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Covering Letters

I was recently asked to be on a panel at the How To Get Published conference in the Wellcome Collection giving advice about submitting work to agents.   The panel was chaired by Jeremy Lewis and included myself,  Carole Blake, James Gill and Patrick Walsh. We were each given a batch of covering letters in advance, sent in by the audience.  This is a summary of my advice.

  • Neat structure and format – don’t make it look like a CV. It needs to look like a personal letter, three or four paragraphs on one page, 1.5 spacing.  3 consecutive chapters.  I like short chapters.  Present one book, not a collection.
  • Conversational and personal – read out loud to make sure it flows and has a conversational tone.  I like to imagine that you are speaking to me in person.
  • Title – have a gripping title.  A title that stands out from the rest.  One that immediately makes me want to read.  Striking titles are always memorable.  Think Rosamund Lupton’s SISTER, S.J Watson’s BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.
  • Pitch – make sure you build your letter around a strong one line pitch to hook the reader in. It is invaluable to get to the ‘core’ of your book when you are discussing your work with friends, writing groups and potential agents. Agents use them when pitching to editors, editors use them when pitching to sales teams, sales teams use them when pitching to booksellers, readers use them when pitching to other potential readers.   Word of mouth is the biggest publicity tool for books and your book has to have a strong and exciting pitch.
  • Blurb – keep this simple yet exciting.  I want to know that it’s going to be a good story.
  • Background info and qualifications – if I like your book idea I’ll want to read more about you so put this towards the end of the letter.
  • Book 2 – are you submitting a stand alone novel or is it part of a series?
  • Exclusive material – have you chosen me specifically and why? Have you researched my list? Would I be the right agent for you?

Below are some useful questions that came out of the discussion which I have answered, specifically with the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency in mind:

  1. I lack some of the experience an agent might wish for such as previous publication and formal creative writing training.  Should I plainly state these as a list of ‘do not haves’ (my honesty is inclined this way), or simply not mention them, and leave the agent wondering?  Always be positive!  There is no point in stating what you have not got.  I always look at the story first and foremost – this is the most important thing.
  2. My first draft cover letter read much more like a formal job application, but on the advice of the Writers and Artists website I wrote and submitted a far more personal letter.  What do the panel think about the merits  of a personal approach? I love to read a personal letter which has a conversational tone but I like the structure to be very neat and clear.  I don’t like waffle.
  3. Should the first timer submit a CV, even though that CV will shout their lack of relevant training and publication?  No, keep it personal.
  4. I’ve heard that with creative non-fiction it’s possible to approach an agent with some sample chapters and a synopsis, rather than a completed manuscript. Is the same also true with fiction?  I will consider non-fiction on proposal but for fiction editors much prefer to see a full length manuscript so I’d rather wait until it is finished.  We will then be in a much better position to negotiate top deals around the world.  It is surprising how some novels start so well but flop in the middle.
  5. Should a synopsis be included with a completed novel manuscript?  Yes, we want to see that you understand plotting.
  6. With so many agents out there, how does a writer go about finding the right one? What should we look for and what questions should we ask?  Look for an agent who you feel is on the same wavelength as you, who likes similar books to you.  An agent-author relationship is longterm and you need to be as ambitious as your agent and be able to relate to them.  You want to find the perfect match which is much easier nowadays with all the online information out there.