After discussing synopses recently, it seemed appropriate to add a bit about covering letters.
Isn’t it strange how such a little thing as an accompanying letter can cause so much trepidation! But it’s understandable, because this is where the ‘judging’ almost inevitably starts. I doubt very much whether most agents or editors would be too worried about a letter that wasn’t set out quite in the way they preferred. What might prejudice them against a submission is a covering letter with mistakes in spelling or grammar.
We all make them, and when we’re in a hurry we let them slip through. (I have a friend who eagerly pounces on any such mistakes in this blog – and you’ll never know how many times I’ve had to make hasty corrections!) In an ideal world it shouldn’t matter – we should be judged on our work alone. But if you’re a busy professional plodding through MS after MS, you would only be human if you saw that someone had apparently not bothered to get their letter right and subsequently decided to weed their offering out at the first sign that it might not be up to standard.
My advice, other than being careful with the spelling, is to keep it short and sweet. Especially if you’re submitting a synopsis and either sample chapters or the full MS, the letter doesn’t need to get bogged down with detail about your novel. My opinion is that you just need to sum the novel up in a sentence or two.
Don’t try to be too witty! That’s very much a subjective thing of course, but I’ve come across many examples of humour simply not working, or the writer seeming to treat the recipient as an old friend in a way that just doesn’t feel appropriate. Better to err on the side of coming across as rather formal than have your jokes backfire.
Don’t pour out your life story. If you have any writing experience or successes, include it. If you have any life experience that might be relevant, for example a teacher submitting a children’s story, mention that briefly too.
But don’t tell them how wonderful your class or you friends and family thought the story was. Rightly or wrongly, this seems to rub professionals up the wrong way. The attitude of many is ‘I’ll be the judge of that!’ To be fair to them, they will have seen it a thousand times before accompany stuff that really isn’t that good.
To sum up, the Martyn Beardsley patent guide to covering letter would be as follows:
1. Definitely keep it to one sheet
2. Tell them about what you’re sending in the first paragraph, along the lines of I have written a novel called X. It’s a thriller [don’t talk it up and call it an ‘exciting/breathtaking’ thriller etc!] about an ex-Navy Seal called Tuff Nutt, who finds himself in such-and-such situation…
3. If you’ve chosen a publisher specifically, say how you feel it will fit into their such-and-such series. This is debatable, but I’d say it’s also okay to compare your work to already published novels/characters – as long as it’s clearly to give them an idea of the genre rather than boasting that it’s as good as those novels!
4. Provide any relevant information about yourself. If you’re unpublished in any way and your life experience doesn’t really relate to the novel in question, this can be the awkward moment. You could say how long you’ve been writing, maybe something about your ambition, determination and so on. But don’t be afraid to leave this bit out if there’s nothing worthwhile to say – the person reading the letter probably just wants to get on with reading your MS anyway by this point.
5. Finish with a polite rounding off along the lines of I hope you like the novel and I look forward to hearing from you…
In the next exciting instalment, I plan to write a bit about the physical, practical side of submissions: how to keep the pages of an MS together etc.