Step One: Write a great book. That's a start, but it's not enough. We need to write well, clean, and concise. So… we have tens or even hundreds of thousands words on the page. They are grammatically perfect, everything is spelled correct, and the commas are behaving the way they are intended to.
We query it, that's what.
What's a query? A query is, in simplest terms, a question. A novel query is a little more involved. It's a few paragraphs that asks an agent: Do you want to represent my work? Or it asks a publisher or editor: Do you want to buy my work?
Here's where novel queries begin to get weird. First of all, they aren't composed of questions. A query letter is composed of statements and facts that are intended to get and agent or editor to make an offer of representation or publication.
The most complicated part is to write a query letter that works for your intended target. There is contradictory information all over the place, but I have noticed one format that shows up more often than all of the others. To be on the safe side, research the organization that you want to tempt into making an offer. They may want to see something different, and if it means a lot to them, that information will be available to authors, usually on a blog or website.
If the editor or agent of your choice doesn't request specific information or formats for queries, then this is the safe bet. One page, 3 to 5 paragraphs, with the most intriguing facts about your story. This is where you answer the questions that the professional target would ask, were you face-to-face.
Make it like a business letter. Be sure that your contact information is provided at the top, is legible, and is correct. Legible… very important… always use a standard font and size, black ink on white paper.
The very first thing that you should get right is the addressee's name, title, and address. Seriously, we want our novels to be at the top of every chart. We want toys, movies, and English Lit classes built around our work of art. We wouldn't send it to just anybody, would we?
No. We are first going to research so we know that this person we are hanging our hopes of publication on, is actually capable of helping us. At the very least, we should know who they are, what they do, and where they work. We should also know that they are knowledgeable about the genre our book fits in. We should also be aware if they are actively seeking what we're sending.
So, begin the letter with the correct name, title, and address. This is important.
Paragraph one is a quick intro to your novel and purpose. It answers the first set of questions. What do you want? What is it you want it for? What kind is it? What size is it? What stage is it? What are you sending? For example:
I am seeking representation for my epic romance novel. Excellent Novel is complete at 82,000 meticulously chosen words chronicling the love story of 2010. I am enclosing a synopsis and sample chapter, per your guidelines published on your website. This is where you add info about more in the series or sequels, what stage of completion they are, and what unites them.
Paragraph two is optional. It's where you might tell a bit of your own history or interests that drove you to give the characters certain traits. For example, you are a huge fan of Gone with the Wind, so your heroine's feminine wiles work magic on everyone but her intended target. Your hero is tough and ruthless, and most of all, above the trickery of female charms. Until….
The next explains what is unique about your characters and their story, while still convincing your target that they are relatable to an audience. For example, maybe the Gods have chosen your heroine to populate the planet with a new race that will save us all. That means your hero will be a different race. That implies a whole host of conflict for each of them to overcome. Just touch on the highlights. You have to keep this to one paragraph.
Depending on your genre, there might be another paragraph that explains a bit about the world, challenges that might be otherworldly, or other genre specific items.
Finally, the last paragraph is where you tell about yourself. Not about your kids or pets, only the facets of your life or personality that make you uniquely qualified to write this novel. Otherwise, keep it to professional experience in the writing field, awards you may have won, and possibly education experience if it's relevant. Skip this paragraph altogether if you have none of the above. It's about your book, not you.
Make a polite closing, sign, and mail. On plain paper. In a plain envelope.
That's the basics in a nutshell. I should disclaim that I am not an expert, and have not had a successful query. Yet. This is a synopsis of the information I've gathered while studying my craft. I hope it helps you.