Monday, November 26, 2007

Cover Letter Critiques

By Raelene Gorlinsky

Get Ya' Critique Here! Cheap (free) and Easy!

You can find a zillion workshops, classes, online references and advice on how to write the perfect cover letter that goes with your manuscript submission to an editor or agent. So I’m not going to teach it here. I’ll just give a summary.

1. Keep it short! One page will do, thank you.
2. Focus on the story. The story is the only thing we care about. Provide a brief (one or two paragraphs) blurb that is catchy and interesting and conveys the genre, setting, tone, main theme and target market of the story.
3. No personal info about you unless it is directly relevant to your qualifications to write this story. Your family, hobbies, or pets have nothing to do with whether we acquire the story. Only mention your job/profession/expertise if they relate to the story.
4. Do list previous publication credentials. List writing contests only for WINS in MAJOR contests. No second places, no contests that we've never heard of.
5. Make 100% absolutely damn sure that there is not a single typo or error in the cover letter (or the submission).

And now the fun “show, don’t tell” part. Send us your cover letter, and we’ll tear it apart—err, provide professional advice—online for everyone’s edification. (Without revealing your name, of course.) So send your letters to, and in a couple of weeks we’ll post a few with critique from our editorial staff. If your letter is selected for dissection, you win a free download of an Ellora's Cave or Cerridwen Press ebook.

To get things started, here are three real cover letters we received with submissions. No, we don’t make these up—we don’t need to, the writing world is weird enough without any help from us.

Example 1: Uh, Well, It Is Short

"I am aware of your busy schedules and commitments to other Authors. If it be possible and convenient to you please let me know something within three months. Even if the answer is keep your Day-job."

That's it, the whole cover letter. Okay, this author could have been a bit wordier. Like tell me something—anything—about the story. The writer probably thought the reference to keeping the day job was cute, but I just saw it as an expectation of a rejection. Oh, and giving the editor/agent a deadline is a real no-no. It indicates you either know nothing about the publishing business, or you are totally arrogant.

There was an author bio attached:

"Of course I am {name}. I was born in a little town in {state}. I was raised everywhere on the East Coast. Having a well developed home was something that I have no memory of. However I did not let that be a total failure to me. I was as well off as a thousand other kids that grew up the same way. So it was not that bad. I did serve my country in the U.S. Army and went to Vietnam in the late sixties and the early seventies. I was there over a year. Actually 14 months, 19 days and 1 hour. Not that I was counting or anything like that. I made it back so that worked out really well.

"Growing up without proper training did get me into my share of trouble. However because I was a small person I was not a bad ass. It seamed like I got my hind-parts kicked my share of times. This made things more clear to me. To stay out of trouble one must stay away from some of the things that causes you to be put in those situations. You know if you kick a dog enough he learns why he is being Kicked. I was married several times before I figured it out. This is not the best thing for me. There is people who are meant to be married and then there are people who are not good candidates for this adventure.

"I learned early in life that I was different. I believe in Reincarnation. That is something I believe that controls our direction in life. We come here to do something. Plus we always bring baggage from other times. This baggage is just as important as anything. We look at ourselves in the mirror at times and ask the question. Who am I? The answer often evades us. Our sexual desires do not stand up to the things that people tell us. So we are left to the dilemma of trying to figure these little abnormalities on our own. Actually all of this makes us a little wiser in some ways. We discover who we are and what we really want in life. Not what others tell us what is good for us. That is what this book is about. People understanding that they are who indeed they are. Not what is normal in a certain situation."

I included this whole mess just so you can see what editors have to wade through. I haven't the foggiest idea what all the drivel means or why the author spewed it all over the page. And the whole point is: WE DON'T WANT AN AUTHOR BIO. Tell us about the story, not about you.

Example 2: Cute But Crazy

"Dear Overworked and Under-Appreciated Editor:"

Hey, I sorta like this opening. This writer understands my job. But a more professional address would have impressed me more.

"You open the envelope. Your eyes sharpen. Not another one, pleading her case with you. Your mouth aches for a smoke and a stiff drink. You sip your coffee instead and catch a glimpse of yourself in the glass. You grin. Oh, yeah, you still have it. You are sexier now than you were five years ago. You have a sensual allure. And a little bit of mystery. Some sadness in the eyes from heartbreak and suffering in the past, for those careful enough to see it. And a little bit of gritty wisdom. A good laugh that turns heads. You inhale deeply and keep reading, savoring your power. You enjoy this. Hmmm, Maybe this query is something different, something special. Perhaps this one would be The One. The query that would meet all your needs and satisfy the secret yearnings that you have never even admitted to yourself. You sit up straighter. You have to tell someone about this. You decide to call a meeting immediately."

I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't like coffee. And I rather resent this stranger making assumptions about my personal life and secret yearnings. Oh, and reading submissions is major stress for editors, not a power high. Perhaps this "clever" writing should be saved for the actual story, not the cover letter.

"I have written a novel, {title} (65,000 words) which I would like to submit for your consideration. It is a lesbian murder mystery that takes place in my hometown of {town}. The protagonist is African-American and a women’s college basketball coach in {other town}. After suspicious death of her most recent ex, she is drawn to {town} for the funeral and some answers. The book also has an historical component connecting the characters to the {event} of 1921. I call it a les/his/mys. It can become a series."

A lesbian historical mystery? Well, it's different, and cross-genre can be very popular. This is a reasonably good high-level blurb and does catch my interest. It even includes the story length.

"I have rejected a five-book contract for this novel from a small, independent press and a one-book contract from a lesbian press only because they were not a good fit. I now have the World’s Best Agent, {name} of {company} Associates, who represents me on another manuscript and who will advise me in a behind-the-scenes kind of way so I will not do something stupid like trade for chickens or beads, which I am likely to do."

Why in the world would you tell me you've rejected contracts, and imply you are a difficult author to deal with? If you have an agent, why are YOU writing to me, instead of having your agent contact me? And do you really want to announce your lack of intelligence?

Example 3: Books from the Big House

It's not uncommon for editors to receive submissions from those incarcerated in prison. (For some reason, only males; we rarely receive one from a female prisoner.) Oh, and they are all insistent on their innocence—I've yet to receive a submission from someone who was guilty of the crime for which they were convicted. Actually, a book might be a lot more interesting from an admittedly guilty guy.

"I spent the better part of the first 12 years of my incarceration pursuing a college education in general business with a minor in psychology in my endeavor to understand how I went from my first year of college on the street with big plans to make something positive out of my life to a convicted murder doing 17-life."

I don't even know what that sentence is saying. I haven't looked at the story submission yet, and I doubt I want to if this is an example of the sender's writing skill.

"What I foundout after some ten courses in the human behavior field wasn’t a pretty picture replete with a second life I uncovered in repressed memories from childhood trauma to a chemical assited hypnosis session which lead to an involuntary guilty plea for someone else’s crime. This total recall type of experiance caused me to abort my graduate studies for what resulted in a ten year pro se mission for justice that further opened my eyes to the corruption in state and federal judical systems."


"After concluding the party’s that conspired to bring and keep me down were untouchable, I spent another ten years or so which partcially overlaped my futial mission for justice pursuing various jail house hustles with intentions to buy my way out of prison. For one reason or another these endeavors proved as futile as my mission for justice and some 3 years ago I started to write with an eye on the N.Y. best seller’s list as my ticket to freedom."

Really? Your conviction gets overturned if you write a best-seller? And I'm so sorry to hear that your 'hustles' didn't earn you enough money to finance an escape attempt or buy off a judge. (Does the writer really think this sort of thing is impressive?)

"One of my biggest problems in getting published will be the challage my stories will be for editors and legal department in my use of celeraties from the music, motion pictur, and TV industry as characters. I believe sunanims and other devices can be utlilized to avoid the deflimation of charactor law suite. As you can see a spell checker will also have to be utlized to bring my work to market. I look forward to your request to review some of my work."

Nice to see the writer understands the legal issues in publishing. And why didn't he use spell checker on this letter before wasting my time with it?

Okay, time for YOUR cover letter. Seriously, send it to us and we'll give you our best suggestions for grabbing an editor's or agent's attention for your book.


Aimlesswriter said...

Okay, this sounds like fun. But before I send off the real thing the query letter I'd like to send is: "Here ya go! Let me know what you think."
Simple and to the point, no?
Query letters are the hardest things to write! Thanks for the insight.

Heather Wardell said...

Thanks so much for doing this. I've just sent my letter (unfortunately, AFTER I realized it references a short-listed finish in a contest, which you don't like. Oops.).


Paige Tyler said...

Thanks for the info, especially since I'm going to be submitting to EC soon!


Anonymous said...

Thank you for offering your time to this topic. It's the one thing we do completely barefoot and it’s a very stressful time to boot.

I'll have another read of my last (and first) submittion – I know it will do me good (but gee).


Anonymous said...

this is great timing as i am starting to look at agents and publishers. Thanks for your examples of what *not* to do.

Marie said...

A chance to score an EC or Cerridwen ebook? Sa-weet! I'm so on board to be torn apart, er, provided with professional advice!

Amelia June said...

*breathes a sigh of relief*
Glad mine wasn't in the mix, LOL!

Thanks for all your great advice :)

Anonymous said...

Print is not dead, e-books are just cheaper. That is a fact. It costs less to edit, clean up and hack together an Adobe file with a .jpeg as a “cover” which is why online publishers like Ellora’s Cave pays authors higher royalties in e-book format over print. Paying a printer, cover designer and distributor is hell on a publisher’s bank account. And when it’s time for contract renewals… well regular folk don’t want to know. Working for a newspaper or magazine works similarly, I am a reporter and I should know. Outside of POD (Print On Demand- A SCAM to all aspiring authors steer clear of and for two examples) e-book publishing and small independent publishers are probably the best way for greenhorn authors to get into the business. FORGET about Penguin, Randomhouse, Rand-McNally and the rest- with the crap that gets put out (just go to your local bookstore and look on the new arrivals table and prepare to get pissed) they are clearly only looking for profit and keeping their investors happy. Research your genre THOROUGHLY (I am in erotica/romantica myself) and I know the ERW website backwards and forwards, read every single book available in my public library about editing and publishing and you know what, my MS after six years STILL isn’t ready and cover letters are HELL to write! While I don’t like e-book format and would rather see my books in print, I’ll take what I could get.