I am writing a logline sentence of a query letter for my novel and used the idiom 'cat and mouse' as follows:

A military bioweapons collector is forced to engage in a game of ‘cat and mouse’ with his Russian counterpart as he seeks a cure for the epidemic he inadvertently created.

I was told it is a cliché and you shouldn't use idioms in query letters because they show lack of originality. The problem is, I cannot find a suitable synonym for 'cat and mouse game'.

Are ALL idioms really that bad? This one is very descriptive of a conflict that is an impasse despite all attempts at a resolution and the mouse occasionally wins. Is it preferable to spell out concepts like this even though a well-worn idiom like 'cat and mouse game' exists to communicate the concept quickly?


2 Answers 2


Writers often indulge a charming fantasy that publisher and agents are looking for originality. They are not. They are looking for works that fit into a well established sales channel and that habitual readers of a genre can quickly identify as the kind of book they like to read. Pretty much the worst thing you can do in a query letter is indulge in any kind or originality. This is about sales, and sales is all about established and reliable taste.

We might all wish be believe otherwise, but a moment's reflection will show it is so. Publishers and agents do this to make a living. They want things that they already know how to sell. Remember all the stories about how many publishers turned down Harry Potter? It was something they had not seen before (or not recently, at any rate) and did not easily fit any of the current sales channels. Publishers (and therefore agents) are not keen to take on that kind of risk. Brilliant and original often falls totally flat. Competent and familiar pays the rent.

What you need to establish in a query letter is that your book is something that the publisher or agent is going to be able to sell. "Cat and mouse game" is an idiom that seems to show up pretty frequently in the description of published thrillers. So that's a good sign that it works to sell books. Avid readers, the kind that keep publishers and agents in peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, are always looking for another fix of the same drug. They want the same, only different. But not so different that it is no longer the same. Sameness is not a vice, it is a virtue.

An agent or publisher looks at a query letter and asks themselves, is this a serious professional writer who can turn out decent books that meet the needs of a well established and profitable market? That's what your query letter needs to project. Originality has very little to do with it.

  • I believe you are correct, the same applies for medicine. Focus is rarely on novel therapies, instead it is to develop 'me too' agents that are different enough to get around patent issues but same enough to be a challenge for current profitable products on the market. I tried to alter the logline as follows: After the accidental release of a deadly flu virus, a military bioweapons collector races against his Russian counterpart to retrieve a hard drive with sensitive data about the CIA’s involvement. However, I still prefer 'cat and mouse' because it perfectly describes the action Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 13:23
  • Actually, that logline confuses me a bit. Sounds like your hero is trying to cover up a bio weapon release to protect the CIA, and that the Russian is trying to expose that involvement. Not sure that that story will evoke much sympathy. Lots of people would be cheering on the Russian. Shouldn't he be focussing on preventing further releases or cleaning up this one instead of covering up for the CIA?
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 13:30
  • thanks, I like the protagonist being an anti-hero but the Russian counterpart isn't much better, they both engage in bioweapons. The hard drive is the problem, think of Ed Snowden and Wikileaks, No hard drive, no proof. What's at stake is who pays for the cleanup and quarantine, money is always a great motivator in a novel. There are plenty of antiheroes in literature and film like Bond, Deadpool and the Punisher. I want to take the reader on a ride and explore issues of morality along with epidemiology. I think most readers will sustain hating my 'hero' because he is so darn good at his trade Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 14:53
  • "What's at stake is who pays for the cleanup and quarantine", well, that makes it more of a political or legal story than anything else, and you better make that clear or your book will end up in the wrong pile. What's at stake = what genre it is. If it's a medical thriller, than what is at stake is the lives of little children.
    – user16226
    Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 15:01
  • it is based on an actual event: Here is what my query says: Your profile at Trident states you are seeking literary debuts for authors with character-driven thrillers and that you enjoy fiction that delves into the surreal. I hope my 125,000 word techno-thriller Viral: into the dead zone will appeal to you. It is a fictionalized version of an actual event that occurred in 1977-1978 that resulted in a flu pandemic that resurrected the previously extinct H1N1. Here is a link to an academic paper that describes the incident I use as the basis for my novel:mbio.asm.org/.../e01013-15.full Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 17:54

For me, the problem is that the cliche hides the originality of your story. That is, it obscures the unique delights that distinguish your cat and mouse game from every other.

Also "is forced" is pretty passive for a hero. Forced how? By whom?

What details make your cat and mouse game original? Put those details in the log line.

Yeah, I understand the challenge. I know log lines must be short. But don't summarize the life out of your story.

Consider removing any mention of the cat and mouse game:

When a military bioweapons collector inadvertently creates an epidemic, he must *your characters' unique way of trying and failing to resolve the impasse* with *your characters' unique relationship* Russian counterpart to save the world from *your story's unique disaster*.

  • 1
    I think you are correct, but the newer version sure makes you wonder who is the protagonist of my novel: A military bioweapons collector attempts the cover-up of an accidental release of a deadly, new strain of flu by destroying the project's hard drive before his Russian counterpart can prove the CIA's involvement. Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 0:30
  • 1
    Keep adjusting. What's the hero's big problem? Is it that the Russian might expose the CIA? Or is it that everyone on the planet may die? Or something else? Focus on the hero trying to solve that problem, and on what's at stake. Play with lots of variations. You'll get there. Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 0:39
  • thanks, I like the protagonist being an anti-hero but the Russian counterpart isn't much better, they both engage in bioweapons. The hard drive is the problem, think of Ed Snowden and Wikileaks, No hard drive, no proof whats at stake is who pays for the cleanup and quarantine, money is always a great motivator in a novel Commented Mar 24, 2017 at 1:30

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