I listened to an interesting perspective at WriteOnCon.com from an agent who shared what she looks for in a pile of query letters. Carlie Webber of C K Webber Associates went through Sixty Queries in Sixty Minutes. If she was interested in spending more time on a submission, it would go into it's own pile that she would come back to later--the 'yes' pile. Here's a summary of what she noticed in that short amount of time:
Describes emotional development instead of plot--No
Describes each main character and tells what they have at stake--Yes
Genre and idea is appealing--Yes
Author knows market and mentions comps--Yes
Plot not given, query overwritten--No
Characters are not compelling, low stakes--No
Not right genre for this agent--No
A self-published novel wants to go traditional, no sales info was included--No
Lacks info on the main character and plot--No
Introduces character, gives background, presents the major problem simply and how it can complicate the MC's life--Yes
Author has professional background in the subject--Yes
World not mentioned in a sci-fi story--No
General dislikes: Rhetorical questions--No First person POV query--No Word count low, high, or missing--No
I've never written a query letter. What I've written is more like a summary or back cover blurb. Familiarity with queries helps for those of us who submit to editor/publishers instead of agents (check requirements) because we still need to give a description of our book. Writing my description out for my Book of Mormon novel helped me to figure out and fix some plot problems. It let me identify the overall goal from the stakes and goals that changed. For this reason, I recommend writing your query or description before revisions. It just might keep you on track.
Here's the blurb I came up with for The Seventh City. I'd love your feedback!
If Lamanite princess Karlinah can return to her father’s kingdom before the truth of her abusive husband's murder is discovered, she just might get her safe, pampered life back. Surprises await her at King Lamoni's household. Karlinah's younger sister, Hepka, is betrothed and tradition requires that the eldest be married first. Matched with Japethihah, the lascivious high priest, she dreads her imminent wedding.
Karlinah is saved from becoming Japethihah’s property when missionary Ammon converts many of the king's household—but not herself. Relief is short-lived after dismantled foolish traditions give Karlinah freedom to choose. She just might tear her beautiful hair out when no one but Japethihah wants a non-believer. Karlinah struggles with loneliness and new beliefs, unable to trust the Nephite missionary when repentance means confessing the secret that could get her killed.
Finding strength to overcome doctrinal misconceptions, Karlinah aims to show the handsome stone artisan the heart of a believer before Cumroth’s work on the synagogue is completed. But Japethihah has plans of his own and will stop at nothing to make Karlinah his.