I've spent that last few days focusing on my query letter. Several months ago I wrote a "shitty first draft" in Anne Lamott's words. Then I set it aside until the major revisions for my WIP were complete.
During that time I also did a lot of research on query letters. I particularly love Query Shark because it works from real examples and I find that to be the easiest way to learn. Read and research before you go back and try to wrestle your own shitty draft into anything worth sending to agents.
I don't think anything I've said so far is particularly groundbreaking. But maybe what I did next will be useful for some of you.
1. Find someone you know who has some experience with cover letters rather than your usual critique partners or fellow writers. Think about it: a query letter is really just a cover letter for a book. Instead of trying to get someone to give you an interview you're trying to get them to read your manuscript. The skills required in crafting either one are very similar.
I chose my dad for this because he's read so many cover letters over the years. He also reads with a professional eye and is OCD about details. He's a little too intense for me to let him see early drafts of my writing but I realized I could use his talents perfectly with my query letter. Found someone? Okay, time for Step 2.
2. Send that person the query with these questions, which I cobbled together from my own ideas and from Janet Reid, aka the Query Shark:
a. Does it make you want to read this book?
b. Does it leave you confused and with too many distracting questions, or does it leave you intrigued and wanting more?
c. After reading the query can you answer these 3 questions: who's the protagonist; what choice does she face; what are the consequences of that choice? (Thanks, QS)
3. Revise again with your reader's comments in mind. Make sure you're giving the agent the essence of your story--not trying to cram it all onto one page. That may require you to leave many important details out because in such a short form they will only confuse and distract the agent, rather than entice her.
Hopefully these steps will help. I haven't sent my query out yet so I can't tell you if this strategy worked! But I will let you know. Anyone else have suggestions out there or ideas for how to make the query process a bit less daunting?