Friday, February 22, 2008

Cover Letter Critiques, Part Three

Continuing with our series of helpful advice on your cover letter when submitting a manuscript to an editor or agent!

Colleen and Kim, thanks for being brave and letting us tear your letter apart! Email to let her know what ebook you'd like as your prize.

Submission Cover Letter #5:

Dear (Editor/Agent's Name),

I love coffee. Sometimes people try to switch my coffee from caffeinated to decaf. I can always tell the difference. I also like Pringles, but only the reduced fat kind because they crunch better when you bite into them and they aren't as greasy. I'm an actress sometimes, a photographer rarely, a producer most of the time, and a friend always. But seriously, and yes I can be serious, I consider myself a work in progress. I believe if you fall asleep at night the same person that you were in the morning, you might as well have stayed in bed. Life will kick you in the balls, but I kick back harder. I am a dreamer. I am a romantic. I am pragmatic. I am contradictory. I love my family, my friends, my life, and every crusade I've fought to get where I am. Although it's been proven that caffeine is addictive, stunts your growth, and is bad for your teeth—I like it. And I'll never allow anyone to steal the caffeine from my coffee. My book chronicles the important, the funny, the sometimes life-changing moments I have experienced. These are my stories. These are my memoirs. These are the reasons I became the woman I am today.

My memoir, {TITLE} chronicles the groundbreaking experiences of my life. From the first time I was dumped, to my battle with cervical cancer, to my coming to terms with having been date raped, you accompany me on the stories (large and small) of my life that have made me the woman I am today. And I'm only 24 years old! Still, in spite of everything, I continue searching for a love that will curl my toes.

Upon learning that you represent (Insert name of author and titles researched) AUTHOR A and AUTHOR B, I thought that you may want to take a look at my manuscript. I am confident that it would make a great addition to your already stellar collection.

What gives me an edge? Well, my current boss is a celebrity, an amazing writer, and extremely supportive of my efforts. Her name is {Name}. I currently work as her associate producer for {TV Show}.

My writing career began at age six when I started creating stories to accommodate my wild imagination. My favorite was about an angel whose job was to watch over a little orphan girl. I am a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design and have been a regular writer for and a regional magazine called Chesapeake Pet. Most recently, I had a story published in the book GRAB YOUR TIGER, which was released in April of 2007.
I'd be happy to send you my completed manuscript for your review. Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

{Author Name}
Future Best-Selling Author


My first question: is the editor you’re sending this to someone who deals exclusively (or heavily) in memoirs? If not, you risk the editor skimming the first few sentences and setting your submission aside to be dealt with later. It’s so different that a busy acquiring editor may not have the patience to figure out what you’re talking about. If this is going to an editor who deals exclusively/heavily in memoirs, I have a second question: is your book about liking coffee and reduced fat chips? If not, you just sent a very wrong message.

Don’t trade being clear for being clever. It’s far better to have a straightforward if slightly boring cover letter that gives all the relevant information than a clever, amusing one that leaves the editor wondering, Now what is this book about? The meat of your memoir really should be closer to the top. By the time you’d gotten to talking about heavier issues that readers may be drawn to, I’d already figured you didn’t really have anything to say.

Also, be careful with namedropping. If it has a clear point and relevance, then it can be quite good. If it sounds like namedropping for the heck of it, however, an editor is far less likely to be impressed.

“My writing career began at age six when I started creating stories to accommodate my wild imagination. My favorite was about an angel whose job was to watch over a little orphan girl.” Okay…so what? That isn’t important. Your relevant experience, however, is. Finally, be careful when singing your stories Future Best-Selling Author. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and arrogance can be a red flag to editors that you’re difficult to work with.

I understand the point of your intro paragraph, but it didn’t work. At first, I was wondering what all this information had to do with anything, but then it went on so long that before we got to the point—your memoirs—I was just tired of reading. Also, as an editor I’m nitpicky enough to get hung up on the fact that none of those were memoirs or even stories, as stated—they’re just facts about the writer.

Mentioning your boss, who is in fact a very respected figure in television, comes off as name-dropping here, especially since ‘celebrity’ is the first quality mentioned and thus is apparently supposed to be the most important. The writer’s job and boss are both very impressive, but there are ways of working that information into the letter so it doesn’t sound like bragging. The lack of a good transition into the next paragraph makes it seem that you just want to mention that you know this person.

In fact, lack of transitions plague this letter. It makes the whole thing just seem like a stream of almost unrelated sentences—we don’t really need to know about your favorite childhood story, by the way—which frankly does not impress me when it comes to your writing skills. The experience you list late in the letter is appropriate, though.

Lastly, your ‘title’ (Future Best-Selling Author) makes you seem immature. That too is a recurring problem in this letter—your memoirs could very well be amazing, and it’s clear that you've gone through some difficult times, but you strike me as very young. You really want the person reading this letter to be impressed with your maturity.

When I started reading, I assumed the book had something to do with coffee. That would have been great—I love coffee! But as it turns out, it wasn’t. I find letters that open with some big poetic I AM… paragraph rather distasteful. We’re reviewing the book, not the author, and so even though I like coffee (and Pringles™, too), I would rather this paragraph weren’t here.

Ordinarily I would advise against relating personal narratives in a cover letter because the letter should be about the book, not the author. In the case of the second paragraph, though, the submission is a memoir, so the author’s references to personal experiences are relevant to the submission—they are describing the content of the book to us. However, I would caution against any statements of “And I’m only ­­­__ years old!” because, while the fact might be remarkable (such as if the author is relating her solo transatlantic flight, her Nobel Prize, and her patent on a freestanding toothbrush at twenty-two), it often pings in the editor’s mind as “I’m such a great writer despite my young age!”, which can come off as a bit boastful. Also, it might not be the best idea to reveal your youth before the book is reviewed. If we know the person writing is nineteen years old, we might be suspicious of her ability to appeal to an audience that spans well beyond that age. That isn’t to say a nineteen-year-old couldn’t write an excellent book that would appeal to readers of all ages, but there’s no reason to risk chipping away at your own credibility by giving away too much personal information in a cover letter. Also, many editors in publishing houses all over the country—including New York—are in their early twenties. So we’re not impressed by “young” authors.

Most of the information in the next two paragraphs is not particularly relevant (no publisher cares about what an author wrote at age six), save for the mention of the prior publication. However, there was no additional information about the book, such as its publisher. Editors reading these letters often aren’t going to take the time to check online—and if we do and we find that the book is subsidy-published, it tells us a lot about the author’s ambition but not much about the author’s ability to attract publishers. And I am familiar with your celebrity boss and love her work, but it’s not pertinent to the books we publish.

The author thanked us for our time, something I always appreciate. The author’s signature includes “Future Best-Selling Author”. Personally, any time I read any predictions on the author’s part that she or he will produce a bestseller in the future, it turns me off. Claim it when you’ve achieved it, not before.

An important rule of thumb: The majority of your cover letter should be about your book, not about you.

Submission Cover Letter #6:

Dear (Editor's name),

{TITLE} is a paranormal action/adventure romance set in present-day Chicago. The manuscript is complete at 92,000 words and features fallen angels, demons, magical relics and a shape-shifting rock.

Archeology student by day, exotic dancer at night, all Lexie Harrison wants is to be left alone to complete her projected five-year life plan to become an archeologist and get the hell out of Chicago. Her problem? A host of fellow humans who won’t leave her alone, a dark angel who insists she rejoin the human race and a destiny that threatens to topple her carefully balanced life.

Fallen angel Phoenix, aka Simon Richard St. John, desperately seeks redemption for past mistakes. To be absolved of his sins so he can reenter Heaven, he is convinced he must train, mentor and guide the unwilling mortal to fulfill her destiny. His dilemma? Not only is the woman who is destined to the save the world dangerously intoxicating, she doesn’t care if mankind is sucked into the deepest reaches of space. He’d rather fight a legion of demons.

The conflict between Lexie’s wish to be left alone and Simon’s insistence that only through her renewal of faith can he be redeemed continually put their two strong personalities at odds. Not only does he push her to take up the mantle of protector for a world she despises, he challenges her lonely heart to feel, to care. In return, Lexie shakes the foundation of Simon’s own desires.

If trying to find their own way isn’t enough, they must fight against a power hungry demon seeking to gather enough power to shift the balance between good and evil. And they must fight against a passion for the other that is forbidden.

I am an active member of my local RWA chapter and have published an action/adventure romance set in Earth’s future with {Publisher}. I have sample pages of {TITLE} and other works completed or in progress on my web site.

I’m excited about the possibility of working with you and hope to hear from you soon. Thank you for your consideration.


The opening paragraph is strong. The author talks about the book first and foremost, and she delivers relevant information right up front—genre, setting, word count, major features of the story. Also, she does all of this succinctly. When executed in a way that is still informative, less is more. Well done.

The synopsis covers the story explicitly but without wasting words. Be careful to proofread several times (although typos were quite minimal), but the content of the book was summarized in a way that gave important details and made the story sound interesting.

The personal information the author gives is pertinent to her romance writing experience and includes her published work with a reputable publisher. And again, thank-yous are always, well, quite welcome.

I’m probably the last person you want reading this letter because my educational background is actually in archaeology, and my first thought was that if the heroine thinks that she can finish her education and become a practicing archaeologist in five years, the writer probably hasn’t done a whole lot of research for this book. Needless to say, that doesn’t get the letter off on the right foot at all.

The blurb needs editing. It’s filled with awkward sentences and I’m actually having difficulty following it. In short, the blurb is not impressing me and doesn’t particularly make me want to read the story. The blurb should really put your best foot forward, story-wise. It also runs way too long—a paragraph or two is all I want.

The experience listed at the end is appropriate, though.

The first paragraph is very promising. You give us the necessary information in a straightforward and brief manner and you managed to catch my attention. A shape-shifting rock? Huh! The rest of the letter has some problems, however. The summary is too long and somewhat meandering. There were times when I had to re-read to make certain I understood what was being said. Tighten up the summary to the most important or exciting elements. The book summary should be short, snappy and to the point, giving me a very clear picture about two important things:

1) What is the book about and
2) Who is going to buy it.

Your credentials were good. They were relevant and to the point. I’m not certain why you mentioned having samples on your webpage. You’ll be sending me the story—I don’t need to go surfing to find it. Also, double-check the average amount of time it takes to become an archeologist. I was under the impression that it was a very difficult field for people to break into, and five years (around four of them for college, I assume?) seems to be pushing it.


Anonymous said...

Submission Cover Letter #6:

I agree w/Mackenzie...not only is it full of awkward sentences, it's filled with redundancies (and IMO it's too long)

Anonymous said...

Re: sub #6

It took me 7 years to become a field archaeologist but I guess it could be done in 6 (BA and PhD a requirement). If the heroine is already at college and completed her first couple of years of an undergraduate degree then I'd say 5 years is acceptable as a'life-plan' to get qualified enough to be hired on a dig.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous 2:24 PM, thank you! I thought it seemed long enough with regard to simply getting her PhD and be hired on a dig. She just wants out and to be somewhere remote with little human contact. Since it seemed to raise a few eyebrows with the editors, is there a way to clarify? Thanks!

Aimlesswriter said...

Great advice on both queries. Thanks for posting these.
Any advice on writing a synopsis? How long should they be? How much do I put in it? What exactly do agents use this for?

Anonymous said...

Hi Kim W,

Th editors were only going by the blurb in the letter, but in your synopsis you'd have more room to state your heroine's age - so if she's 22 then we can probably assume she's got her undergrad degree and is working on her PhD. You could also drop in info that she's got experience in fieldwork, if it's relevant to the plot, but save this sort of stuff for the synopsis.

You could probably wiggle some info into the letter blurb though, as when people read 'student' they probably imagine an 18-year old rather than a 20-something woman. So you could put 'archaeology postgraduate' rather than 'student'.

Or you could state her age - 'Archeology student by day, exotic dancer at night, all 22-year old Lexie Harrison wants...'

Or unless the five-year plan is necessary to the plot, drop that entirely and change the focus of the sentence: 'Archeology student by day, exotic dancer at night, all 22-year old Lexie Harrison wants is to complete her PhD and get the hell out of Chicago.'

Hope that helps :)

Anonymous said...

It does anonymous 2:24! Especially the last part. I like that - certainly simplifies my issue. She's actually older (29) - just doing the graduate stuff late. Like my husband is doing right now. Except he's 47. :D Thank you!!!