Unlike the synopsis, which some agents and publishers don’t even bother reading, the cover letter is immensely important. Next to your sample chapters, it’s the most vital item in your submission package. In most cases, it’s the first thing your agent / publisher will read. So, no pressure…
Here are some tips on how to write a compelling cover letter:
If you’re submitting by post, your cover letter should be printed (never hand-written) on good quality white or off-white paper in black ink.
You should use a clear letterheading that’s not too busy and contains all your contact details.
If you’re submitting via e-mail, letterheading doesn’t matter, but you should still include all your contact details. You should also avoid anything cute or offensive in either the e-mail format or your e-mail address: puppies as part of your e-mail stationary, ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’, etc. will not endear you to your reader. Keep it simple and professional.
Use a standard font – 12 point Times New Roman or something similar.
If you are dyslexic: Standard fonts can be difficult for dyslexics to read. I’d suggest you write your letter or e-mail in whatever font you find easiest, then change it to a standard one before you print or press ‘send’. Don’t submit either a manuscript or a cover letter in Comic Sans or any other unusual font. Make sure the font is big enough for tired eyes to read it.
The cover letter generally consists of three parts:
The pitch; about the author; and the closing.
1. Salutation, the pitch, and why you’re contacting this particular agent:
Dear Mr or Ms Whoever… Keep it formal. Make absolutely sure you’re spelling the name correctly. And despite Lennon and McCartney’s advice, never start a cover letter with the words, “Dear sir or madam…”
Check out your selected agent’s website and use phrases from their interests in your letter. If they say they’re looking for ‘taut thrillers’ then tell them, ‘My novel is a taut thriller…’ Unless, you know, it’s a fantasy about the knights of Camelot.
Tell the reader if you have a specific reason you have for pitching to them. “I read in XX magazine that you love the Biggles stories and my novel is set in the world of pioneer aviation…”
Be wary of saying you write in the style of another author they represent or publish. While some people don’t mind, many others really loath this particular approach. Perhaps phrase it, “My story is set in the world of forensic medicine, along the lines of Patricia Cornwell or Kathy Reichs…” Note the difference: you’re identifying the genre, not comparing your writing to theirs. Arrogance such as ‘I’m the next Steven <sic> King’ will put people’s teeth on edge. And not only in publishing…
The opening paragraph contains your pitch. That is, the juicy details that make the agent / publisher long to read your story.
To write a really strong pitch you need to identify the thing that sets your novel apart, and condense it to a couple of sentences. If it’s a book about zombies, well, there may already be a few of those floating around. If yours is about a zombie writing a self-help book for his pals, or a zombie in love, or trying to hold down a job… now you’re on to something.
The pitch should tell the reader what’s at stake for your hero. If your self-help zombie guru is motivated by seeing friends die because they ate tainted brains, then that’s an important element to include.
Getting this right takes time. You may need to write a summary of your novel and just keep condensing it until you get to the kernel. If you find this difficult – and I think most people do – practice by doing it for your favourite books or movies. What’s the kernel in Star Wars? Casablanca? A Tale of Two Cities? Think of this exercise as a parlour game for novelists.
Here’s how I wrote mine:
A Biased Judgement is the first in a series, and is complete at 99,500 words. The narrative weaves together Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes canon with historical events. It is told in the form of a diary written by Holmes himself. Set 1897, the year of the queen’s diamond jubilee, the story features the detective solving a series of apparently unrelated murders which tie into a network of international assassins. With the queen next on their list of targets, Holmes must take unprecedented risks to save both monarch and empire.
Note that my pitch contains a number of essential elements, such as:
The novel is intended as part of a series.
How long it is.
It’s complete. (Never pitch an unfinished novel.)
What sets it apart. In my case, it’s taking the fictional character, honouring the original stories, and having a tumultuous historical period as the backdrop. I’ve also revealed what’s at stake for my hero (saving the monarch and the empire.)
Incidentally, I identified the novel as an historical thriller in my opening sentence (not included in this sample) because the agent I was pitching to specified that genre as something she liked and it certainly describes my book. But I could also describe it as a crime thriller or a mystery if the agent used those terms instead.
Writing the pitch is hard so I’d really recommend you check out the Query Shark: http://queryshark.blogspot.ie/ She’s a New York agent and runs a blog reviewing pitches and offering tips on how they can be improved. She can be terrifying and hilarious in equal measures, but she’s always educational.
2. Who you are and your credentials for writing this book:
For instance, if you are submitting a thriller set in a hospital it helps if you can say you worked as a doctor / nurse / orderly for a period of time. Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) worked in a psychiatric hospital and it’s a fair assumption that he made his publisher aware of the fact. If your novel is set in the world of antiques and you’ve been a collector for years, then mention it. If you lived in Hong Kong for ten years and that’s the setting for your novel, then it’s a strong selling point. The things that set you apart and that give the agent a sense that you can introduce them to a new world are what you’re going for. Simply saying that you graduated from University with a degree in literature won’t do it.
Nor will saying that you’re nineteen and it’s your first novel.
Don’t say your family and friends loved your book. (If you can say a famous author loved your MS, then that’s a horse of an entirely different colour!)
If you do have writing credentials, mention them, but only if they’re pertinent. Saying you have a blog about flower-pressing probably won’t help if you’re pitching a novel about a Scotland Yard detective (unless he or she happens to be into flower-pressing.) Or if your blog has a very wide readership you should mention it because you have a ready-made audience right there.
3. Your contact information and closing:
I always have my contact info on the front page of my manuscript, but include it in the cover letter as well. Don’t make it hard for people to reach you.
If you’re submitting electronically, you need only include your e-mail address and a phone number.
If you are submitting by post include your address. I know it’s obvious, but you’d be surprised…
If you are submitting by post you should include a self-addressed envelope with sufficient postage for the return of your manuscript. If the agency offers the option, you can say you would prefer they let you know their decision via e-mail.
Even if you are using a pen name or your initials, always sign the letter with your full name. That is to say, ‘Mandy James’ rather than Miranda, if that’s what you go by. But don’t sign your name as ‘M.R. James’ even if you plan on using that as your pen name (and you’re really be wise not to use the name of another author.)
Next week: The writer’s CV.