I infrequently post on writing rules and how too strict an adherence or too literal an interpretation can result in writing that is technically perfect but lifeless or otherwise gets in the way of telling a good story rather than facilitating it. The last of them is here, and you can follow back from the links at the bottom of that post if you’re interested.
But writers don’t just get swamped by rules about the actual writing part of their job. They also discover plenty of rules when they finish the final polish of their manuscript and begin the endless jumping through hoops that is the attempt to get published. And because getting published is often a matter of luck and good timing, writers, especially beginning writers or unpublished writers, get completely snarled up and bound by the rules surrounding submissions as they try to tip the very long odds ever so slightly in their favour.
I’m not talking about the publisher’s or agent’s submission guidelines here. Those are useful instructions and you should absolutely follow them because you want to make it as easy as possible for the editor or agent to read your work. I’m talking about the informal rules that get bandied about that are an attempt to quantify what comes down to a subjective response.
Not a few of those comments are complaining that the author broke the ‘rules’ of writing query letters: it’s too long, it’s too vague, it’s not grammatically perfect, it has elements a different agent hates (!). And I understand where they’re coming from, because they’re basing those ‘rules’ on what agents themselves have said.
But the most important thing about that query letter was that it demonstrated the voice of the author, reflected some of the charm of the story she was trying to sell, emphasised her characters over plot, and, vitally, got the attention of the agent with her subjective tastes and preferences (say it with me: agents are not robots, they are people). Was it technically perfect? Probably not. Did it do what it was supposed to do? Yes. Good writing is not about perfection. Perfection is dull.
I’ve tongue-in-cheek called the synopsis the job application for the book before, but writing your query letter is not like writing the cover letter for a job application. Most employers are scannng dozens or even hundreds of applications for people who have the necessary qualifications and a decent employment history (ie will do their job without making a fuss). They don’t care about personality or sense of humour; in fact, that probably scares them a bit and they want dull. Therefore a technically perfect cover letter is ideal.
A query letter is more like the job interview, which is where you get to show the potential employer that you fit in well with the team (the right personality, the right sense of humour). It should show off your unique voice and give the reader a taste of what they’ll find in the actual novel. The agent or publisher should be left intrigued, not yawning.
By all means, find out the stated tastes of the particular person you’re submitting to if they’re available, and follow their general guidelines. But you just wrote thousands of words in your own inimical style. Write another couple of hundred in the same style. Don’t fall into the trap of being perfect rather than interesting.
Moral: don’t go nuts following every last supposed rule of submitting. After all, are there any documented cases of an agent or publisher turning down a book just because the author went a paragraph longer than the rules for query letters specify? And if those agents and publishers are out there, would you really want to work with them anyway? Those people sound like arseholes.