FOUR things you should put in a covering letter to an agent or publisher and FOUR things you probably shouldn’t
It’s not hard to find advice for would-be/could-be novelists on how to write a synopsis of their manuscript, but there’s less attention paid to the first writing sample that the literary agent or publisher sees – the letter accompanying the literary package you have slaved over.
In America it’s called a query letter but I think most people in the UK simply refer to it as a covering letter – but it is a missed opportunity if all it does is give your contact details.
What should a covering letter say?
Not too much – if you’re you are sending a hard copy by post there’s a strong argument in favour of limiting yourself to just one page and if you’re sending an email I think you’ve really got to get everything in around 150 words.
Here’s the four things I think the covering query letter should contain
1) what the book is about – brief thumbnail sketch covering where, when and what 2) how long it is – be aware that the typical novel is between 80,000 and 100,000 words long. 3) why you wrote it 4) experience and background, especially if it’s relevant, especially if it’s interesting.
Remember you want to come across as someone who can string a few words together AND is competent and professional
and FOUR things you shouldn’t include
1) ultimatums. No ‘if I don’t hear from you by the end of the month this manuscript will be in the hand of your rivals…’ You can just hear the agent’s knees knocking together in fear… 2) Don’t say your aunt/husband/mother has read it and loves it. (What do they know…!) 3) How brilliant it is. Let your manuscript do the boasting for you. So if the phrase ‘…a work of tortured genius that will grip the imagination of a generation’ appears anywhere in your draft, cut it now. 4) That your work is so unusual, so one-of-a-kind that it defies classification and doesn’t fit into any of the genres. That may be true but there’s no need to flag it up now because not knowing where to put it in a bookshop isn’t actually a recommendation. Agents etc tend to be prejudiced in favour of something that appears easy to market.
I think it is probably ok to compare your book to other works – it’s handy shorthand. (For example, saying this is Terminator with a Bridget Jones twist paints a complex picture in a few words.) But it has its dangers.
When John Walsh was pitching his London Irish memoir The Falling Angels he told publishers it was a middle class Angela’s Ashes.
Take the poverty out of Frank McCourt’s best seller and you haven’t got a book, they said.
So I guess he tried another track (and I am glad he did – his story of growing up in Battersea and west Ireland is an excellent evocation of a childhood that crosses cultures).
What do you think – should you compare your writing to another successful work? Or is that hubris?