|Hero wanted. Experience a must.|
Different agents and publishers want to see different things. There are some industry standards—such as a synopsis and query letter—that are almost never change (heavy emphasis on “almost”). Then there are some that will vary from agent/publisher to agent/publisher. Some will ask for the first chapter, first three chapters, first ten pages, first fifty pages, nothing but the query letter, nothing but the query letter and synopsis, etc., etc. But here are the things that you will definitely need, and which will save you time as you start the long, long, winding road to submitting queries:
Query Letter. This is the cover letter of your resume—it’s the first thing that the agent/publisher will see, and, if you don’t do it right, the last. Everything you submit to agents/publishers should let them know what exactly it is you’re sending: a book called AWESOME BOOK OF AWESOMENESS that is in a specific genre, it’s length, and what it’s about. Who you are, why you’re awesome and why they should listen to you. Finally, what you’ve included (because they told you to) so chapters, synopsis and other information as needed.
Chapters. Unless specifically told otherwise, include the first three (highly polished and incredibly shiny) chapters. Limit yourself to around 50 pages. Yes, yes, some chapters are longer than others. So, if chapter three ends around page 55, include it. If chapter two ends around page 47 and chapter three doesn’t wrap up until page 65, then you’re sending two chapters. You’re not shooting yourself in the foot by including slightly less. If the agent/publisher is interested, they’ll request more.
A Synopsis. This might be the hardest thing in the world for writers to write. It’s your story, but boiled down to a few pages—which sucks because your world is awesome and full of awesomeness and taking all that down to 1500-2000 words just sucks. But, the synopsis should be complete, strong and include the major plot points and the ending.
The take-away is to do your research before you submit to any agents or publishers and to follow, to the letter, their requirements. This is like a job interview, but one where there are constantly 500+ applicants every month for the same job. The quickest, easiest way to sort through if you can be worked with (or not) is if you can follow posted agent/publisher instructions.
There is usually nothing tricky about it, but it does take time to read through and set up your query appropriately. Having all this stuff ready to go will help make your query process that much smoother.