Saturday 22 August 2009


I promised that I'd post this at the exact time of my workshop on the subject at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Think of us, eating chocolate and having fun!

(Btw, sticklers for correct language among you will have noticed that that last sentence can be read in two ways. It's deliberately ambiguous: either you or we are eating chocolate and having fun. And I'm not telling you which. It would be unprofessional.)

Now, those of you who have come late to this blog - where have you been all my life? - will need to go and read two posts first, as today's relates to all the ideas that came from them and also the competition I set up. Here's the first one, and the second is here. Or click the links to Covering Letters Part 1 & 2 on the list of articles on the right.

Your task was to guess what two improvements my agent said could be made to the sample letter. No one got both of them but one clever person got one of them. And the congratulations go to .... DOT! (Another reader, "D", got this later too, but a) it was later and therefore not first and b) he over-analysed the reasons and ended up not pinning it down in an objective, market-led way.)

DOT said "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." Spot on! It is indeed way more fraught. It's damned knife-edge bone-shivering skin-crawling stuff, with a load of passion thrown in. So, you win the prize - please visit my website and choose a book. Then email me ( with an address to send it to and a name to sign it for.

But, let's go through that letter now, because loads of comments came out of it, some of which reveal misconceptions and others which are valid. I'll go through the whole letter, explaining my rationale behind each bit. After that, I'll give a list of MUSTs, MUST NOTs, and MAYBEs.


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.
It is normal and correct to say what you are enclosing. I am indicating that I have read her submission guidelines. Because she's asked for a CV, I don't have to give details of my pedigree etc in the the letter. I have given the word count, implying that it is complete (which it must be) and showing that it is an appropriate word count so I am not an idiot or ignorant. I have identified the genre /age category, so that she knows immediately what she's about to read. I have given the title. I have not waffled, boasted or been obsequious Yay for me!
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.
As DOT says, that first sentence is not strong enough. My agent said it's too soft "for the current market". My preferred sentence would be something like: "Wasted is a novel of danger, risk and Fate, entwined in a passionate love story." (But I still haven't quite got it right - luckily I don't need to, as the book is being published anyway, but I'll need to work on it so I can enthuse people easily.) Several people commented on the need for more detail - but this is quite sufficient for a covering** letter. Remember: there is a synopsis in the same envelope, which there would not be in a US-style "query", and therefore a query would need more detail. The covering letter can be intriguing, AS LONG AS you have answered any questions (eg re motivation) properly in the synopsis and as long as the letter sounds confident. So, we don't need to know why Jess feels responsible, or how Jack's mother could have died twice.
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.
Someone commented on the present tense, saying that many people are put off by it. Yes, this is a risk and one which can only be taken in the covering letter if you feel that the story is so strong and intriguing that the agent (who may also be prejudiced against present tense) will read on. Thing is, in Wasted it absolutely is a defining feature, not just its present-tenseness but other aspects of the voice. By claiming that it is "unusual" and "vivid" I aim actually to draw attention to it and almost challenge the agent to try it. Someone commented on the repeated use of "difference" - it's deliberate and each use is mutually referential. This is an important pargraph, and this feature of alternative versions is crucial.
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.
Interesting points from this. Someone said, "But shouldn't it be perfect?" It's a fine line I'm treading here. I want to convey that yes, I have worked very hard and am not submitting something that is not the best I can make it. At the same time, I want to convey some understanding that whatever I produce will need to go through editing. So, I am being neither arrogant about my work nor ignorant of the process of publishing. At the same time, I have not committed the cardinal sin of saying "I know that an editor will want to work on this, so I have deliberately not made it perfect." DO NOT DO THAT!!! Some writers think that it doesn't matter about grammar/ punctuation etc, because "it will be sorted at editing stage." It DOES matter - because it shows whether you're a good enough writer.

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.
Here, I'm conveying that a) I have some writing experience b) I hope to have a fruitful career ahead of me and c) I know it will take hard work. All of this labels me (I hope!) as someone with whom an agent and editor will enjoy working. Ambition without delusion, confidence without arrogance, and always a determination to do better. What more could anyone want???
The high quality YA market may be relatively small, but it’s one I love and would be so proud to work in.
Here, I am indicating a knowledge of the market that I'm aiming to write for. I'm also conveying that the reason I want to write this type of book is that this is the type of book that I love. So, I'm conveying a connection with my intended readers. It shows that I know exactly what I'm doing and why. And that my reasons are good.

But this is where my agent suggested another line should be added. She pointed out that it would be even better if I named a couple of my favourite YA authors, who write in the same sub-genre as Wasted. This would show even greater knowledge of and passion for the genre. I wouldn't say that I am trying to emulate them but I would say something about my respect for their work.

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.
Several of you were doubtful about this. Why am I admitting that she was not the first agent I approached? It's because you have to be up front - that's being professional and good to work with. An agent is not stupid: think about it - how likely is it that one particular agent was the first one you approached? They don't mind not being the first - though I wouldn't confess if she was the 50th ... - but they do mind very much if you're not up front about sending your submission to others simultaneously. (Some agents specifically ask you not to, in which case you mustn't.) I also have no problem with saying that Tanya Highbury knocked me back for that reason - again, I'm showing honesty and realism; also, by naming the other agency, I'm even giving my potential agent the opportunity to check. (Agents talk ...) By admitting this situation, I reveal that I understand the ins and outs of getting an agent.
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.
Ebony pointed out, rightly, that Janet Reid's post, which I'd linked to, said she hated it when an author said something about knowing how busy she was blahdy blah. However, we have to remember that agents are just like other people, ie different and full of individuality. Personally, I believe this sentence of mine shows common courtesy and respect and portrays me as the sensible and aware person that I am. Frankly, if the agent I'm writing to is going to knock me back because of it, I am maybe not suited to her. More importantly, my comment is part of a wider and crucial strategic point: I am asking her to tell me whether she's happy for me to contact other agents. This is a 100% professional attitude that reveals a good understanding of an agent's work. I am also showing that I want to get on quickly and that I am finding a way to do so which does not mess anyone around. Agents understand this.
I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Wasted.
I don't think anyone had a comment about this bit. One point though: you should never say, "I know you're going to love what you read..." Because no, you don't know that.
Yours sincerely,
Because, obviously, you know about sincerely for letters where you've used the name and faithfully for when you don't know the name. BUT, you should always know the name. Never do a Dear Sir or Madam
Modest confidence, unobsequious respect and clear professionalism - that's what we want to convey. Simple!

So, my trusty lists:

  • be very clear about genre, and age range. If for kids, exactly what age range - 5-7? 12+?
  • give length of book to nearest 100 words
  • follow individual submission guidelines to the letter - and show that you know exactly what THIS agent/editor wants
  • thereby show that this is a personal approach and NOT a mail-shot
  • briefly describe what the book is about, sufficiently for the recipient to know a) that you can write b) that you understand the market and c) that this is a fascinating book that the agent will want to read
  • give the right amount of detail: so, in my letter, I did want to say that Jack's mother has died (twice) but I did not need to say why Jess feels responsible. Becasue the first thing is really important to the book but the second thing isn't (but is answered in the book)
  • show professionalism
  • show knowledge of and passion for the specific market you're aiming for
  • follow the traditional rules of writing letters, including layout, signing off, including date
  • include proper contact details
  • be honest
  • be respectful
  • be 100% accurate grammatically
  • follow manuscript layout guidelines available from many places on the internet - ie A4 white paper, black ink, TNR 12pt, decent margins, double-spacing, one side of paper, page number+name+title on every page

  • absolutely no submission services/agencies/companies who claim to send a perfect covering letter to zillions of agents and publishers. See Jane Smith's post on the subject.
  • no typos or crossings out. If you make a mistake and don't notice till after printing it, reprint it
  • if for children, don't say it's for 8-18 year-olds - be precise
  • no sycophancy or creepy compliments
  • no boasting; no value statements such as "exciting" or "brilliant". Things like "fast-moving" are fine.
  • no claims that anyone in your family / circle of friends / acquaintances has read and loved it
  • no comment about how much you love writing and how long you've been writing for - see Rachelle Gardner's post on Aug 11. She's talking about US query letters, but the same principle applies
  • no tacky email address or one borrowed from husband/friend
  • no "extras" - such as toffee or a photo of you dressed as a koala (or even not dressed as a koala)
  • no "I know you're going to love this"
  • no use of the phrase "fiction novel" - what is a non-fiction novel?
  • gap in the market - with fiction, don't say there's gap in the market: there isn't. With fiction, all we need is a great story to fit within (even if pushing the boundaries of) an existing area. With non-fiction, gaps in the market are useful - but consider whether there's a gap because there are no readers. So, be careful.
  • mentioning other authors represented by the agent / published by the editor - if relevant
  • length of letter - not too short and not too long. Just say what you feel needs to be said - and hope that the recipient feels the same. Sorry, but there are obviously elements of the "perfect" approach that are subjective. Just follow the all-important rule of making every word count and not putting in anything without first evelauting its effect.
  • future projects - yes, if you're at an interesting stage of a similar project (ie one that could be the second novel orf your two-book deal), mention it briefly. But don't let it get in the way of this submission.
  • comparing your style to another author - this is very tricky to get right and, frankly, I wouldn't do it. It's sometimes a tad arrogant-sounding and risks putting the agent/editor off if they happen not to like that other author (which would be fair enough if your style was really exactly like the other author's, but that is usually not the case). Also, you don't want to sound derivative. But occasionally it can be helpful to mention, done properly.
  • giving reason for writing this book - hmm, well, yes, OK, possibly relevant, in fact often so. BUT be very very careful not to indicate that this novel is overly personal experience, because then I might worry where your second one will come from. So, yes, do it if it's relevant but do it carefully
  • cross-over potential - hmm, tricky one. It's pretty much not for you to say, even though you may think you know. So, be very aware of exactly what it means.
And that's about it. Go write that perfect letter, even though perfect is subjective ...

Sorry for the lack of my normal crabbit humour in this post. I'm writing it a couple of weeks before posting and I'm feeling serious because I'm surrounded by lists and lists of lists. I have also lost (temporarily, I hope!) my creative spark, as I have put novel-writing aside to prepare for Edinburgh Book Festival stuff. As well as six events and a few chairings, I've got the Soc of Authors in Scotland AGM and summer party for 200 in a marquee to organise and it's slightly doing my head in. I am feeling like an event manager, not a writer. (But by the time you read this, the event will be over, which is a strange concept for me right now.)

One day, I will be properly back. meanwhile, please don't go away.


Anonymous said...

I find the differences between UK and US query standards v. interesting. Sadly, I have nothing intelligent to say about them! Lovely post.


annerallen said...

Great post. Thanks for all the detail. There are some interesting differences between UK and US query protocol, but the essentials seem to be the same. I found a Tweet on this while Tweeting my own blogpost on the subject: "13 reasons why your query was rejected."

But I see now I should have added a 14th: "Creepy compliments." Definitely to be avoided. Thanks for this. Great blog.

Solvang Sherrie said...

It's interesting to see the difference between a cover letter and a query letter, as well as the differences between countries. Thanks for posting this. I'm always on the lookout for good examples.

Juliet Boyd said...

Thanks for such a detailed explanation.

I did have a little giggle when you mentioned tacky e-mail addresses. It might seem like something so insignificant, but I have seen so many job applications with a very unprofessional, e-mail address and they probably had no idea what impression they were giving to the employer.

Ebony McKenna. said...

This is so brilliant and helpful.

I've seen many posts where agents and editors say what not to do. Which is helpful. But here, you've shown people what TO do?

I'm sending everyone here.

And I'm sure your OBE is in the mail :-D

catdownunder said...

Ms Morgan, I want to curl up into a little furry ball. I can't do this! You scare me! How can you expect me, a mere cat, to reach such purrfection? Purrhaps I really should just stick to putting cat hair on my blog.
I want to be honest. I want to say 'Dear agent,I have tried to write a book about (you don't need the details here Ms Morgan). I don't know if I can write or not. If it is any good at all it will need work. I am promise to listen and clean the pages of excess furr and straighten the rest of it as you suggest. Would it be too much to ask you to take five minutes out of your busy day reading much more important human mss and read the first three pages for me? Thankyou very much if you can, The Cat"
I wonder what sort of submission letter they got from the author of "The Silent Miaou"?
Seriously Nicola - I find all this quite terrifying!

Dan Holloway said...

Nicola, this is wonderful but I absolutely want to tear my hair out (and am reminded again why I self-publish :-))

"follow individual submission guidelines to the letter - and show that you know exactly what THIS agent/editor wants"

In my subbing days I followed this to the letter, whilst reading Carole Blake saying it's nonsense, and loads of authors saying "well I did it my way". I thought it the height of discourtesy and unprofessionalism (and in my job working for a university, if someone doesn't follow guidelines and you give them the marks you'd actually be breaking equal opportunities law) to do otherwise. Recently I've heard editros and agents say it really doesn't matter if the writing's good.

It's no wonder writers are confused :-)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan, don't tear your hair out! The simple truth us that the more brilliant your writing, the less you need to do a perfect covering letter, BUT how confident are you that the writing is brilliant and why would you take the risk?? Of course if the material is fab, the agent or editor will love it, but my advice is focused on giving everyone the best chance. If self-punning means aiming for less than perfection then that will usually show in the writing too, which us why so much s-pinned stuff needs a huge amount of editing I know you know.

Donna Hosie said...

This is why your site has so many followers. We may love your photos of shoes and chocolate - (not the feet!) - but the fact you are prepared to sit down and deconstruct a query for us mere mortals, for no other reasons than to be helpful, is simply wonderful.

Many thanks, Nicola.

DOT said...

OMG I can't believe it. This is the first thing I've won since the medal for the best Hand Writing, aged eight.

I feel truly humbled by the experience. [Bursts into tears]

Thanks Nicola. x

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks, all, for your comments. I do think though that it's important to realise that it's your book that counts most of all (thank goodness!). And that if your writing is abs brilliant it will get published even if you don't write the perfect covering letter etc. Thing is, why damage your chances even a tiny bit by not getting the approach right? After all, you may hit the agent/editor on a bad day and they won't look past your small errors. So, don't stress, catdownunder, and don't curl up in a quivering heap - just follow the advice that makes most sense to you, because your approach is also about YOU, not a bland cardboard cut-out of a perfect author, and keep trying to attract that dream agent and publisher.

Yes, there's a lot of advice, and YES, sometimes it conflicts. That's because we're all humans, trying to understand each other. And we're all a bit different with books that are different and readers who are different.

Don't get too hung up on whether one piece conflicts with someone else's - do what feels right for you once you've read stacks of good advice from different people.

Ebony - OBE? Tee hee!

Nicola Morgan said...

annerallen - just been to see yours. Great blog too!

Anonymous - yes, it's complicated. Rachelle Gardner and Lynn Price (behlerblog) are the experts on that. Oh and Nathan Bransford

Suzanne Brandyn said...

Loved the detailed post. Very informative. :)