Congratulations – you have written a novel!
This is no small thing, for in the words of Hemingway, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
After the effort that has gone into your manuscript, it’s understandable that you’re eager to secure a literary agent, but you need to be patient for long enough to write a great cover letter. It’s the gateway to getting your book published. Here are 5 tips to help you on your way:
1. Write concisely
Your letter should be no longer than one page. Not one-and-a-bit, and not one page in an uncomfortably small font. You may have a lot to say, but at this stage keeping it concise is the best thing you can do. Literary agents say the best letters get straight to the point. Just because your plot is complex, your letter needn’t be.
2. Stick to the structure
There is a generally accepted, three-paragraph structure, and straying from it might catch an agent’s attention – but not for the right reasons. First comes the hook – a one-sentence tagline for your novel to spark interest (‘an epic tale of family, war and escape that takes us from pre-war Middlesbrough to Communist Czechoslovakia and through the Iron Curtain.’)
Next, the mini-synopsis, where you condense your entire novel into a paragraph centred on the action/conflict. This task will make your brain hurt, but you’ll get there. By this point, the agent should have a clear idea of what the novel is about, and its possible market.
Finally, a short writer’s bio where you list relevant education, any published work and writing competitions won. If you don’t have anything to say here, cut straight to the end sentence: ‘Thank you for considering my submission, and I look forward to hearing from you.’
3. Research and tailor
Most literary agents have submission guidelines online. Read them, and tailor your letter to their requirements. For example, some ask you to say how you heard about them, and whether you have sent your work to other agents. Some ask for the synopsis separately, along with a cover letter and sample chapters. Others prefer hard copy to email submissions. In every case, address the letter to someone, rather than a generic ‘To whom it may concern.’
Write the letter, format the letter, edit the letter, polish the letter, and then put it away for a month. This sounds crazy, but is a really useful exercise. When you come back to it, you’ll be able to make further improvements. Ask someone to proofread it – whether it’s a friend or a professional – because we can all benefit from a second (or third, fourth, fifth…) reader. Print your letter on good quality paper, and if you have neat writing, hand write the address on the envelope.
5. Become an expert
There are many examples of successful query letters online. Look at as many as you can. See what has worked for other writers, particularly those in the same genre as you. Find the commonality between them, and read the agent’s feedback about why they worked. To see what not to do, check out SlushPile Hell.
Good luck! And some parting words of wisdom – don’t forget to mention the title of your novel, the word count and the genre. Yes, it sounds obvious, but literary agents say it is a common mistake.