Saturday 1 August 2009


(It's a long one - settle down with wine, chocolate, anything you need. But there is a competition at the end, so it will be worth it.)

"What's so important about the covering letter / query letter? After all, isn't it the book that counts?"

Yeah, sure it's the book that counts. But the agent/editor isn't going to get that far if your covering letter isn't good. No, forget that. The agent /editor isn't going to get that far if your letter isn't absolutely damned perfect. Or better.

You've been reading the recent Submission Spotlights on this blog. Well, I've been reading the submissions to the Submission Spotlights. Some of these are so bad that if I put them on my blog there'd be blood on the floor and tears at bed-time. So now, I feel, it is time to pound you with some serious sit-up-and-take-notice instruction about covering letters. (Or query letters if you are across the pond. They're not quite the same but pretty close.)

Here we are. Please take note. Even though I hardly know where to start.
  1. when describing your book, give the most important info first. The most important info is the info that the agent/editor needs first. And that is, what sort of book it is. So, Redleg needed to tell us right off that it's futuristic / sci-fi. Yes, lots of people (readers/agents/editors) hate sci-fi and don't read it: that is no reason not to tell them. In fact, it's all the more reason to tell them, otherwise you get one seriously pissed off agent who finds out half way through chapter one that she's reading a piece of rom-com that she thought was an American Civil War novel.
  2. actually, there's an even more important piece of info you have to give first, but it's something you can't say out loud, only show. It's this: that you are not the run-of-the-mill useless sort of rubbish that the agent/editor is assuming you will be. Let your professionalism steam.
  3. don't ever call your book a "fiction novel". Do you need to know why you shouldn't do this? If you do need to know, you're not a writer because you haven't properly thought about the meaning of your words. Which is the entire point of being a writer not a piece of crapness.
  4. don't say that your book is a historical-satirical-romantic-sci-fi novel. If it is, it's a mess.
  5. don't confuse the description of your book with the back cover blurb which you'd like to go on the back of your book. Your letter needs to say more than that - the blurb poses intriguing questions but the covering letter has to give us a bit more detail about how you will answer those questions.
  6. don't ...
Actually, I've had a way better idea. Today, I was preparing for a workshop I'm giving at the Edinburgh Book Festival, on "The Perfect Approach to Publication", and I was planning to major on the ultra-important topic of covering letters. So, in the spirit of putting mouth where money is I decided that I should write a lovely sample imaginary covering letter, and my workshoppers and I could all discuss it and learn from it.

Then .... I had the bright idea of sending it to my actual agent - praise be to her for her tolerance of me and most of my wacky ideas that disrupt her working time and ability to drink coffee at peace - and seeing what she thought of it, professionally, imagining that she'd never heard of me. (Like many people). And guess what, she said liked it, that it was almost perfect and she'd love to be my agent!! Yay! Then we both remembered that she already was.

BUT - and here's the real pointy point - she did actually have two suggested improvements. Aka imperfections. (How dare she? Did she really think I wanted an honest opinion? Hasn't she learnt by now that authors only want to be told they're brilliant?) And then I had my wheeziest wheeze of the day, if not week.

I thought I'd put the covering letter here, just as I wrote it, and ask YOU to say what you thought were her two alleged imperfections. See, I know how much you like competitions and this is one. There will be a prize for the person who most closely (IMHO) guesses the two (obviously deliberate) flaws in this beautiful covering letter.

Clues: one is a sentence which she thinks (rightly) is not strong enough / right. And the other is something she (rightly, because she is nearly always right) would like me to have said but I didn't. (Obviously deliberately. Duh.)


First, I should stress that the book I am talking about is actually my next book, and is being published in June 2010. All details are as the book is - except that the description of me and my attempts at approaching agents are obviously not true, because I have one. Wasted has already been written and accepted and paid for and the copyright is mine all mine, just in case you thought it sounded like an idea you might use. Dabs off - go think of your own ideas. I'll have no plagiarists on my blog.

And obviously I have not enclosed any toffees, glitter, or a photo of me wearing nothing but a snake. I have not listened to myself bang on for nothing.

So here it is. And obviously ignore the silly address etc.

Perfect Author
Address etc etc
Email Address
Phone number
Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway Agency
12 Aspirational Avenue
Dear Ms Hathaway,

I enclose the synopsis and sample first chapters of my 67,000 word Young Adult novel, Wasted. I also attach my CV, as requested in your submission guidelines.

Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance. Jack and Jess meet by chance, and fall powerfully in love. Jess - beautiful and talented singer - and Jack - impulsive, fascinating, intense, drummer in his own band, Schrödinger’s Cats - are on the eve of leaving school; freedom beckons. But Jess’s mother is an alcoholic and Jess, only child in a single-parent family, feels responsible. As for Jack: his mother died long ago - twice. After such unlikely bad fortune, he is obsessed by luck, chance, fate - whatever you call it. Jack calls it something to be controlled and so takes deliberate risks, playing a game with a coin, challenging chance to beat him. Chances are that, one day, it must. Events come to a dangerous climax in the heady, alcohol-fuelled beach party after the Leavers’ Prom, when life or death hang on the toss of a coin.

An unusual voice - present tense, omniscient, vivid - is not the book’s only defining feature. Twice within the story, I write alternative versions of an event, versions which turn on an almost unnoticeable chance difference, but a difference which has vastly different consequences. I then toss a coin and the story continues with one version, depending on the result. Finally, I write two alternative endings and challenge the reader to toss a coin to “choose” the ending. How the coin lands affects which possibility becomes reality. And it’s a life or death difference.

I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible for publication but I am also very used to welcoming editorial guidance. I have had a few pieces published in other fields, as you will see from my CV, but I am ambitious to become a successful author for young people and am prepared to work as hard as necessary to achieve that. The high quality YA market may be relatively small, but it’s one I love and would be so proud to work in.

I have already submitted Wasted to the Tanya Highbury agency and, although she gave me some very positive feedback, she did not feel that it was right for her at this time. Otherwise, yours is the only agency which I have approached so far. I know how busy you must be with existing clients but you will understand that I want to approach other agents fairly soon; therefore, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what your position is on my approaching other agents or indeed some publishers.

I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Wasted.

Yours sincerely,

(incredibly amazingly potentially successful author but wishing she could really be even more so and will definitely follow all editorial advice - no that's not what I would really put: this is for the purposes of HUMOUR)

So, then, whatchyathink?


Wendy said...

Yikes, this is scary!

Okay, the sentence I think is off, is this one -
"Twice within the story, I write alternative versions of an event, versions which turn on an almost unnoticeable chance difference, but a difference which has vastly different consequences." because of the multiple uses of difference/different.

I think what is missing that you could have said *gulp*, is more about the relationship between Jack and Jess. It's the first thing mentioned but there's nothing else in the rest of the paragraph that leads seems to have much to do with their relationship.

Either that or she might have wanted you to thank her for her time at the end or something.

Scariest competition ever! Query letters are the most scary things and trying to critique one you know belongs to someone who knows what they're doing is worse. Yikes!

Donna Hosie said...

I agree, Wendy. This is scary, but hopefully Nicola will remember I have made some very nice comments about her shoes in the past, and so any observations I make now that dare to question her bloody fantastic query are cancelled out by my boot worship!

I think you should have said why Jess feels responsible for her mother being an alcoholic. It's a question I would ask straightaway.

As for the sentence that isn't strong enough/right...hmmm, I dare to suggest it is Chances are that, one day, it must.

This is scarier than the submission spotlight. Now I am off to worship at your Altar of Shoes!

Nicola Morgan said...

Wendy and Donna, you're both wrong! (Well, no, you're right that this is scary. And Donna, worshipping at the altar of my shoes is a very good strategy but doesn't alter the fact that you're wrong.)

You can have as many shots as you like though.

A clue for everyone (or at least an explanation as to why W & D were barking up the wrong tree): in a letter which is accompanied by a synopsis (normal practice in the UK) there's no need to go into more detail of the plot so no need at all to say, eg, why Jess feels responsible, or more of the rel'ship between Jack and Jess.

Actually, I might choose to say something more about their love affair, but this wasn't what my agent said was needed.

Don't worry - the answer to which sentence isn't pulling its weight is by no means obvious.

And now, I'm walking into town to buy some shoes, so I'll be in a really good mood when I come back.

Wendy said...

Curses! Right I'm reading it again, I'll crack this (or run away and cry into my not very worship-worthy shoes.)

Lost Wanderer said...

Wow, if this query letter isn't perfect, I will have to work bloody hard at mine.

The missing sentence - perhaps about having next project? You mentioned you are ambitious to become YA author, and I have read that agents usually sign clients for their career potential rather than just one book, so it might help mentioning future projects?

Wendy said...

Okay, here's my next attempt at the sentence I think is off.

"I know how busy you must be with existing clients but you will understand that I want to approach other agents fairly soon; therefore, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what your position is on my approaching other agents or indeed some publishers."
Just based on things I've read on (admittedly American) agents blogs about preferring you didn't apologize or ask questions that they wouldn't answer.

Guess for the thing she would have liked you to say - Related to the sentence thing, that she was your first pick as agent.

PS - Still, yikes.

Keren David said...

The sentence that jumps out at me is 'As for Jack: his mother died long ago - twice.' I'm distracted wondering how someone can die twice, whether there's something paranormal going on here, what it means. So I'd want a little bit more explanation.
I'm not sure I'd have put in that another agent had turned it down. And why not query other agents at the same time?
The missing information....hmmmm....I don't know. Do tell!

Thomas Taylor said...

Wow, this is tricky!

I shall have to be picky...

My guess for what you didn't say would be some account of your motivation for writing this story in the first place. Something that would connect you to the characters in a more personal way.

Hmm, I bet it's not that though. Like I said – tricky!

As for the weakish line, perhaps it's the sentence which follows 'Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance.' There you mention love and chance again, but not choice. So perhaps:

'Wasted' is a story of love, choice and the science of chance. Jack and Jess meet by chance, experience the illusion of choice and fall powerfully in love.

Or something (yes, I know it's cheesy – apologies for mucking about with your words).

Juliet Boyd said...

Okay. Here goes.

The missing sentence/information - is it that you haven't compared to the style of any existing author?

And the sentence that could be improved upon - "As for Jack: his mother died long ago - twice." - without further explanation I am left wondering could this be a medical error or possibly something supernatural. Thus, putting a question in my mind as to the genre.

Oh, and of course, you forgot to mention the muffins.

DOT said...

Timely post as I am presently composing my covering letter - so you have my gratitude free of charge.

I cannot see what is missing. I, therefore, fail to win; however, I believe your opening sentence, 'Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance' is the weakest. From the description you write of your book, it is more fraught than that sentence implies.

It is a story of love and lives that hang literally on the toss of a coin.(Perhaps.)

Weronika said...

I would give this a try but my head hurts thinking about it, so I'll just say this: Great letter, Nicola, and thank you for sharing this educational post!

karen ball said...

Is the weak sentence the one that begins: 'Jess - beautiful and talented singer...'? You have a lot of adjectives in this sentence and a lot of information - it might be difficult for a reader to keep up with. And is the missing sentence one that lets the agent know you have another, brilliant book idea just waiting to be shared and published after she takes on and successfully places 'Wasted'?

Lexi said...

I think 'I also attach my CV, as requested in your submission guidelines' is half-unnecessary; an agent is surely familiar with her own submission guidelines.

The missing bit? Possibly what novel you are now working on...

catdownunder said...

Dear Ms Morgan
Thankyou for your letter. Naturally you have worked hard at your submission. I really do not need to be informed about that. I am also able to read your CV for myself. That will tell me that you have had other material published.
May I also suggest that you tell me you know I will like your submission? It sounds much more positive and will encourage me to look at the material you have sent.
I will endeavour to do this by (date). If you have not had a response by paw-post at that time please get in touch with my assistant by purr-post if you still intend making multiple submissions.
Yours sincerely,
Cat Downunder

catdownunder said...

More seriously, I was surprised at how long this covering letter was. I have been taught (by experience if nothing else) that covering letters need to be short, short, short. I would have put the synopsis on a separate page - obviously I have a lot to learn!
It also makes me wonder what goes into a writing CV. (No agent on earth would want to trawl their way through my other CV!)

Donna Hosie said...

I'm not surprised I was wrong, the query is extremely strong to my untrained eyes.

Did your agent pick you up on this line?

The high quality YA market may be relatively small, but it’s one I love and would be so proud to work in.

I was under the impression that the quality of the YA market was quite strong. Would it have helped to mention YA authors that the agent currently represents, thus showing you have researched the agency you are submitting to?

Jan said...

Wow, this is tough. I'll guess that what you didn't say was about Jess, what action she takes that makes her the protagonist. Thanks for the great example.

Rachel Fenton said...

"I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible"..erm..shouldn't it be the bestest best that you could ever do (even taking into account that you are a perfectionist and nothing is ever really best enough for you?)?
That's the one I'd remove...makes you look less than professional.
I would add one along the lines of 'please recycle my manuscript (joke)!
Seriously now, I would add one saying why I was approaching that particular author (because I'm tired now and already stressed out with my own rejections, lol).

Rachel Fenton said...

That was meant to read scrap - apologies...erm...:)

Rachel Fenton said...

Crap that last one - I'd say the book is FINISHED.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I haven't read anyone else's comments, but this was my reaction:

remove this para:
I have already submitted Wasted to the Tanya Highbury agency and, although she gave me some very positive feedback, she did not feel that it was right for her at this time. Otherwise, yours is the only agency which I have approached so far. I know how busy you must be with existing clients but you will understand that I want to approach other agents fairly soon; therefore, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what your position is on my approaching other agents or indeed some publishers.

Because you're saying it's already failed and you're also saying 'you're too busy for me'.

Otherwise, this letter rocks!

SleepyJohn said...

My first editor told me to imagine that the envelope lands on the desk of agent/editor first thing Monday morning after a weekend in which the cat was run over, the car was struck by lightning, and the wife ran off with the milkman. Any irritation, even an inky smudge on the envelope, might have it hurled into the bin unopened!

As Nicola says, no less than perfection in all respects is needed when you are dealing with someone who is expecting rubbish and is on the alert for any sign of it. A crystal clear, neatly presented page will put them in a calm, receptive frame of mind for reading. Don't use a second-hand envelope, and do post it to arrive on a Wednesday (a day in which apparently the best cars are made, for similar reasons).

With a borderline proposal the slightest thing might tip the decision one way or the other. Never forget that agents are also human: some days they might feel like sifting through a mountain of dross to find your flake of gold; other days they might not.

Robin Walker said...

It reads so well it's hard to see what isn't there. I think the 'off' sentence is - Chances are that, one day, it must. You have already said Jack is challenging chance and taking risks, so this seems like unnecesarily stating the obvious.

As this is a synopsis, shouldn't there be an indication of the end? Or rather, the two possible ends? Shouldn't one give the full plot to an agent?

Please don't jump on me if my suggestions are naive. I'm a delicate plant.

Robin Walker said...

Sorry - unnecessarily. Can't see how to edit a post.

Nicola Morgan said...

Robin - don't worry, I never jump on people unless they're rude or stupid, and you are absolutely neither. None of my blog readers ever has been actually - you are all very well disciplined and lovely.

But ... this isn't a synopsis. A synopsis is enclosed with the letter (but you haven't seen it because a) it's not part of the exercise and b) it doesn't really exist, because I never actually had to write one, THANK GOODNESS!! You are right, you do give the full plot/synopsis to the agent, but this is just the letter that accompanies it. The intention is to get the agent interested enough to read on and to show her/him that I'm competent and all the things she/he wishes me to be. Including nice.

When i eventually post the results, you'll all see much more clearly how to do a covering letter, because it's going to consist of a list of THINGS YOU MUST DO and THINGS YOU MUST NOT DO. In between those two lists, it's up to the author to shine.

Don't be a delicate plant!

No, that's not the "off" sentence. I agree I've already said the thing about chance, but it neatly rounded it off by making a play on the phrases "chances are".

No, you can't edit a comment - you can only delete it and redo it, but there's absolutely no need to worry about typos etc in a comment box - gosh, I'm not THAT crabbit!

liz fenwick said...

Coming in late here and finding it all fascinating....I was captivated throughout but I have to read one sentence three times for it wo work for me... "But Jess’s mother is an alcoholic and Jess, only child in a single-parent family, feels responsible."
However that is probably me needing more coffee :-)

catdownunder said...

Dear Ms Morgan
Yes, the cat is back with questions. Why have you written this story? Why are you writing for Young Adults? Do I have to go to your CV for this? What are your qualifications for embarking on this journey? Who in the heck are you in fact? You have not told me that. I like to know something about people. (We cats are a suspicious lot.)
And, okay it is an unusual voice, but when you say it is 'not the only defining feature' are you suggesting that there is just one more - or more than one? Why did you choose the present tense?
If you want me to purruse this I need to know as I am generally allergic to writing in the present tense. It has to be very good to grab me. Convince me Ms Morgan!
The Cat

(Seriously Nicola could you explain why you used present tense - or is that giving too much away? It fascinates me that people can manage to do this because I cannot handle it at all.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Catdownunder - assuming that your first questions are more of your Aussie humour (!), since a) some of them are answered in the letter and b) the others don't need to be - you ask re the present tense. It needs a whole post on its own, doesn't it?! The present tense is very difficult to pull off and it grates on many people (including, often, me). But that's because a) there are only certain situations/voices in which it works and b) it must be done in certain ways, as "present tense" actually covers several possibilities and there are some extra techniques you need to affect pace. And in this particular case it works perfectly and I do use the extra techniques! And the agent will know that within reading the first page of my sample, let alone the first 3 chapters. So, the thing to remember is that the package the agent has received contains all she needs in order to know whether she wants to see the rest.

Remember, guys, the covering letter is MUCH easier than the dreaded query letter that US authors have to write. The query letter contains no sample writing or synopsis, but this does.

catdownunder said...

Yes Nicola - wicked of me. Thankyou for the comments on present tense. I will now stop leaving my cat hair on the page!

D said...

Happened across this blog from the Behler Blog - great find! Mucho wittiness and polite, intelligent, etc!

So to plunge right in, just want to say that to me, this is a weak sentence: 'Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance'. Otherwise, don't know what's missing, and like the final paragraphs very much, but if you can show you know the work of any of the authors the agent represents, imo that would be nice, and if you have any platform, that would be useful info.

Nicola Morgan said...

D - welcome! Thanks for calling by from the inestimable Behlerblog!

You talk a very great deal of sense but I cannot tell you which of your comments are the most true ...

D said...

Sorry, just browsing the blog and realised I was supposed to say WHY, instead of just bellowing.

So, 'Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance' introduces the story with a misleading, generic and unengaging summary of a theme. The first sentence could work, though ‘story of love’ is bland, and ‘choice’ is bland, but ‘science of chance’ is a nice contrast and sounds interesting, if it wasn’t followed by ‘Jack and Jess meet by chance [how else?] and fall powerfully in love’. We’re put off these two at once, because it sounds as if their chance meeting *is the basis of the ‘science of chance’ we were looking forward to*. We don’t feel intrigued to know how they meet, and it’s unpromising that this Jack-and-Jill-ish couple fall in love, when the most interesting thing about them seems to be that they meet by chance. In fact, since one is a singer and one a drummer, it doesn’t seem *all that unlikely* that they would meet.
The 'science of chance' seems to be weakened further down the paragraph, too, when Jack is “obsessed by luck, chance, fate – whatever you call it”.
The ‘chance' element of your book story doesn’t come across as scientific, I think, more as original and promising – as you read on, even fascinating – but the reader of the letter doesn't know that yet.

Hope this makes some sense! – wipes brow with cup of mango tea...

Louise Wise said...

Have the answers been posted yet? I need answers! I'm writing the cover letter, and have wrote an essay!

Antonia Woodville said...

as an editor, I read this with interest. I would never ever counsel anyone to write a letter like this to an agent or publisher! My advice has been (for the past 30 years or so that I have been writing/editing and someone who is working on her sixth book in a forthcoming series) you send a covering letter which says this is me. A CV says this is what I have had published. A synopsis says, this is my book.
This would have been a better example, my friend, if you had sent it to someone who didn't know you or your work. Would they have been interested?