DISCLAIMER: This is NOT a writing blog. If you’re looking for real, quality advice on perfecting your query letter, go here, or for great advice on e-publishing your work, go here. In fact my writing is so bad that I have to publish it myself! :0)  (Little dig at my Indie Writers friends there!)

So because Covering Letters (the ones you send out to agents with your precious manuscript) are so important, I thought I’d share my advice on the topic – for what it’s worth…

Scribbled NoteFirst up, here’s my example. I sent out a boat load of submissions to literary agents and publishers throughout the UK. None of them gave a shit, of course. That is, until I came up with this version of my covering letter. I only sent out five of them, and had three requests for a full manuscript and two personal rejections. I came within a gnat’s bollock of getting an agent that time – only to find out that I was unpublishable because I wasn’t famous. Bugger. As a result I published the book myself and am now practically famous – but that’s a whole different story. (And at least part of it is a lie.)

20th February 2010

Dear Lucy,

I am writing to you because you represented HOW LOW CAN YOU GO by TOM CHESSHYRE, and I feel that my book fits into a similar genre.

I nearly died in Ecuador. Pretty much on a daily basis. The trouble with being a volunteer at an exotic animal refuge is that everything wanted a piece of me; and the trouble with being me is that I wasn’t particularly good at it. So most of them got one. “THAT BEAR ATE MY PANTS!” is the tale of how a desperate bid to escape conventional life took me to the other side of the world, introduced me to pain, love and the insides of a cow, and brought me back with a strength and self-confidence I hardly dared dream of. And a bit of mucus in my hair.

Right now, climate change and the economic downturn means millions of people are looking for environmentally friendly, low-cost holidays. All of them need a socially responsible guide book.

This is NOT that book.

But those people also need a damn good laugh! So for everyone who wants to know what it’s like to be bitten by a crocodile, mauled by big cats, blinded, shot at and head-butted in the balls by a wild pig – all in the same few weeks – “THAT BEAR ATE MY PANTS!” is just the job. A sequel, based in Thailand, is already underway.

My stories have appeared in Take a Break magazine, That’s Life magazine (in Australia) and I recently contributed to the anthology THE VOLUNTARY TRAVELER, published by Dog’s Eye View Media. I also have a background (and a BA degree) in Acting, so I have plenty of experience both on stage and in front of a camera.

Please find enclosed the first 30 pages and a Synopsis, as per the guidelines on your website. I’d be very grateful if you would consider representing me! Thank-you so much for your time. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards,

Tony James Slater

Okay – it’s not a masterpiece. I’m self-critical enough for three people, but I thought I’d use it to illustrate a couple of points I think (and it’s only my opinion) are key.

The first is, know thy enemy! You hate receiving form letters from agents, right? So it makes sense, as a form of revenge, to send them one! HA! Take that… oh, hang on – what I meant is, please will you devote your life to helping me become successful?

Don’t send them form letters. They can do that to you, because you are scum and they quite rightfully despise you.

So, research them. Specifically, find out who or what they have represented that is close to your work. I make this comparison right at the beginning, to:

a) put them in mind of a book they loved, and repp’ed, and sold – POSITIVE association, and;

b) give them a quick ball-park idea of the genre and/or style of the book.

But DON’T make it sound like you think your book is better – even if you do! Most of the books I was comparing mine to are complete crap, but their agent wouldn’t have taken them on if s/he didn’t think they were awesome. So none of this ‘It’s like Stephen King, only scarier,’ malarkey.

Next up, the length – short as poss – and the book description, also short. Three paragraphs, I’ve heard, is ideal. I also like to show a bit of my writing style in the letter, which is why there’s a bit of strong-ish language and an attempt at a joke – normally this is a big no-no, but any agent who baulks at the word ‘balls’ is going to hate my book anyway. Why go to the bother of posting them a copy?

Pile of lettersI spent a few sentences trying to give them a feel for the book, but as mine is anecdotal there isn’t much in the way of plot twists – instead I blew this extra space on trying to convince them the book as funny. Mistake? Almost certainly. But then, so are most of the things I do. It’s why I still have something to write about after all this time!

Seriously though, this section is a play on a very smart ploy – enumerating your potential audience. Remind the agent that there are eighteen point five million lactating octogenarians out there who feel your pain and would love to read your memoir. Tell them that crotch-eating bacteria is hot news and affects one in six males between the ages of eighteen and twenty four who holiday in Thailand – use numbers to suggest the size of your market. If you write sci-fi… well, let’s face it, you’re already screwed.

I repeated my title twice in the letter to help it stick in their mind and used the magic phrase ‘a sequel is already underway’. At the time it was a lie. Hell, it’s still a lie! Depending on how flexible your concept of ‘underway’ is. But the agent will be very interested to know I’m not a one shot deal – and that I’m aware of how important this is.

Finally, I gave them a bit of info about my previous publishing credits. This section is small, as I don’t have much, and it’s generally best not to try to pad out you resumé. Any waffle here, listing all sorts of minor accolades, will make you appear less professional rather than more.

I also showed again that I had read their submission guidelines and was sending exactly what they asked for – and then I thanked them. If there’s ever a time to remember your manners, this is it.

I could have included a word count, or stated that the book was finished, but the word count is on the title page anyway and the fact that I’m writing the sequel suggests this book is done – common wisdom, however, suggests you do both of these things. I am quite clearly not a wise man.

One other way I’ve seen people write queries is to start right out of the gate with the drama –

Dear Agent X,

Jeremy was already dead. He just didn’t know it yet… etc.

I think this is quite popular in the states and might work here – who knows? Anyone tried it? Personally I think it’s too ‘in your face’ for our more traditional English agenty types, and I would save this kind of opening for the manuscript itself. Don’t want your query opening to be more exciting than your book, eh!

Well, that’s it for now – this is already too long I know, particularly for someone like me with no authority to back my opinions up. Please – don’t go away and write a query letter just like mine – I don’t want to be responsible for derailing any more careers, I can’t take the guilt! Just keep in mind,

  • Brevity
  • Proving that you know the agent and/or her previous clients (and chose to submit to her for that reason)
  • Two or three paragraphs giving succinct plot synopsis
  • Demonstrate your writing style – but not too dramatically!
  • Mention sequel (even if you don’t have one)
  • Mention publishing history (only if you do have one)
  • Mention platform (again, if you have one. I don’t. Well, unless you count  :0)
  • Keep it to one page at all costs!

What do you think? Thoughts/comments/plasticine fish?

Throw ‘em all this way!

And to all my regular readers – those who’ve made it this far – Don’t worry! Next time I’ll be blogging about crazy shit, as usual. I promise.

Love

Tony

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