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Sunday 2 August 2009


Yesterday, while you were all frantically trying to find ways to criticise my near-perfect covering letter without offending me by criticising my near-perfect covering letter, I was in town buying SHOES. Because, with 14 days till the start of the Edinburgh Book Festival, things were close to a panic situation. I can't show you the shoes (there's a news blackout) but I can show you the beginning of the tents going up.

Meanwhile, I thought we'd stay on the topic of covering letters and I'd answer a few of the uncertainties in your attempts to guess what my agent thought could be improved about the letter. (If you've just come to this and haven't read the letter and the attached competition, please do now.)

Meanwhile meanwhile, I should also say that one person has guessed one of the two imperfections correctly. I'm not saying who, but I will say that this person has identified the one sentence that isn't quite strong enough.

So, a few points raised by you, in no particular order:
  1. Ebony suggested not saying that I've already been knocked back by the Tanya Highbury agency. No, I put this in to show my honesty and professionalism; and to say that I know how busy she is shows that I understand her task and that I'd be nice to work with. (Then Ebony redeemed herself by saying that the covering letter rocks, which it obviously does.)
  2. Wendy said I should say she was my first pick as agent - thing is, she wasn't. (No, in real life, my agent WAS, but for this made-up one, I've said I approached someone else first). Keren made a linked point - again, I'm going for honesty and professionalism.
  3. Rachel said that I should point out that the book is finished. It certainly should be finished, but I've given its word count, so it most likely is; I think it's clear from how I talk about it that it's finished. So fair point, Rachel, but not the right one.
  4. Rachel also has doubts about this sentence: "I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible", saying that it should be better than that, ie perfect. Point taken, but I wanted to show that I am not arrogant enough to think that it's perfect and that I will work well editorially, while not presenting a piece of work that is less good than I can make it on my own. Rachel also suggests I say why I'm approaching this particular agent (you said author, but you were tired!!) - a valid point, but not the one my agent raised! Actually, I've just found the real letter that I did hook my agent with, and in that I DID say why I was contacting her.
  5. Donna - the YA market IS small in volume. Yes, the quality is strong, but the size is not; and I put that in to show my understanding of the market. Your other point is a good one, but again not what my agent picked up on!
  6. Catdownunder - you comment that the letter was long. It's fine. And the synopsis IS separate and would be much longer (two pages). Re the CV - I agree, but some agents ask for one, and the reason I said this was that it shows I've read her submission guidelines. (viz Lexi's comment, too). The covering letter for some books might be shorter, but it's important to select the info that nails your book and to write a letter which is long enough to say what you feel needs to be said. If what you feel needs to be said is too long for the agent, yes, the agent will switch off, but it's a call you have to make for each book and each agent/publisher. So, yes, a letter could be too long (or too short) but this one is not. Oh, and I'm not sure if the comment about not needing to know how hard I've worked on my submission is part of your joke (!), but the point I wanted to make was that although I've worked hard (and am therefore professional and not blasé) I understand that an editor might have some changes to suggest (so I'm not arrogant) and that I'd respond well to that (and so am easy to work with).
  7. AND, catdownunder, I hope you are joking when you say I should say I know how much she will like my submission! That's an absolute no-no!
  8. Various - no need to say what I'm now working on. Nothing wrong with saying that, but no need. Yes, I agree that we need to show that we have a long-term career in us, but we can do that in other ways - eg when I say I want to work within the YA market.
  9. Various - wanting more details of the plot/motivation? No, not for the covering letter when a synopsis is enclosed. I think I've given the max that an agent would need at this point. If it was a US query letter (ie not accompanying a synopsis and sample) then yes, I'd agree we need more details.
  10. Juliet - no need to compare to style of another author. It's possible to do this but you have to be very careful.
  11. Juliet and others - re the mysterious bit about the mother dying twice: my agent was quite happy about this but I agree that making the genre unclear is not a good idea. However, I'm happy with the tone and the air of mystery about this, and that the agent would discover the answer in the synopsis. Thing is, if you write the letter confidently enough and well enough, little mysteries that are deliberate can have no detrimental effect.
  12. Thomas - a motive for writing the story? No, definitely not. The motive should only ever be a love of telling stories, not a personal connection with the idea/characters. If I'd said it was anything to do with my life, the agent would have run a mile! (But thanks for your comments and please don't apologise - you're all being very brave!)
  13. Juliet - ah the MUFFINS! Of course!!
There's a load more I could comment on but I think that's enough. In fact, it's probably too much. Anyway, keep the comments coming, either on this post or the competition one - I'll consider them all for the competition anyway. Deadline is Aug 14th and the results will go up in a definitive post about perfect covering letters on Aug 22nd, the day I'm doing the workshop. The workshop is 2pm (GMT) so Ill schedule the post for that moment, and you can all think of us having fun in our tent! With chocolate!

As the competition now stands, your task is
  1. work out who got the weak sentence correct (and why) and
  2. identify what my agent thinks is missing (though it would not be a deal-breaker, I have to say)
Excuse any typos in this post - am being hassled to get my walking boots on and go climb a mountain. And my walking boots are not pretty.

I am now down from my mountain. Here was the view from the top, looking over Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. The fact that I now have no power left in my legs is entirely beside the point. And there is my dog, looking rightly proud. Though in true dog fashion she has her back turned to the view, as she has no appreciation of anything that doesn't taste like food.

Maybe I should have enclosed a picture of her in my covering letter?