Wednesday 13 June 2012

Covering letters / query letters / submission letters

*waves to the audience at my Belfast Lit Festival event this evening*

For anyone approaching writing a submission letter for an agent or publisher, here is some basic advice, in advance of my forthcoming book, Dear Agent (scheduled for August 10th and published by the one and only Crabbit Publishing - me).

Many of you have heard this advice over and over again, so I apologise, but you wouldn't believe how many writers are still pitching in eye-rolling ways to agents and publishers, still clearly never having bothered to discover this very available and consistent advice.

Your covering letter with your submission to agent/publisher SHOULD:
  • Be individual – written specifically for this agent or publisher. 
  • Think of recipient – he/she has little time, expects worst but hopes for best. 
  • Be properly laid out – and include various contact info for you. ("Properly" not because agents care about precise layout rules but because they just want to see all the info clearly and not be confused.)
  • Make your book have “must-read” factor – apt for the genre. 
  • Avoid common mistakes. (See further down the page.) 
  • Have the following basic (but adaptable) structure: 
1. Para 1 – genre, title, length, age if not adult. If fiction, indicate complete and give length to nearest 1000 words. If n-fic, need not be complete – est length?

2. Paras 2 (& 3 if req’d) – pitch/hook. Start with core sentence which sums book. Then expand to give clear idea of MC & his goal/problem. Include only most compelling aspects. Indicate MC’s “journey”. Like back-cover blurb (but without gushing praise!)

If non-fiction – pitch clearly, concisely, compellingly, indicating what makes it different from competition. Again, imagine writing back-cover copy.

3. Para 4 – bit about you; relevant publishing credits; what you do if relevant; your “platform” if you have one. Show passion for genre – but please avoid word “passion”…

If non-fiction – this para MUST say something about credentials for writing your book; definitely mention platform. (Without it, probably won’t be published.)

4. Final para – rounding off. Keep it plain. Mention if sending to others at same time. Sound v professional and amenable. Could also be where you reveal passion for the genre – again without using that word!
Things NOT to put in your covering letter
  • Typos or crossings-out – not even one. 
  • Boasting or value statements about your book’s brilliance (or yours) – eg “beautifully-written” “lyrical” “highly original”. 
  • Gushing – “I know you’re going to love this”; “We’re going to be rich together”. 
  • Claims that your book has film potential. 
  • Claims that anyone other than an objective expert has enjoyed it – ESPECIALLY your family and writers’ group. 
  • Comments about how much you love writing/how long you’ve wanted to be a writer. 
  • Instruction that the recipient visit your blog or website to read samples of your work. 
  • Tacky email address – eg
  • “Wee extras” – gifts, photos, confetti, toffees… 
  • Abbreviations such as LOL. (You’d be surprised what people do…) 
  • Exclamation marks unless grammatically necessary. 
  • CAPITAL LETTERS FOR EMPHASIS. (Caps are correct for your book title, though.) 
  • Pointless details such as what sort of printer you used. 
  • Irrelevant detail about yourself - such as that you sing in a Welsh choir, unless your book is about Welsh choirs
  • The phrase “fiction novel”, unless you've discovered another sort.
  • Moronic comparisons – “…a kind of Clockwork Orange meets Bridget Jones’s Diary”.
Now, write and then, most important of all, SEND IT! (But only if you are 100% sober.)


Laura Mary said...

My favourite example of a covering letter has to be here...

Well it cuts to the chase if nothing else!

Philip C James said...

Damn. I'm 33,000 words into BRIDGET JONES AND THE TERRY'S CLOCKWORK ORANGE: A Fiction Novel, and it's back to the drawing board...

Useful advice. Thanks.

Squidge said...

Nicola - I love the fact that the computer thought the dizzeeegurl address was real and needed to be highlighted!
Lots of good advice here - mostly common sense - and can I say that a lot of the same rules apply if you're making a phone query as well.

KamilleE said...

Is there a difference between a query letter and a covering letter?


Nicola Morgan said...

Covering letter accompanies submission and is usual in UK. Query letter is usual in US and is a letter (or email) which pitches your book without the benefit of added sample material, so it needs to say more. If the agent likes the sound of it, she will request a sample. Etc. Is that helpful?

KamilleE said...

Oh right thanks! Would that mean a cover letter would be a bit more straightforward?

Nicola Morgan said...

Logically, you would think so, Kamille. But all the same principles apply. It's just that you could write a covering letter that had missed a few things but if the sample writing was good the agent would at least have that to judge you on. Whereas with the query, that's your only chance. Some UK agents are asking for query letters, though! Anyway, as I say, same principles apply.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

I'll admit it. dizzzeeeegurl is me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Redleg - welcome back! So, dizzeeeegurl is revealed :)

Philip - don't let me stop you!

Squidge - exactly. (On both comments.)

Laura Mary - it doesn't surprise me!

The thing that really bugs me is sometimes writers pitch something to me and ask for my help. I spend ages formulating a short reply that gives them all I can (even if that just means sending them to specific blog posts) and then they don't reply.

Anonymous said...

This is great advice, as always. I@m just wondering if its acceptable to have a core question instead of a core sentence as the hook in paragraph two. For example: What happens when Bridget Jones falls for Terry the Clockwork Orange?

KamilleE said...

Thanks! That's a shame. I was getting my hopes up that at least querying would be somewhat easier!

David John Griffin said...

Excellent advice, Nicola, thanks. :-) Except: "....most important of all, SEND IT! (But only if you are 100% sober.)" I mean, where's the fun in that? ;-)

I've recently been adding the following sentences to my agent/publisher submissions; I don't know if it helps but I like to think it does....

""Name of my manuscript" is a psychological novel, with aspects of stream-of-consciousness, magical realism and light experimentalism throughout, influenced by writers of postmodernist and magical realism literature as diverse as Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and Haruki Murakami.

"I consider that my potential readers would be those who enjoy the thought-provoking and multilayered symbolism/meanings of a literary novel along with the strange and sometimes surreal themes inherent in magical realism, all within an absorbing story."

Perhaps it's all too much; I really don't know.

Laura Mary said...

Helen - I've come to the conclusion that you should avoid asking questions at all costs! I've read some (admittedly quite funny!) rants on various agents’ blogs and websites.
The bottom line is that the person reading that question will have their own view on just what happens when Bridget Meets Mr Orange, and it won't be the same as what you think happens, and they may end up being disappointed by your version!

PS Mr Orange now has me thinking of Reservoir Dogs… Can we work that into the story somewhere?

A. M. Perkins said...

"Everyone is looking for the book that will be the next big thing. I'd like to tell you this book could be the one. I'd also like to tell you I've invented a spaceship with a faster-than-light drive powered only by cotton candy and puppies' dreams. Sadly, only one of these is true."

I'm guessing I need to delete this then ;-)

The sad thing is, a lot of the "no-no's" seem like common sense, but I've still seen people do them.

Kind of like the warning on the sunshade for the windshield of my car: WARNING: Do not drive with shade in place!

So THAT'S why I hit that tree!

widdershins said...

Bridget Jones'Diary meets Lord of the Rings!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sorry I deserted you - I was away doing events and am still in the middle of hectic programme.

Helen - actually, it's best not to ask any questions at all in pitches. They can be irritating. the agent wants you to tell, not ask. (I've now just read Laura Mary's comment about this - she's right.)

David - yes, that is *way* too much! Forgive me for saying this but it sounds pretentious. Now, it may well be that your writing lives up to it, but I pretty much guarantee that the agent will be sceptical, and therefore feel negative as she starts to read (if she does...)

AM Perkins - yup!

widdershins - ;(

Anonymous said...

Thank you Nicola and Laura May. MY WIP had a question as the hook until a few moments ago and you have saved me from being irritating.

David John Griffin said...

Thanks for your reply, Nicola, much appreciated. I see what you mean now about it sounding pretentious; of course I didn't mean to be, I guess I thought agents especially would need to know what sort of readership I consider my writing is for, as well as my writing influences.... but even if those are required, I can surely précis it (and make it less pretentious-sounding!)

Just for the record, I wasn't saying my writing is like or even as good as those authors I mentioned (but I know you know that); merely listing some authors who have influenced my writing. I can see now how it could be misread though...

For interest, when I had an agent back in the 80's, the guy who introduced me read one of my novels (now called The Unusual Tale of Alastair Stubb) and said, after reading it, without prompting, "It reminds me of Mervyn Peake's style" or words to that effect. I was pleasantly surprised, not realising how much influence that writer had on my writing! (But still I didn't think (and still don't think) he meant my writing was in any way comparable to Mervyn Peake, you understand.

Thanks again. Back to the drawing board... :-)

David John Griffin said...

Hi Nicola; I've got to get this off my chest:

I'm sad that you thought I meant that I was on-par with, or as good as those authors that I mentioned as writing influences only. I would never be so arrogant as to consider that.

To be honest, I'm almost in despair with trying to get my stuff professionally published anyhow, and I'm near to "throwing in the towel". I'm giving it this year and if no-go still, then I'll finally self-publish; perhaps sell a couple of hundred and be happy with that.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi David
Noooooo, I'm so sorry - I didn't mean it to sound as though I thought that. It was just when you asked if it was "too much" - yes, was all I meant. It's my fault for reading and writing so quickly - I've been overwhelmed with rushing around doing events and my message came over wrong. I didn't think you meant that, honestly. Just that there was unnecessary emphasis on your style of writing - the agent can pick it up from your writing itself, so you don't need to describe it. Does that make sense?

David John Griffin said...

I see and understand now, Nicola; that makes perfect sense, thank you.

OK, I'll relaaaaax now... :-)