• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
  • Archives

I Don’t Know What This Is But You Got Me Good

Today, I received a three page query letter from a man who had one project ready to go and four others he wanted to mention. If you know me at all, you know I think query letters should be about a paragraph or less. Great title, brief description (no plot if you can help it) and your creds. If you know me at all, you know that I think it’s advisable to pitch one project and one project alone. And to lead with your best and most recent work. To make matters worse, this writer couldn’t settle on a title and devoted an entire paragraph to what amounted to a brainstorming session on titles. Normally, I would jot “please decline” on the top of the letter and shove it into an inbox near my assistant’s desk, and within a day or so, an intern would send a rejection letter. Basta.

Only, I liked the sound of the book. And so I kept reading, and I liked the sound of the other projects. And I invited the writer to send me the book that was completed. I know there’s a moral to this story and it has to do with a mythical beast and a pocket full of change. Who knows, there’s a good chance the pages are not up my alley, not my cup of tea, that they won’t rock my world or float my bloat. There is also a good chance the world will explode and single cell amoebas will vote on the next National Book Award winner and it will go to my twin sister Hela.

Are rules made to be broken, or are they marvelous?

36 Responses

  1. i’m thrilled i found your blog through paula balzer’s blog. my nervous gut tells me your posts are going to provide valuable (and entertaining) information.

    i cannot fathom how you read so many query letters without losing your mind, or losing faith in humanity. i dread the thought of writing my query letter, but maybe the world will end before i get to it. probably best for all involved.

  2. You liked his writing. Scary ass amoebae saying, “No, no, n- n- no.” Don’t pay ’em any attention.

  3. Rules are meant to be thoroughly understood so one knows where the shrapnel will go when they are deliberately shattered.

    Unless you want to wing ’em. That’s fun, too.

  4. I think rules are meant to made AND broken. Order and chaos – we need ’em, both.

  5. Everyone wants to be the special snowflake, the rule breaker, the exception that proves the stupid rule, but the truth is that virtually none of us are. So. That leaves us somewhere unimportant, yet utterly necessary, noses pressed against the glass. Your readership.

  6. I hate to say it, but a big part of me hopes the guy who can’t write a query can’t write a book either. Color me jealous and a little annoyed, I guess.

    • I’m so hoping he hits it big! I’m thinking of Frank McCourt’s single-spaced Angela’s Ashes ms. Having the right words in the right order is way more important than following rules. I used to get sent to the principal’s office a lot, so what do I know?

  7. I like the rules. Don’t be messing with my rules….

  8. Balance baby in all things. Flexibility is a good thing I think even when it comes to rules. Who knows what we fail to see if our eyes are tightly shut?

  9. “Integrity has no need of rules.”

    Albert Camus

  10. The exception proves the rule.

    I like your style.

    Here’s hoping it’s as extraordinary as HeLa.

  11. Some people can break the rules with immunity and they get a standing ovation. Me? Not so much. I even bend a rule or, God forgive, I break a rule, and I get the ol’ smack down. Been that way all my life. There are those who seem blessed no matter what. Rules? They don’t need no damn rules! They bend’em, break’em, smash’em immolate them, curse them with vile and horrible words. And yet? And yet they walk unscathed through the valley of rules. Others can’t catch a break even when they hew to the course and do everything right. Is it the luck of the Irish? The luck of the draw? A trunkful of four leaf clovers? A pocketful of miracles? Are they born under a lucky star? Star bright, star light–damn but I wish I was that lucky tonight. To the few, the lucky few, you band of brothers who trample rules and prosper–I salute you. For no matter what, you just look mah-velous.

  12. In my brief experience reading query letters, the ones who broke the rules were either

    1. Clueless, and had my sympathy (and sometimes nudges towards sources of info on how to standardise for the future). Often they were not great, but were polite.


    2. Arrogant. The rules don’t apply because of how much better I am than all that other dross. Rules Schmools, I got a million dollar story right here, you want in on the ground floor? Nah? Then I’m taking it somewhere bigger, better than this two-bit agency. Expletive, yeah!
    Without fail, terrible.

    I’d be interested to see in which camp your rule breaker falls. There may however be other camps in the forest…

  13. Both. Absolutely.

  14. Rules are guidelines.

  15. Depends on who you ask.

    Ask someone in the alphabet soup if rules are made to be broken. Someone in the FBI, or the DEA, or the ATF. Or ask a judge, or a DA, or an Assistant US Attorney. Get them all in a room and ask them off the record if they don’t think the marvelous rules aren’t made to be broken.

    Go visit the nearest jail or prison–there’s probably one not far away, they’re everywhere in this country these days–and ask any day-room full of inmates if the marvelous rules aren’t just crying out to be broken, see what they say.

    Then just for kicks drop by the legislative halls and the executive offices and ask the chosen few who wallow there at the slop-troughs if the marvelous rules are to be followed. Whatever they say, know the opposite is closer to the truth.

    Off the top of my head this way too early in the morning, here are some rules that maybe one should be mindful of: treat every gun as if it were loaded, remember any dog can bite, don’t play with fire, don’t pass on the shoulder, and tell your family you love them whether you do or you don’t.

    • Re: jails. Seems like more and more are closing these days, budget constraints mostly, and the luck of the draw allows some inmates out who should be in and vice versa. Maybe the rules apply to some, but not for others.

  16. Both.

  17. Yesterday I went for a walk in the woods with the dog. Along the way I saw a leaf just hanging in the air. There was little vertical movement as the leaf swayed in the breeze and returned again and again to the same spot, suspended in the air while all the other leaves fluttered to the earth. I knew a spider web strand had caught the leaf on its way down, but this maple leaf stood out from all the rest in the forest. Rules were meant to be broken and that leaf, possibly like your writer, had cracked the code.

  18. It’s so refreshing that you saw something through the clutter and requested it despite your jaded experiences. I hope you get a big fish with this one, Betsy, for having some faith in the clueless among us.

  19. If I hadn’t broken a major rule, my first book wouldn’t have been published and it wouldn’t have won a Lambda Award and I’d probably be crocheting instead of writing (not that there’s anything wrong with crocheting. There’s nothing I enjoy more than hiding the spare toilet paper roll under a pink and white string hat.)

    A long ago agent (AAR, reputable, etc.) was submitting a novel that didn’t sell. In the meantime, I wrote this other book as an apology to my daughter for being a jerk when she “came out” to our family. I sent it to my agent. She emailed me almost immediately to say that there would be “a problem sending out the book.” I knew she wasn’t homophobic, so I assumed she just didn’t like it (I later learned that she’d read the first five pages before she decided it was unsalable). I liked it, though, and I really really wanted it published. I sold it to a small (good) publisher in Chicago. Then–BAM! the Lambda and more published books!

    Sometimes you have to break the rules and take charge of your own life.

  20. I have no intention to break submission “rules,” but I do hope (and possibly believe) that if there are minor imperfections in what I send out, the writing will be good enough to put them in perspective.

  21. I’m still learning all the rules so I’ve got a love/hate relationship going on with them. It’s all very interesting…here’s hoping there’s a part two to your post.

    • Yes, we’ll need Part II of this story for sure.

      After reading through all of these comments, I’m hearing that Working Girl line in my head: “You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.

      • YES! I thought of that same line, too.

        Perhaps in Part II, said submitter will not only get the book deal, but the girl AND a corner office to complete the rest of his WIPs.

  22. Rules are great, they maintain order. But wisdom is knowing to follow you instincts when they tell you to make an exception.

  23. Betsy, as usual, the marvels of your mercurial mind are fascinating. It’s hard to imagine a person who can’t contradict the wisdom of their experience as being of much worth.
    Mythical beasties aside, should you wish to come in for a therapy session, don’t hesitate to call.

  24. It depends on who is making the rules, but I’m going to do everything I can to follow agents’ rules when I’m ready to query. I may think I’m a special shitflake, but I’m not fucking with those guidelines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: