We all know the query letter is the first impression our manuscript will make, and when it doesn't make a good impression, it's not uncommon to hear someone ask (often in frustration), "How much can you really tell about my book from a query anyway?"
A lot, actually, and probably not what you'd expect.
A Query Sums up an Author, Too
Since a query is so short and so tight, any inherent flaws in your writing are magnified. Prone to passive voice? Odds are it'll show in the query. Use a lot of cliches? There are probably some in that pitch paragraph. Your manuscript could use some tightening? Yep, that'll show, too. Good news is, just as the bad stuff gets shoved forward, the good stuff also shines through. That's why a not-so-great query can still catch an agent's eye. Because the writer's strengths come through even if the query needs a little work.
Let's look at some of the things that could be holding your manuscript back.
Still Needs Editing
This is a pretty common flaw in almost-there manuscripts. It shows in the query by extra words, repetitious phrases, weak nouns and verbs. It could be because the writer moved too fast and submitted before they were ready, or it could be they need to learn a few more polishing skills. If this is why you're being rejected, there's hope for that manuscript yet. Tighten it up, put a shine on it and you could find yourself getting requests instead of rejections.
If you can't sum up the core conflict of your novel in a few paragraphs, there's a decent chance you're not sure what it is or it's not strong enough in the novel. You might even have a premise novel. But the problem is at the heart of the story, and until that gets figured out and revised, the book won't be strong enough to stand on its own. Find that core conflict, clarify those goals, and you'll be back in business.
If all you're doing is describing events, the sense of the storyteller will be missing. If the query is more focused on the what and not the why, there's a good chance that the novel reads the same way. If the query sounds bland, the agent will assume the novel is just as flat. Let your voice and what's unique about your novel shine through and show people what you can do.
Lack of Focus
A query that rambles and introduces five characters and six plots in three paragraphs is a pretty good indication that the novel has way too many things going on. Multiple POVs, tons of subplots, and none of them really connect to any one major storyline. Find your real story and weed out the subplots, and your novel can start getting attention.
A query that can't tell you why all these events matter is one that probably has low to no stakes. This implies your characters are acting for plot reasons and not because they want anything on their on, and there's a good chance there's not a lot of narrative drive. Determine why your plot matters to your characters and up those stakes, and you'll keep readers turning the pages.
Queries make fantastic diagnostic tools, because they really do boil the essence of your novel to one page. If there's a major flaw in that novel, it'll rise right to the surface. Next time you're having a hard time with your query, take a step back and see if it's the novel itself that's the real problem.