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Saturday 31 January 2009


Having written a previous post with a title containing the words Part 1, I suppose I set myself up for having to write Part the Second, didn't I? Actually, it being such a gorgeous sunny day here in Scotland and the recessionary gloom engendering an unaccustomed what-the-hell type abandonment, I'm going to lay my head on the line or stick it above the parapet or something and say that I am sure there'll be a Part the Third. Scary stuff.

For readers who have recently joined this journey to success, I do suggest you read Part 1 first, because I will otherwise blithely assume that you are up to speed. You will remember that I banged on about how important the covering letter was. Well it is. And this post is going to focus entirely on it.

Oh and by the way, I should warn you: I am majorly in crabbit-old-bat mode today, despite the afore-mentioned sunshine (about which I was in fact lying).

1. Why is the covering letter so important? Surely it's the sample material that's important because surely it's the book and not me that's the main thing?
But if you can't write a brilliant letter, how come you think you can write a brilliant book? If you care so little for your book that you would send it out dressed in thin rags, why should a busy editor/agent care more about it? Or if you think it's so damned fantastic that you need say nothing about it, then why don't you self-publish it and see what happens when you can't persuade anyone apart from your parents to buy it?

Your covering letter is your shop window - it's the only way anyone's going to see what you're selling. Would you walk into a shop that had a load of rubbish in the window? Or a shop that gave you no idea what was in it? Or the wrong idea? And, for crying out loud, it's a FREE shop window. What's not to use? Trust me, only a complete idiot would not try to do the very best covering letter possible. Or someone who didn't fully appreciate the power of words. And if you do not fully appreciate and also bow down in abject worship of the power of words, then you don't deserve to be published.

If you don't believe any of that, believe this: many publishers and agents simply will not read on if you have not a) impressed them and b) whetted their appetites with the beauteousness of your covering letter. So, write a rubbish letter, and your utterly astonishing novel will never be read. Write me a rubbish letter and I will simply refuse to open the first page of your utterly astonishing novel. Your novel can be as secretly astonishing as it likes: I won't be reading it and, anyway, there are many other genuinely astonishing novels waiting for me to read, written by authors who care enough to spend a bit of time writing a little letter.

OK, I think I've made my point. And it's still freezing cold outside so the crabbit mood continues. Why don't I live in Australia? (Ebony, was it Melbourne where you said your chocolate-loving writing group hangs out? I have been known to reduce my already-reasonable speaking fees for warm climates.)

2. What should I put in this amazingly brilliant covering letter then?
You should put you in it, that's what. And your book. The covering letter should be the essence of you and your book, in fact. Distilled, purified, perfect, alive, compelling, capturing you both. My agent told me that another agent told her (sorry, brain frozen and have forgotten name but will get it to you when the sun comes out in a few months' time) that the covering letter should contain the book, the cook and the hook. (qv in COMMON WORDS YOU SHOULD KNOW)

If you look on the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook website (see list on the right somewhere) and click on the advice section, you'll find a sample covering letter. Because the W&A Yearbook is a serious, straight-down-the-line book and because they are giving very general advice, this letter a) technically ticks most of the boxes but b) lacks inspiration or "voice". To be honest, if I was a busy agent or editor I would probably find a surprisingly large number of much more interesting things to do than reply to it, let alone hang around waiting for the postman to deliver a synopsis / sample of such an unzingy-sounding novel. I might find myself suddenly desperate to enter a cream cracker-eating competition or something equally fun.

Good points about that letter: it's short; it's addressed to an actual person; it gives useful facts (eg length) about the book; it identifies what sort of book it is (contemporary, characters downmarket of Joanna T - hmm, sounds fab, I don't think - where was that cracker-eating comp?); it's polite; it tells the recipient a bit about the writer (incl that she has two other novels in mind, which is a useful place to keep them).

Bad points about the letter: it gives absolutely no reason to suppose that the writer can write (other than the ability to string some words together and spell/punctuate - which is a good start but only a start); there's no character, no voice; it makes it far too easy for the editor to ignore it and have a cup of coffee, during which time I am 100% convinced he/she will forget it and go off to find a cracker-eating .... Yes, I know, I'm labouring the point.

I urge you to read this recent post on the excellent and expert Behlerblog. In fact, you should have the blog on your regular reading list. In that particular post, you will see exactly what I mean by voice in a covering letter and a very good paradigm of how not/to do it.

3. Hang on a sec - didn't you once say we were supposed to send sample chapters + synopsis as well as covering letter? That's not what the W&A Yearbook letter is saying ...
Yes. Or even possibly no. Again, the W&A is trying to be very general and careful and to follow all the rules. My more specific and daring advice is that you should either a) follow exactly the guidelines of the specific publisher / agent whom you are approaching, if you are a rule-follower and/or like the rules they give or b) otherwise not. My advice on this is clear: all rules are there to be broken if you are clever and bold enough. Picasso didn't get where he is today (yes, I know, he's dead, but at least he's dead famous) by following rules. So, what I'd do is follow this clear 4-step plan:
  1. Closely research which publishers take the sort of book you've written
  2. You need two envelopes. One bigger than the other, but the smaller one big enough for 30 pages of A4, unfolded. In the smaller one, which has your address and sufficient stamps, but is unsealed, you place the first 30ish pages of your brilliant novel, and the brilliant synopsis (which is ideally one page long and never ever ever more than two - and no cheating by using tiny print).
  3. You put this smaller envelope inside the bigger one.
  4. You also put the brilliant (yep, you're getting the hang now) covering letter inside the larger envelope. This covering letter is so brilliant that it makes the recipient drool and gasp and cry out for more. The letter includes this : "If you are interested in reading my work, please consider opening the enclosed envelope, in which you will find a synopsis and the first ___ pages. However, I do understand how busy you are and that your list might be full - if so, I would be very grateful if you would post the envelope back to me." If your covering letter is brilliant enough and if you have targeted an appropriate publisher/agent, the smaller envelope WILL be opened.
4. For those of you who like rules and templates, here's mine: short para saying why you are contacting her/him; para selling/describing/distilling your book; shorter para saying who would the readers/market be, eg "readers who love Sophie Kinsella / Ian Rankin / Steven King (no, NOT all three); short para about you, including only info relevant to you as potential author - eg anything you've had published, other things you've written, how long for, whether any other ideas; snappy end para which shows that you understand the system and how busy the editor/agent is, thanking them etc etc etc and being polite and professional.

5. Are there some things I really really mustn't do in this covering letter?
I'm so glad you asked that. Yes, indeedy, there certainly are. First, please do read COMMON MISTAKES and THINGS NOT TO SAY. From that, you will learn, for example, about not being arrogant ("I've written an astonishing book"), or naive ("my grandchildren laugh out loud when I read it to them and are always saying, Oh, please read it again, Grandad"). Essentially, you mustn't be long-winded, boring, old-fashioned, hectoring, whittering, sycophantic or unnecessarily and irritatingly funny, though appropriately and delicately witty is fine if that's what your book is like. You mustn't negatively criticise published writers (unless you are the non-writing celebrity who apparently said she wanted to write a children's book because she thought children's books were all rubbish - and you wouldn't beLIEVE the slating she got on author message boards. If vitriol could be bottled ... Anyway, don't let me get carried away.)

Oh, and although it IS helpful for the editor / agent to know what sort of book / author is landing on the desk, here are some other things which do not go down at all well (except when the agent/editor meets up with other agents/editors and they all fall about laughing while regaling each other about the extraordinarily useless submissions they've received):
  • Some people have compared my writing to that of Norman Mailer.
  • My novel is Moby Dick meets On the Road meets Lord of the Rings. With, I feel, the occasional hint of an early James Joyce.
  • This could be the next Harry Potter. But even better.
That just about covers covering letters. However, it's really important that you've also read THINGS NOT TO SAY. And I'm betting some of you haven't. No, I'm not psychic but I used to be a teacher and I am a crabbit old bat who is still in quite a bad mood because of the cold weather and chapped skin which makes me look older and drier and grumpier than I'd like to. So, if you wouldn't mind, please go and read it now if you haven't already and then, as a reward for your diligence and patience, you can have some chocolate.

Sorry, not much left, but for me it's a case of Chocolate in a Cold Climate.