Sunday, 2 August 2009


Yesterday, while you were all frantically trying to find ways to criticise my near-perfect covering letter without offending me by criticising my near-perfect covering letter, I was in town buying SHOES. Because, with 14 days till the start of the Edinburgh Book Festival, things were close to a panic situation. I can't show you the shoes (there's a news blackout) but I can show you the beginning of the tents going up.

Meanwhile, I thought we'd stay on the topic of covering letters and I'd answer a few of the uncertainties in your attempts to guess what my agent thought could be improved about the letter. (If you've just come to this and haven't read the letter and the attached competition, please do now.)

Meanwhile meanwhile, I should also say that one person has guessed one of the two imperfections correctly. I'm not saying who, but I will say that this person has identified the one sentence that isn't quite strong enough.

So, a few points raised by you, in no particular order:
  1. Ebony suggested not saying that I've already been knocked back by the Tanya Highbury agency. No, I put this in to show my honesty and professionalism; and to say that I know how busy she is shows that I understand her task and that I'd be nice to work with. (Then Ebony redeemed herself by saying that the covering letter rocks, which it obviously does.)
  2. Wendy said I should say she was my first pick as agent - thing is, she wasn't. (No, in real life, my agent WAS, but for this made-up one, I've said I approached someone else first). Keren made a linked point - again, I'm going for honesty and professionalism.
  3. Rachel said that I should point out that the book is finished. It certainly should be finished, but I've given its word count, so it most likely is; I think it's clear from how I talk about it that it's finished. So fair point, Rachel, but not the right one.
  4. Rachel also has doubts about this sentence: "I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible", saying that it should be better than that, ie perfect. Point taken, but I wanted to show that I am not arrogant enough to think that it's perfect and that I will work well editorially, while not presenting a piece of work that is less good than I can make it on my own. Rachel also suggests I say why I'm approaching this particular agent (you said author, but you were tired!!) - a valid point, but not the one my agent raised! Actually, I've just found the real letter that I did hook my agent with, and in that I DID say why I was contacting her.
  5. Donna - the YA market IS small in volume. Yes, the quality is strong, but the size is not; and I put that in to show my understanding of the market. Your other point is a good one, but again not what my agent picked up on!
  6. Catdownunder - you comment that the letter was long. It's fine. And the synopsis IS separate and would be much longer (two pages). Re the CV - I agree, but some agents ask for one, and the reason I said this was that it shows I've read her submission guidelines. (viz Lexi's comment, too). The covering letter for some books might be shorter, but it's important to select the info that nails your book and to write a letter which is long enough to say what you feel needs to be said. If what you feel needs to be said is too long for the agent, yes, the agent will switch off, but it's a call you have to make for each book and each agent/publisher. So, yes, a letter could be too long (or too short) but this one is not. Oh, and I'm not sure if the comment about not needing to know how hard I've worked on my submission is part of your joke (!), but the point I wanted to make was that although I've worked hard (and am therefore professional and not blasé) I understand that an editor might have some changes to suggest (so I'm not arrogant) and that I'd respond well to that (and so am easy to work with).
  7. AND, catdownunder, I hope you are joking when you say I should say I know how much she will like my submission! That's an absolute no-no!
  8. Various - no need to say what I'm now working on. Nothing wrong with saying that, but no need. Yes, I agree that we need to show that we have a long-term career in us, but we can do that in other ways - eg when I say I want to work within the YA market.
  9. Various - wanting more details of the plot/motivation? No, not for the covering letter when a synopsis is enclosed. I think I've given the max that an agent would need at this point. If it was a US query letter (ie not accompanying a synopsis and sample) then yes, I'd agree we need more details.
  10. Juliet - no need to compare to style of another author. It's possible to do this but you have to be very careful.
  11. Juliet and others - re the mysterious bit about the mother dying twice: my agent was quite happy about this but I agree that making the genre unclear is not a good idea. However, I'm happy with the tone and the air of mystery about this, and that the agent would discover the answer in the synopsis. Thing is, if you write the letter confidently enough and well enough, little mysteries that are deliberate can have no detrimental effect.
  12. Thomas - a motive for writing the story? No, definitely not. The motive should only ever be a love of telling stories, not a personal connection with the idea/characters. If I'd said it was anything to do with my life, the agent would have run a mile! (But thanks for your comments and please don't apologise - you're all being very brave!)
  13. Juliet - ah the MUFFINS! Of course!!
There's a load more I could comment on but I think that's enough. In fact, it's probably too much. Anyway, keep the comments coming, either on this post or the competition one - I'll consider them all for the competition anyway. Deadline is Aug 14th and the results will go up in a definitive post about perfect covering letters on Aug 22nd, the day I'm doing the workshop. The workshop is 2pm (GMT) so Ill schedule the post for that moment, and you can all think of us having fun in our tent! With chocolate!

As the competition now stands, your task is
  1. work out who got the weak sentence correct (and why) and
  2. identify what my agent thinks is missing (though it would not be a deal-breaker, I have to say)
Excuse any typos in this post - am being hassled to get my walking boots on and go climb a mountain. And my walking boots are not pretty.

I am now down from my mountain. Here was the view from the top, looking over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. The fact that I now have no power left in my legs is entirely beside the point. And there is my dog, looking rightly proud. Though in true dog fashion she has her back turned to the view, as she has no appreciation of anything that doesn't taste like food.

Maybe I should have enclosed a picture of her in my covering letter?


Wendy said...

I'm not sure what was the scariest part of this exercise so far. The part where we have to critique your letter, or the part where we all realize how incredibly little we really DO know about writing one of these bad boys.

Still, I'm sure agents actually get very few letters that couldn't be improved somehow... oh please. gulp. :D

Rachel Fenton said...

This is fun - much more fun than writing my own covering letter, lol.

Going to have a re-read and then go to sleep!

DOT said...

I used to work on the S&N brand so spent many meetings in Edinburgh. My hosts were the best and I have very happy memories of neerdo [?] pubs and in the midst of fantastic scenery. Woof!

catdownunder said...

Yes, I was having a bit of fun Nicola. As I said, I have a lot to learn about covering letters! They require courage and an enormous belief in oneself and the quality of the work. I am not good at 'selling' myself. I cannot judge my own work. How do you do this?
Have I ever submitted anything? Yes. I was once told that something was 'not right for us'. Were they being nice or did they mean it? I do not know. The other submission languishes because the publisher is simply too busy - although she keeps telling me she IS going to read it. As it is the only possible place it can be submitted I have to leave it at that.
The rest languish in the 'bottom drawer' of the computer. They need work. When my day job involves less than fourteen and sixteen hour days of other sorts of, rise at 5 and not 5:30 Cat and you can write what you want to write for half an hour!
Can an old cat learn new tricks?

Ebony McKenna. said...

Which just goes to show, the 'writing a cover letter to an agent' caper is very subjective.

Comment from agent Janet Reid (which, ehem, you recently linked to from your esteemed blog)

“And, don’t disrespect yourself in your query letter by saying ‘I know how busy you are,’ - you’re important and busy, too!”

What appeals to one agent might turn another right off.

Which means we must craft each letter specifically for each agent. Yep, it's very hard work.

Nicola Morgan said...

Ebony - interesting point. Aspects of the letter will be subjective but I believe that's actually important in itself because this is going to be about a personal relationship as well as a business one. So, you have to get on with the agent. Mycomment about knowing how busy she was is important to me because a) it shows that i do know that and respect that and b) if she doesn't respond positively to such politeness then, (all respect to Janet R!!) I wouldn't much want to work with her! Also, the context of the precise phrase is about me asking her to go out of her way to let me know if she's ok with me contacting other agents, so it's totally professional. I agree that we also shouldn't be sycophantic, so, eg, if I'd said, "I know how busy such an important agent as yourself must be" that would have been over-the-top and yucky!! We have to be respectful but clear and strong.

So, while I agree there's an inevitable and right degree of subjectivity, I also stand firm on the fact that there are some objective do/don't rules. Which I'll make really really clear in the final post.

catdownunder: something being "not right for us" - can mean anything! Can mean that it was good but not the sort of thing they take; but I'm afraid more likely to mean "not good enough", which gives you no more clues...

It's very hard to judge your own work, I agree. It comes with practice and with weighing other (trusted) people's opinions up and practising. It's like many other things - art and music, eg - you need expert opinions before you can see how to measure yourself.