When I was starting out as a novelist, my writers' group used to agonize over how to write a query letter. One of us--arguably the best line-by-line writer among us--created rather arch, intriguing letters that were fun to read. My approach was one of brevity: get in, get out, hope the receiver would be interested in the attached content. Someone had told us to try to synopsize the novel in two pages, and sometimes we attempted that. Once or twice--foolishly--I attempted humor to attract the attention of the agent. Bad idea, especially as I more or less suck at humor.
I hadn't yet discovered Miss Snark's wonderful capsule description of the ideal query letter, in which she lays down some cogent rules: who is the protagonist? What is her problem? What happens in the first fifty pages to hook me? (Miss Snark, sadly, no longer blogs, but has kindly left her information-stuffed posts up at www.misssnark.blogspot.com.
And this is a terrific description of the art of the query, written by up-and-coming young agent Jennifer Jackson:
"Brevity isn't always what it's cracked up to be. There are query letters that are, believe it or not, too brief. Only a line or two such as "enclosed herewith is my synopsis and the first five pages." Here's the thing: the synopsis is a tool; one that tells me the bones of the story. The first five pages (which I've come to find invaluable) give me a hint as to the hook of the story and the style of the writer. So, perhaps one might think the query brings little to the party. Not so.
The letter itself can convey a variety of interesting -- and helpful -- details. It can tell how the writer perceives their own work. Their attitude about both writing and publishing (often separate considerations). It can show their attention to detail and their level of professionalism. It can reveal whether the writer has done their research. Perhaps it contributes the author's credentials, their passion, or some combination thereof.
Remember the query is the appetizer that tempts us to sample the rest of the menu. And whetting the appetite can be a crucial part of the experience."
Oh, how I wish I'd had these resources! I blush, remembering some of my early efforts.