Wednesday, 1 September 2010

My Thoughts on The Best Way to Approach Writing a Covering Letter For a Slush-pile Submission

Each slush-pile submission you make must have a covering letter.

This covering letter should state what your novel is about, what market it is aimed at, and, I think, give a little bit of information about you. If possible, it should also be tailored towards the agent or agency you are sending a particular submission to. 

The covering letter I used for Broken is posted beneath this one as an example of how I went about submitting it to slush-piles, but here are some further thoughts:

Because all editors and agents have different ideas on what constitutes a great covering letter, there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to putting them together: all I would say is choose the format that plays to you and your novel's strengths, and the one least likely to put someone off reading page one of your novel.

For me, my novel's strengths were always going to be in the actual novel, not in how I explained it or tried to sell myself as a writer, so I tried to keep things as brief as possible - I simply wanted to make sure there was nothing in my covering letter that would stop an agent turning to page one of my novel.

Having said that, I've heard of people who've had success with off-the-cuff covering letters (you know, as if from the perspective of a main character in the novel they're submitting and other odd formats like that), but I always worried this approach would irritate as much as impress, so I never tried it myself.

Below is the covering letter I used when submitting Broken to slush-piles. I think I had four requests to see the whole novel and made something like forty or fifty unsolicited slush-pile submissions before getting representation from Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown.

This may sound like a poor hit-rate, but I know of people who've never been asked for a full submission off the back of slush-pile submissions, and I've submitted novels that hold this unhappy distinction themselves.

I've also submitted other novels with similar covering letters to the one I used for Broken that, although never published, did attract requests for full submissions.

If I was submitting this covering letter to slush-piles now there are a couple of changes I would make: I wouldn't mention the synopsis was brief - every synopsis should be brief, so I'm not sure why I felt the need to point it out - and I probably wouldn't put Encl. at the bottom, as no-one seems to do that these days.

Other than that I feel it pretty much does what I believe a covering letter should do:
  • It has the relevant agent's name (unless they request you send to a central submissions department; if an agency does request you send to a central submissions department I'd suggest always following their guidelines to show you've researched who you're sending to, although, having said that, I know of writers who've recently had requests for full submissions after bypassing central submissions departments by going direct to individual agents - they call it 'bypassing the intern lottery');
  • an opening paragraph that explains what's enclosed in the overall submission and also sets out what the novel is about;
  • another paragraph that explains what market the novel might sit in when published;
  • a very brief paragraph about you;
  • although this covering letter doesn't show I've put a lot of thought into who I'm writing to, I had, and, where possible, you should look into who you're sending your slush-pile submission to as well.  When I wrote this letter I had read Curtis Brown's submission guidelines, looked through their list of agents to check who was most likely to be interested in my work (they didn't have a central submissions department at that time), then looked through Jonny Geller's list of clients and bio to see if there was anything worth mentioning that might make my letter stand out personally to him.  As it turned out, I didn't feel there was; I'd read, or heard of, many of the writers on his list and enjoyed what I'd read, but didn't feel mentioning them alongside Broken would add anything to the letter; I felt the two novels I was already mentioning did a better job of pin-pointing the type of readers Broken would appeal to.  I could, of course, have mentioned the fact I knew all about Curtis Brown's and Jonny Geller's reputation for getting breakthrough deals for previously unknown writers such as Jake Arnott and Tracy Chevalier, etc., but decided to keep the letter as simple as possible.  I think it's important you make informed decisions like this rather than just pluck a name out of a book and put your covering letter in the post - for more thoughts on how to go about finding this sort of information out, see the last two posts on the blog.  
I'm sure there are editors and agents – and writers – out there who'll disagree with some or all of these points, but I firmly believe a letter that covers these bases will do the job better than letters that don't.