I won't claim to be an expert, despite hosting many query contests (Query Kombat, New Agent, Sun versus Snow, and Nightmare on Query Street), but I have read a fair share of queries. I've also written my share and critiqued dozens. So these are some tips from a quasi-amateur on what works in a query and first page.
Much of querying is going to be subjective. Happening to have that concept an agent is on the lookout for. Using the name of an agent's pet cat without knowing it. Setting your story in an agent's favorite vacation spot. Matching the sense of humor of an agent or their love of a dark tale.
Beyond creating a top notch concept which is super marketable, those are things that are serendipity. Entirely based upon luck and for which you can't plan. (Though you can research. Getting to know something about agents will help you gear your query toward an agent.) These are not always things you can write into your query letter and first page. But there are things you can do to make your query stronger.
The Foundations of a Good Query:
Much has been said about the benefit of a strong beginning hook. A hook is important, but the query will fall apart if the rest of the paragraphs let it down. Here are some other things that matter.
Be Clean: First off, the simplest advice. You want to catch those typos and missing words. You want to be sure your have commas where they belong. Which means get some unbiased eyes to examine your query for mistakes. Mistakes in a query and first page will hurt your chances. (More on first pages in another post.)
Motivation: The reader needs to be able to determine what makes your main character tick. There should be something in the query to show why your character needs to react. What is propelling them forward, instead of sitting at home? Maybe their family is in danger. Maybe they want to regain their memory. Maybe they'll do anything to find love. But there has to be a reason, because that reason tells us something about your character. It's what will make us care about them, or on the other side, hit delete if the motivation is not there.
Stakes: It's not enough to tell us why a character has to accomplish something. You have to tell us what happens if they fail and what happens if they succeed. In other words, nail the worst case scenario and the best. And, the difficult part, you have to be specific when you do this. No generic cliche is going to catch someone's attention among the hundreds of queries out there.
Avoid side plots: Stay away from venturing too far from the main plot/concept. A good book is going to be full of other things that the main character desires and complications that arise. Those should definitely be in the story, but they only make the query confusing. Avoid confusion. Focus on your main problem. The only exception being to include any romance that might be blossoming. That can usually be done in a query without being distracting.
Limit Named Characters: Another way to keep the query on track is to only name a very few characters. Keep it simple with identifying characters. The last thing you want is an agent going who is this guy again? They have enough to remember.
Three is a good number of names to stick to. Too many names and places slow down a query and make it difficult to follow. That's not to say you can't use general identifiers like: her parents, work friends, humpbacked lab assistant. That fixes the relationship with the main character without bogging the query with a lot of names.
Creating a Super Query:
Beyond the basics what can you do to make your query stand out above the hundreds that are out there? These are the sort of things that make the difference between a strong query and a super query that gets you into contests.
Voice: The best and most effective way to make your query stand out is to fill it with voice. Let the attitude of your character shine. The query should almost seem to be coming out of their mouth. (Of course you need to stay in third person, which is why this is hard.)
And why is that good? Because it shows us what your main character is like. You know the saying, 'that's a man I'd like to have a beer with.' That's what you're going for with voice. Convincing us this character is someone we want to spend time with. You are putting your character's personality on display by the words and slang you use in your query.
Details: I touched on this in the stakes section, but I can't stress it enough. Be specific in your details. There's nothing more boring than a bunch of cliche lines. She has to save the day. He must rise to the challenge. Save what? Rise to what? Don't be cagey, tell us.
And the details should go beyond the stakes. Why? Because details show about a character. I remember one entry (first page) in Query Kombat that I picked specifically because of a mention of a pink flipflop and the noise being something her mom hated. That shows me something about the main character!
Make sure you use the right sort of details that make your character interesting, that bring out something about them. The wrong sort of details just make a query confusing as mentioned under avoiding side plots and extra names.
Set the tone: This might relate more to me, a subjective thing, but I like a query and/or first page with humor. If you book is humorous then that should be on display in your query. Conversely, if your story is dark, your query should reflect that.
Use the query to set the mood. In a query, the rules about avoiding adjectives don't apply so strictly. A query is short. You need to use the space you have and that means resorting to adjectives at times. They can be useful both for setting the tone and for creating voice.
Unique: Most of the information in this bottom section has been about establishing the personality of your main character and carrying that into the query. Focus on what makes your book unique. Being sure to detail what is unique about your story is another way to enlarge our knowledge about the character, but it can also go beyond characters.
If you story is set in a unique location, make sure you include that. If there is something different about your plot, make sure we know.
And warning: Don't hide things as a 'surprise' for the reader by keeping them from your query. (Except for endings and big twists.) If your query doesn't hook, there's not going to be a second chance to awe us.
I heard from lots of people that didn't want to give too much away in a query. If the query doesn't hook us, it's not doing it's job. Like using specific details, unique qualities in your story are too important to save for later.
A super query goes beyond the motivation, plot, and stakes of a story. A super query gives us a sense of personality, mood, and uniqueness. A super query makes us want to know more, makes us care.
So there you have it. An incomplete--I'm sure--list of ways to make your query stronger. I hope it helps make creating your query a little easier and gives you more confidence.
What's the best advice you've every had on a query?