Polish Up Your Manuscript!
That's right, step one is not query. It's making sure you've got a badass manuscript ready to roll. I know it's so tempting when you type The End to ride off into querying land. But please, please, please, take your time. Polish up your manuscript to the very best it can be. Pay particular attention to the first 50 pages since that's the first impression of your story. Do those pages draw a reader in or is there a lot of nothing happening?
This is also a good time to figure out what genre best fits your book. I know it can be hard to categorize your manuscript, but a genre is neccessary. This information also will help you know what to search for in agents. Also check your word counts for your genres. (A good resource on that is here from Writer's Digest.) If you have a 250,000 word young adult novel then you've got some major work ahead of you.
There are a lot of agents out there and it's easy to get overwhelmed with where to being. Now since you know your genre that gives you a great starting point. So where do you even start? First, read the 'thank yous' in a novel in your genre that you like. Most authors will mention their agents. (This also serves a dual purpose of giving you a comparative title to mention.)
Personally I like QueryTracker. It lets you search agents by genre, location, and query method. You also can read comments from others who have queried. It's a great start to get names. Writer's Digest is another great resource. There's also AgentQuery, and SFWA's guide to agents.
Now, once you've put together a list of agents to look over, here comes more work! Take your time and really go through this list of agents. Go to their agency websites and read over the guidelines. Look at their twitter feeds or other public social media sites (don't make it creepy) and read interviews with them.
At this point I make an excel spreadsheet that tracks these things: Agent Name, Agency Name, Where to Query, and What to Send. From there I divide agents into three categories: favs, awesome, and great. My favs are the agents I dream of working with and I think we'd be a perfect fit together. The awesomes are agents that I'm excited about working with but for some reason, they aren't a fav. These reasons can be simple as 'brand new agent' or 'isn't on twitter, just things that knock them down a pinch. The 'greats' are just one notch below the 'awesomes.' Again, usually it comes down to small reasons, nothing major.
Seriously. Research, research, research. You don't want to end up with a bad agent or a scam artist so take your time. Check out preditors and editors to see if there are any red flags raised about that agent or agency. SFWA has a great breakdown of warning signs of a bad agent. Check them on Preditors and Editors.
You also can take some time to explore the magical Manuscript Wishlist. This is an awesome resource started on twitter under #MSWL where agents and editors post about things they're looking for. (They even have a great website.) You might find one of the agents you're interested in posted about looking for a novel just like yours, neat! This may bump them from an awesome to a fav. It's a good way to see if there are any agents really looking for your kind of story.
Write A Query.
Okay, there are dozens of resources on queries (like the incredible queryshark which you should read extensively) to learn about how to write one. Write one and get feedback. If you have the means, take a class and get a critique. (LitReactor has some great opportunities as does Writer's Digest.) Share your query and get feedback. Let people who have no idea what your book is about read over it. Does it make sense to them?
Write A Synopsis.
I hate writing a synopsis more than writing a query letter. A synopsis ties the whole plot up in a neat package. Not every agent will want a synopsis but enough will that you should go ahead and get it together. Get feedback and help on this too. Take your time. Here are some great resources on writing a synopsis:
I recommend sending out batches of ten-ish queries at a time. Send a few to your favs, a few to your awesomes, and a few to your greats. Don't burn all your favs on your first batch. Now you track responses. Add more columns to your excel sheet: date sent, response date, result.
When I get a form rejection I mark it all down and then black out that row on my sheet so I don't see it anymore. After you've marked it on your list, send out another one. However, if you're getting nothing but form rejections then it's time to go back to step four and try again. See if you can make your query stronger. A solid query should be getting some requests.
Just because you're querying doesn't mean you need to stop working on anything. Start on a new project and keep yourself busy. Writing and publishing is a lot of waiting for a response. Keep busy and don't fret yourself into an early grave.
And that's it! Easy, right? (hahahahahahah)