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Breaking the Query Writing Rules

In your research on the great art/mystery of query writing, you will undoubtedly run across the tried and true Rules of Query Writing. If you haven’t, then you’re definitely not ready to write one, much less send it out. Start right here with AQ’s How to Write a Query Letter, then use our ubiquitous friend, GOOGLE, to peruse another dozen or so articles by writers, agents, editors, anyone with a publishing resume. They're like grunion on the California coast.

Hook, Book and Cook. It's all I read for six months.

There is one thing for certain, however. Those pointers you keep reading are not Laws. You don’t get hauled away by the Query Police if you stray from the formula. Might it be reckless, a waste of time? Certainly, it MIGHT. But it could also be the thing that sets you apart from the horde of queries a day that cause an agent’s eyes to glaze over by 10:00 am.

Let’s just remember the only thing that counts:

There is one purpose of a query letter: to get the agent to read your manuscript.

That’s it. Get the agent to read your manuscript.

How do you do that? What are the two things an agent is interested in determining from a query letter?

1. That the story has appeal.
2. That you can write.

Perhaps the folks at AgentQuery.com are less than thrilled that I, just another unpublished wannabe novelist, am posting crap on their website inveigling other wannabes to ignore their advice.

Well, I’m not inveigling you to ignore it – I’m telling you not to be afraid to think outside the box. Breaking through a slush pile with a query is a Sisyphean task.

Now I’m going to do something reckless. I’m going to post a query draft that I didn’t have the guts to actually use. I’d crafted more than a few rule-minding queries that had passed the muster of this community's best critics. I sent them out by the dozens and received no positive responses.

Then a very smart and talented writer friend, who'd read the manuscript and believed in it, gave me the same speech I just gave you. Inspired, I wrote this:

Dear Agent:

Why you need to read Diary of a Small Fish:

1. It's about a rare species: an adult male who actually loves and values women - a man with a sardonic veneer that only lightly masks a truly loving heart.

2. It's about an ethically tone-deaf politician who should have known there's no such thing as a free meal.

3. It's about a rich kid who misses his father.

4. It's about a guy whose girlfriend loves his dying ex-wife like a sister.

5. It's the thriller-paced story of a guy with his tit in the wringer due to the machinations of a corrupt, vindictive prosecutor.

All the same character.

That’s 110 words. Add a bio paragraph, you’re under 175. Short and sweet.

Would this have worked? I have no clue. Just as I was about to try it out, I got a full read from an agent based on a one-line pitch at a conference. She’s the only one who read the manuscript and she signed me 5 months later. Perhaps some of it will end up in a jacket blurb some day.

I’m just encouraging you to KNOW the rules, know WHY they’re rules, and don’t be afraid to break them if you think it achieves the purpose of the query.

Good luck!

Pete Morin does lawyering to pay bills and writes fiction and plays blues guitar for his sanity. His short fiction is published in a small number of obscure anthologies, and his first novel, Diary of a Small Fish, is represented by Christine Witthohn of Bookcents Literary Agency. He lives on the seacoast south of Boston with his artist wife, two emancipated children and an interloping flock of diarrhetic turkeys.


Anthony J. Barker
Oct 06 2010 01:32 PM
Hey Pete, What was the one sentence pitch that worked? Can I borrow it? Tony
Donna Cooper
Jan 08 2011 04:00 PM
This works for me - but I am not an agent!

Thanks for posting. Donna

Jun 18 2011 02:40 AM
You might have received some replies if you rewrote your 'outside-the-box' query to stay within the bounds agents expect. Let it stand out by the quality of the writing and the intriguing hook you've tempted them with, not by some quirky numbered list.

1. Drop the numbers. (like this list)
2. Don't tell an agent, "Why you should read this:" Impress them instead, to read on.
3. I'll bet that query is sitting in a lot of slush piles, if not waste baskets.

There are general rules for a reason. Agents have to read millions of queries. If yours is not 'professional' enough- Ping, you're gone! Agents hate gimmicks.

I like that you have an incongruous mix of qualities, only to find out they all describe the same person. That's GOOD! Now, put it in a format to catch them with a hook. Try--

"DIARY OF A SMALL FISH is a Nascar-paced story of a guy with his tit in the wringer of a vindictive prosecutor.
And an ethically tone-deaf politician.
And a man with a sardonic veneer who actually values women.
And-- they're all the same guy!"

Here's a hint for what all agents are looking for:
Unique concepts.
Tremendous Voice.
Realistic dialogue.
Relate-able characters.
Flawless writing.

See? It's easy. Fulfill that and you're made!