One of the most important hurdles any hopeful writer needs to cross is that of the cover letter, which is sent along with their query when they are making contact with a literary agent, or publisher, or even when entering some writing competitions. They have a reputation for being terrifying, and disgustingly difficult, and deliberately tricksy, and not at all nice, and I am here today to dispel all those myths.
Writing cover letters is an art. It therefore follows that, like any art, the writing of the humble cover letter can be honed and improved upon until it’s as near to perfect as possible. It’s not something which is only do-able by the chosen few; it’s not something which is beyond you because you’re a certain age, or from a particular place, or are writing in a particular style, or the moon is in Aquarius, or whatever.
Writing cover letters is an opportunity. It’s a showcase. It’s a perfect first meeting – made perfect, perhaps, by the fact that you’re not physically there. Your letter is your envoy, so to speak. It represents the best of you – or, at least, it should.
None of this means that writing cover letters is easy. It’s not. But it is something that can be worked on, and it’s something which has a few generally agreed-upon rules, all of which are worth knowing.
First: I’ve seen it written in several places that the best way to make your initial contact with an agent is to place a ‘phone call to their office, and inquire politely whether they’d like to receive your query. I think I can safely say that this is bunkum. Not the ‘polite inquiry’ bit – that’s very important – but the ‘placing a call’ bit. In general, agents don’t like to be ‘phoned. They are busy. They need to concentrate, all the time. Ringing telephones are not their friend. So, don’t ring them.
Plus, who likes to be asked whether they’d like to be asked something? It wastes time.
The most important thing you can do when preparing a query is: do your research. Know who you’re submitting your work to, the sort of book they normally represent, their established authors, and – if you’re very lucky – the ‘wishlist’ of manuscripts which they’d like to see. Some agents will have their wishlist on their websites, and some will have written it in a blog post, and some will have mentioned it on Twitter, and some won’t have said a peep about it anywhere. Even if you can’t find a wishlist, most agencies have a comprehensive website where you can learn all about your chosen agent, including what they like to represent and whether they’re open for queries at any particular time – because, of course, it’s important to query only when the agent or agency is open to inquiries. It’s no good to waste time and energy on a fruitless task, after all.
Second; Prepare your query, which – as well as your cover letter, of which more below – includes your synopsis and/or pitch, and your sample chapters. Always follow the guidelines as set out on the agency’s webpage, or in their listing in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or wherever you first came upon their name. If they want 500 words, send 500 words. If they want five chapters, then send that. If they want the first, fifth, tenth and twentieth chapters, then send those. Do not assume you know better than the agency and decide to cherry-pick your favourite chapters, or send more (or less) material than requested because it ‘looks better’. Just, for Pete’s sake, do what you’re told.
Spend time over this query. Tailor it specifically for each agency. Do not adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy. Make every query unique.
Third: Prepare the cover letter.
The first thing to think about is: what is a cover letter for?
It’s designed to give an agent an insight into a few things, namely: your ability to write (yes, even your cover letter is a showcase for your talent), your ability to sell yourself and your product, your personality and how it might fit with theirs, or the ethos of the agency, and your level of confidence in what you’re doing. So, your humble cover letter has to wear a lot of hats.
Tip 1: Never address a cover letter to ‘Dear Agent’. You can guarantee it will become a target for dart practice if you do this. ‘Dear Ms. Whomever’ or ‘Dear Mr. Whomever’ is good; perhaps you prefer to address people by their first name. Either way, know the person to whom you are writing. Do not write them a cover letter which sounds like it came out of a spambot.
Tip 2: Avoid writing things like: ‘Your lucky day has come!’ or ‘Boy, is this going to make your career!’ But, of course, you know that anyway. Right?
Tip 3: Be brief, but comprehensive. Show that you have a cool, confident mastery of language. Do not apologise for taking up their time, or for having the temerity to bother them with your query. Do not belittle yourself, but – of course – do not brag, either. If you’ve won some prizes, simply mention the fact. If you’ve placed in competitions, say so but don’t dwell on it. Don’t wax lyrical.
Tip 4: Follow a simple structure. Introductory paragraph, followed by a paragraph about your book – or, in other words, a pitch – and finally, a short paragraph about yourself.
Something like this, maybe:
‘Dear Ms. Molloy,
I attach the first five pages of my novel, ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, for your consideration. I felt you, in particular, might like to take a look at my work because of your interest in crime fiction, and the fact that you have placed work for clients such as Mr. So-and-so. At 85,000 words, the book is complete.
When Scarlett Stuart, an heiress with more sense than money, disappears the night before her wedding, all eyes turn to Detective Simon Catalan. Scarlett’s daybook shows that she had an appointment with Catalan in his offices at Whateley Place on the afternoon of her disappearance, so why does the great detective deny all knowledge of her existence? What is the connection between Scarlett’s fiancé and Catalan – and why is Catalan determined to make sure Scarlett is never found? ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ is a detective potboiler in the tradition of Conan Doyle and E.M. James, and should appeal to lovers of period fiction and mystery writing in equal measure.
I am a graduate of PoshSnobbery University, where I took an MA degree in Creative Writing. I have had several short stories published in national and international journals, and my non-fiction writing appears in a regular column with my local paper, the Brobdignag Gazette. I have placed in several writing competitions including last year’s Fish Prize for Flash Fiction and the Bridport Prize in 2008. Since completing ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, I have begun a new project, which is a supernatural-tinged thriller set in medieval Bristol.
I would be happy to supply the full MS of ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ should you require it, and I would like to thank you most sincerely for your time.
Best wishes/Kind regards/Yours sincerely,
Some things to consider: Mention your interests/qualifications/life experiences only if they have a direct bearing on your writing. Being a champion knitter is wonderful, but unless you’ve written a book about yarn it shouldn’t be in your cover letter. If you have no degrees, experience, or published work, that’s absolutely fine – you can talk instead about your professional life and other interests, so long as it’s brief. It’s always good to mention that you’ve moved on to a new project, and what it’s about – agents like a long view of a potential client’s career. Always specify that the book is complete (because, of course, you shouldn’t be querying it otherwise), and be clear about genre, title and wordcount. It’s usually best to adopt a cool, professional tone throughout, even if writing the letter makes you look like this:
And – finally – as I said in my post about synopses, this is all based on my own experience, and may not suit everyone. If you’ve queried (particularly if you’ve been successful!) and you’d like to weigh in on whether these tips are any good, or not, I’d love to hear from you.
The essential message is this: keep writing, keep querying, keep believing, and never give up hope. And let me know how you get on!