre]. I am the author of [author's credits (optional)], and this is my first novel.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Surprisingly simple, isn't it? But believe me when I say that it works.
Of course, you would have to work with it in order to make this form really become your query, but this form has helped me a whole bunch in working on mine. Nathan also gives two good examples of query letters that have caught his interest in the past.
Check, check, and double check your queries! This is so very, very important. Because agents will be looking to see how well your letter is written, you must make sure that there are no grammatical errors. Also. be sure to spell the agent's name correctly; they tend not to like it if you just assume they'll overlook that small detail. Make sure that you aren't over embellishing your query; these letters need to be short, sweet, and to the point. A good idea to keep in mind is to summarize your book using only three sentences. Now, sometimes these sentences run over... but if that's the case, just make sure that everything you've written is extremely important to the storyline.
After you've finished writing your absolutely wonderfully perfect query letter, you must begin sending it out to agents. I started searching for agents using QueryTracker which lists names and companies of thousands of different potential agents. However, Query Tracker does NOT ensure that every agent listed on the site is a true agent and not just out for your money or (even worse) your story. Even so, the site does provide a list of links where you can look up the agents and check out their credentials thoroughly. If you decide that you'd like to query that agent, you can add the agent to your "agent list". You can even change agent status (when you sent the query, when a response came in, and whether you were rejected or accepted), and leave comments about your satisfaction with the agent for other users to view. I also discovered the other day that I could back up a query on the site that I had sent to a certain agent.
Then, after many rejections, you finally get an answer! They want a partial, or a full manuscript, or they really, really think that you're the new Cornelia Funke or Jame's Patterson and can't possibly wait to represent/publish your book. :)