Here are some hints on how to query a literary agent. Next week, I'll post a copy of my query letter from two years ago, which got me an international literary agency. Hopefully all of this helps.
1. Research your agency.
First of all, categorise your book. Figure out what genre it falls into, what age your readers will be, and in what countries you want it represented. Then use those things to help you research what agencies you should apply to. There's absolutely no point in a historical novelist querying an agency that deals largely with romance. Stick with what works, and save yourself the bother. Look at the website thoroughly. If they say they're not taking on any more people at the moment, do not send out a query letter. You'll probably ruin your chances with them for good. Also, check to see whose email address you've got. It's best to put a name at the top of the email. It just shows the agent that you've been thorough, and that you know what you're doing. An impersonal "to whom it concerns" or "dear Sir/Madam" reads like a scam.
2. Be straight to the point.
There's no point in trying to impress a literary agent. That probably sounds really depressing, but it's true. Just treat it like a business transaction. Don't talk about your longing to work creatively and spread your wings; don't talk about the fact that you've been writing since you were twelve; don't mention your desire to change the world with the power of language, etc ... Just keep it simple.
After addressing the literary agent, introduce yourself as quickly as possible. Do not write your age. Do not reel off all your qualifications. The publishing industry is very seldom interested in copious qualifications - even if you've done a lot of study involving creative writing. Literary agents want to know two things: whether you have experience in the writing industry, and whether your writing has merit. That's it. That's all.
Do not talk about your background and all your side interests. If you're writing a book about American colonisation, and your great-grandfather left behind a diary, you are justified in mentioning a family member and an interest in history. Otherwise, do not bother.
After writing very briefly about yourself, start talking about your book. Literary agents will always want a synopsis. It shouldn't be super long. Don't include minor characters and sub plots. You can mention them in passing if you have time and space, but don't go into them in detail. Don't do a cliff hanger in the synopsis. There are no secrets between the literary agent and the client. Your agent is not your reader. If you stop with a cliff hanger, the agent may think you ran out of ideas. Write the full plot synopsis in as straightforward a manner as you can. Don't include abstracts. Sentences such as "this book is about the power of love" or "this novel details the joy of inner peace" or "this story is about joy and grace" are instant turn-offs.
3. Include the important details.
Check: have you included the word count? Target audience (including specific ages)? Genre? Have you mentioned any editing or manuscript assessing that the book has undergone? Agents always like to know if you've had some experienced eyes look at your work.
These are three things that will help you as your write query letters to literary agents. Similar rules work when writing queries to publishers. But if you get a literary agent, then you won't have to send out piles of queries to publishers, because the agent takes care of that for you. Next week I'll publish my successful query letter on this website. Happy querying!