Thursday, 23 September 2010


A very good writer I know, with poems and short stories to her credit, has sent me a covering letter for your comment. I know she's been working really hard on this, and she's got it honed down to something very lean and neat. But has she got it right? What do we all think?

Please note that this is for a UK submission, not a US-style query.

Dear Ms./Mr. AGENT,

I enclose the synopsis and first three chapters of my 54,000-word literary novel, Little Dead Boys.

Little Dead Boys is a suburban fairytale about a couple on the verge of breakup who each become obsessed with their own family mysteries. Kit goes to her mother's house in the suburbs to sort out her relationship with her girlfriend Gretchen and her art project, but there she gets tangled up in the mystery of a decades-old child killer. Gretchen needs to figure out what she’s doing with music school, her girlfriend, and her lover – but all she cares about is the mother she never met.

Last year I graduated with Distinction from Glasgow University's Creative Writing MLitt, after which I won a New Writers' Award from the Scottish Book Trust and the Gillian Purvis Award. I have also been awarded a writing retreat at West Dean College. I have around 80 short stories, poems and personal essays in print.

My writing has been compared to your client AUTHOR'S NAME due to its quirky fantasy elements/fairy-tale tone/LGBT appeal (DELETE AS APPROPRIATE). I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Little Dead Boys. I have enclosed an SASE for your reply, or you are welcome to email.

Yours sincerely,



Gill James said...

Not bad and certainly much better than many I've seen.A little more information about the story and a better balance between the three.More about the story and less about the writer.
It's to the point but maybe a little dull. Still, better a little dull thta too far the other way.

Stroppy Author said...

Is a 'decades-old child-killer' not just a child-killer in their 20s, or 30s or 40s (etc)? Is it the mystery that is decades old?

I was confused - is the girlfriend the lover? Is this a lesbian relationship with an external lover (male or female)? There is nothing here that justifies or begins to explain the 'fairytale' label. Her relationship with her art project? Or just to sort out her art project? The child-killer is a member of her family? This is implied, but it took two readings to realise that. I think it's a bit too lean - there is a lot crammed into the middle paragraph, so it's rather jumbled.

'Figure what she's doing with music school' is vague and looks lazy. I write very colloquial/informal letters to editors, so I'm not querying the informality but the imprecision (though maybe for an editor/agent you don't know...). I'm not sure the art project and music course are 'grabby' enough. The child-killer, mystery mother and relationship in crisis are potentially far more compelling. I think you're underselling it.

But what do I know? I never write submission letters... Take more notice of someone else :-)

Go away google said...

I don’t have experience of Creative Writing MAs myself, but I know some people think that they have led to mass-production of exquisitely-tailored, quiet, ultimately dull novels. On the basis of this query I would probably expect your novel to be in that category – I’d be willing to be pleasantly surprised, but not expecting it. Though I should say at this point that I work in commercial children’s fiction, not adult literary, so you are probably not aiming at me.

I also wonder if saying at the beginning that it’s 54,000 words might be a turn-off for a hurried agent looking for a reason to reject and so clear the inbox. As I’m sure you know well, 54k is a bit below the usual minimum for a novel. I wouldn’t hide the info, but maybe it could be moved.

Overall, I think you have done such a good job of eliminating reasons for the agent to reject you that you haven’t put in enough reasons for her/him to accept you! Looking at your track record I bet there are good things about this book, so I’d stick some of them back in.

sheilamcperry said...

This certainly looks like a very sensible letter by any standards, so that must be one big hurdle out of the way!
I did find the story a little confusing and I think the problem is mainly in this sentence: Kit goes to her mother's house in the suburbs to sort out her relationship with her girlfriend Gretchen and her art project, but there she gets tangled up in the mystery of a decades-old child killer.

Maybe the sentence is just too long and needs to be broken up a bit. But like the previous commenter, I found it hard to work out who was whose partner, so if Kit and Gretchen are a couple then perhaps the word 'partner' should be used instead of 'girlfriend'. Also it is not clear whose the art project is, so maybe that part of the sentence could be rearranged: '... to sort out her art project and her relationship with...'
I think the 'decades-old' thing could be resolved by making it qualify the mystery and not the child killer.
I have never been successful with a submission myself so these are just ideas and not based on any practical experience.

Stroppy Author said...

I do agree with Anna with regard to creative writing MAs. Mentioning it raises certain expectations (not good ones) so then you need to demonstrate that your book is not going to be carefully crafted in terms of style, but substandard in terms of plot, theme and structure. Or just don't mention it, and say instead where you have been published (as long as it's somewhere reasonable, not the local parish magazine).

Is it a children's novel? If so, the 54,000 is not really a problem. But it doesn't *sound* like a children's novel.

Anonymous said...

As written, the description of the book didn't grab me. Why are Kit and Gretchen on the verge of a breakup? This is an interesting question. As a harried reader, I'm less interested in problems with an arts project or music music school.

Biography paragraph: I'd put the sentence "I have around 80 short stories... " first.

Best of luck!

Anonymous said...

Well done for being brave enough to put your covering letter up for critique.

This covering letter is certainly neat, concise and to the point. But because of that it lacks a certain something. By that I mean it feels flat when the story clearly isn't.

Is the art project crucial to the story? If not, I'm not sure it's a necessary addition, particularly when you could use those extra words for something else that might intrigue us more.

Following previous comments I would also say I didn't get a feel for the 'fairytale' aspect. Clearly it is something you understand, but it isn't explained.

Finally 54K seems a touch short for an adult book. I'm presuming this is an adult book judging from the subject matter.

All in all these are small points. You have done a great job and reading between the lines I'd say you've probably got the makings of a very good tale.

Good luck with it and well done.

Dan Holloway said...

Let me say up front I've read snippets of Little Dead Boys and it's one of the most exciting, brilliant things I've ever read by an axtraordinarily talented and committed writer. I would (as she knows) snap the author's hand off to publish this at eight cuts galery press, but I know she has bigger plans in store for it - whoever ends up grabbing it is very very lucky.

1. as this is an agent query not directed to a specific publisher, I think the author needs to demonstrate the saleability of a 54k manuscript - either by comparison or by listing the publishers she knows are looking fro mss of this length.

2. Suburban fairytale is a great term. It makes me think Updike and David Lynch and that's exactly where this book is pitched

3. "Kit goes..." this sentence is too clunky - maybe it's a personal predilection but I always think the key conflict sentence in a pitch reas best beginning "when..." it makes the clauses relating the situation and conflict flow into each other better.

4. Give us Gretchen's age - "needs to figure out..." clearly refer to the common concerns of someone at a paticular time in their life - make it clear by giving her age.

5. The last sentence of main para 1 is the hook - to me a child-killer is a real hook-ish thing and I don't get why it's mentioned then dropped.

6. I wonder if it needs to be explained that this isn't YA what with the subject matter and the length? maybe the fairytal refernce does that.

7. I don't know about the credits section - I see conflicting advice on them - ruling, Nicola? - I've heard that they're irrelevant altogether/essential/relevant only when pertinent to the particular book - most confusing

8. "My writing has been compared" Is it not better to say "my writing holds appeal for a similar market to..."

What may be a key point - when I read the opening of Little Dead Boys I got goosebumps. The letter doesn't do that. It's that key first main para. Too disjointed. Thinking again at sentence 1 "breakup..." at this point you could say something much more grippy - become is a rather saggy word "descend" is always a good one.

Nicola Morgan said...

In huge haste (sorry) - thanks, everyone. I agree with lots of you but particuarly with Dan. I think all his points are spot on. (You ask about credits - on balance it's a good idea to include them when they are strong enough, and I know this author's are.)

I agree with Dan and sveral others that because it's so neat and snappy it lacks something. I'd like a bit more about the story - not much more in quantity but more of its essence and nature. I'd like to know more of what it feels like to read. And I aalso like the term suburban fantasy - but would like a bit more that would explain to me what it feels like to read THIS suburban fantasy. I would want to be sold to a bit more, to be tantalised and intrigued. Essentially, we must make the agent's job easy - the agent's job is to sell to a publisher. This won't do it, but I have no doubt that the story is as well-written as Dan says.

Stroppy - you should be an editor... You should be my editor. I would want to throw sharp things at you, but you should still be my editor.

I like Anna's point: "Overall, I think you have done such a good job of eliminating reasons for the agent to reject you that you haven’t put in enough reasons for her/him to accept you! Looking at your track record I bet there are good things about this book, so I’d stick some of them back in."

Thanks for ALL your comments, everyone.

Sarah Duncan said...

I found the term literary novel off-putting, and the length is waaaay under the norm for an adult novel, literary or otherwise.

The para about the novel I found confusing for the same reasons others have mentioned. I couldn't work out what was actually going to happen - the characters weren't interacting, weren't doing anything apart from some heavy duty navel gazing. Is the novel really about solving the mystery of the child killer? Or sorting out the art project?

I think it's asking for trouble to say your work has been compared to X, because it begs the question who has been doing the comparing? Your mum? Your cat? Or the book buyer for Tesco? I have to say it sounds like a bit of a brush-off line to me... Saying it would appeal to the same market as readers of X is safer.

Having said all that, it IS better than many I've seen too. But I don't think a first time adult novel of 54,000 words is a feasible prospect, and I'd guess most agents wouldn't get past the first para.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of the comments. The only thing I would add is when you say you have over 80 articles/stories in print, include some of the places they were printed - which magazines etc - just to give it extra umph.

Emma said...

Hi - Just briefly - I like that your letter is not try-hard, that you don't oversell the novel. But, I think the tone errs on the side of being too flat - it needs a little more sparkle. To me the interest is in the child killer plotline, and I think you could make this sound darker, more intriguing.

I love the title, and if I saw the book in a bookstore, I would pick it up for this alone. Best of luck.

Glynis Peters said...

I wonder if you should open with the line that gave Dan goosebumps? Then add that it is from your Xword MS. If the hook is that good it will catch the eye. Then write an 'in the present' blurb.

Possibly use the term, I have a portfolio of X published words, two of which-blah blah blah.

Good luck.

Jenny Woolf said...

I liked it but think she should stop after the "decades old child killer" Maybe "murder" would be best. I didn't immediately grasp what the rest of the story was all about.

Did you take her on?

simon k .mureu said...

I am a Kenyan author and like the submissions tips