I have moved the whole blog to a new address. Please join me over there as no new posts are being added here and I have removed key info from this old version ...


When you get there, PLEASE rejoin as a "follower" - changing addresses means I lose my 230 lovely friends!

NB also - all comments are intact on the new version.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


(It's a long one - settle down with wine, chocolate, anything you need. But there is a competition at the end, so it will be worth it.)

"What's so important about the covering letter / query letter? After all, isn't it the book that counts?"

Yeah, sure it's the book that counts. But the agent/editor isn't going to get that far if your covering letter isn't good. No, forget that. The agent /editor isn't going to get that far if your letter isn't absolutely damned perfect. Or better.

You've been reading the recent Submission Spotlights on this blog. Well, I've been reading the submissions to the Submission Spotlights. Some of these are so bad that if I put them on my blog there'd be blood on the floor and tears at bed-time. So now, I feel, it is time to pound you with some serious sit-up-and-take-notice instruction about covering letters. (Or query letters if you are across the pond. They're not quite the same but pretty close.)

Here we are. Please take note. Even though I hardly know where to start.
  1. when describing your book, give the most important info first. The most important info is the info that the agent/editor needs first. And that is, what sort of book it is. So, Redleg needed to tell us right off that it's futuristic / sci-fi. Yes, lots of people (readers/agents/editors) hate sci-fi and don't read it: that is no reason not to tell them. In fact, it's all the more reason to tell them, otherwise you get one seriously pissed off agent who finds out half way through chapter one that she's reading a piece of rom-com that she thought was an American Civil War novel.
  2. actually, there's an even more important piece of info you have to give first, but it's something you can't say out loud, only show. It's this: that you are not the run-of-the-mill useless sort of rubbish that the agent/editor is assuming you will be. Let your professionalism steam.
  3. don't ever call your book a "fiction novel". Do you need to know why you shouldn't do this? If you do need to know, you're not a writer because you haven't properly thought about the meaning of your words. Which is the entire point of being a writer not a piece of crapness.
  4. don't say that your book is a historical-satirical-romantic-sci-fi novel. If it is, it's a mess.
  5. don't confuse the description of your book with the back cover blurb which you'd like to go on the back of your book. Your letter needs to say more than that - the blurb poses intriguing questions but the covering letter has to give us a bit more detail about how you will answer those questions.
  6. don't ...
Actually, I've had a way better idea. Today, I was preparing for a workshop I'm giving at the Edinburgh Book Festival, on "The Perfect Approach to Publication", and I was planning to major on the ultra-important topic of covering letters. So, in the spirit of putting mouth where money is I decided that I should write a lovely sample imaginary covering letter, and my workshoppers and I could all discuss it and learn from it.

Then .... I had the bright idea of sending it to my actual agent - praise be to her for her tolerance of me and most of my wacky ideas that disrupt her working time and ability to drink coffee at peace - and seeing what she thought of it, professionally, imagining that she'd never heard of me. (Like many people). And guess what, she said liked it, that it was almost perfect and she'd love to be my agent!! Yay! Then we both remembered that she already was.

BUT - and here's the real pointy point - she did actually have two suggested improvements. Aka imperfections. (How dare she? Did she really think I wanted an honest opinion? Hasn't she learnt by now that authors only want to be told they're brilliant?) And then I had my wheeziest wheeze of the day, if not week.

I thought I'd put the covering letter here, just as I wrote it, and ask YOU to say what you thought were her two alleged imperfections. See, I know how much you like competitions and this is one. There will be a prize for the person who most closely (IMHO) guesses the two (obviously deliberate) flaws in this beautiful covering letter.

Clues: one is a sentence which she thinks (rightly) is not strong enough / right. And the other is something she (rightly, because she is nearly always right) would like me to have said but I didn't. (Obviously deliberately. Duh.)


First, I should stress that the book I am talking about is actually my next book, and is being published in June 2010. All details are as the book is - except that the description of me and my attempts at approaching agents are obviously not true, because I have one. Wasted has already been written and accepted and paid for and the copyright is mine all mine, just in case you thought it sounded like an idea you might use. Dabs off - go think of your own ideas. I'll have no plagiarists on my blog.

And obviously I have not enclosed any toffees, glitter, or a photo of me wearing nothing but a snake. I have not listened to myself bang on for nothing.

So here it is. And obviously ignore the silly address etc.

Perfect Author
Address etc etc
Email Address
Phone number
Anne Hathaway
Anne Hathaway Agency
12 Aspirational Avenue
Dear Ms Hathaway,

I enclose the synopsis and sample first chapters of my 67,000 word Young Adult novel, Wasted. I also attach my CV, as requested in your submission guidelines.

Wasted is a story of love, choice and the science of chance. Jack and Jess meet by chance, and fall powerfully in love. Jess - beautiful and talented singer - and Jack - impulsive, fascinating, intense, drummer in his own band, Schrödinger’s Cats - are on the eve of leaving school; freedom beckons. But Jess’s mother is an alcoholic and Jess, only child in a single-parent family, feels responsible. As for Jack: his mother died long ago - twice. After such unlikely bad fortune, he is obsessed by luck, chance, fate - whatever you call it. Jack calls it something to be controlled and so takes deliberate risks, playing a game with a coin, challenging chance to beat him. Chances are that, one day, it must. Events come to a dangerous climax in the heady, alcohol-fuelled beach party after the Leavers’ Prom, when life or death hang on the toss of a coin.

An unusual voice - present tense, omniscient, vivid - is not the book’s only defining feature. Twice within the story, I write alternative versions of an event, versions which turn on an almost unnoticeable chance difference, but a difference which has vastly different consequences. I then toss a coin and the story continues with one version, depending on the result. Finally, I write two alternative endings and challenge the reader to toss a coin to “choose” the ending. How the coin lands affects which possibility becomes reality. And it’s a life or death difference.

I have worked very hard to make this novel as ready as possible for publication but I am also very used to welcoming editorial guidance. I have had a few pieces published in other fields, as you will see from my CV, but I am ambitious to become a successful author for young people and am prepared to work as hard as necessary to achieve that. The high quality YA market may be relatively small, but it’s one I love and would be so proud to work in.

I have already submitted Wasted to the Tanya Highbury agency and, although she gave me some very positive feedback, she did not feel that it was right for her at this time. Otherwise, yours is the only agency which I have approached so far. I know how busy you must be with existing clients but you will understand that I want to approach other agents fairly soon; therefore, I would be most grateful if you could tell me what your position is on my approaching other agents or indeed some publishers.

I very much hope that you will like what you read and that you will want to see the rest of Wasted.

Yours sincerely,

(incredibly amazingly potentially successful author but wishing she could really be even more so and will definitely follow all editorial advice - no that's not what I would really put: this is for the purposes of HUMOUR)

So, then, whatchyathink?