verba volent, scripta manent – words flee, writing remains
WHAT TO PUT IN A QUERY OR COVER LETTER
© Marg Gilks
A few years ago I took a workshop with senior editor Cynthia Good of Penguin Books Canada. The workshop was titled "Editing Fiction," but I learned much more of interest to writers than to editors. One surprising thing I learned was the importance of both query and cover letters in attracting an editor's attention to your submission.
Here's a tip, right from the horse's mouth: send a query letter first.
"What?" you're saying, "is she nuts? The guidelines say I can send the first three chapters and a synopsis; why wouldn't I do that?"
Well, the first, most obvious answer is, it gets around the "no unsolicited manuscripts" stipulation quite nicely, doesn't it? If your query letter piques an editor's interest, they will ask you to send them more. Ta-da, your manuscript has just been solicited. Fast-track past the slush pile and straight onto an editor's desk.
The second, less obvious answer is, letters are small. They're quick and easy to read. Not so the typical submission package of cover letter, synopsis and sixty-odd pages of manuscript. That's a major investment of the editor's time. Letters get read; packages get set aside. That's the bottom line.
In order to help that letter work for you, though, you have to do three things. First you have to research your market, and target the appropriate publishers for your work.
Second, you have to address your query or cover letter to a specific editor at that publisher, which means more research. Don't be afraid to phone the publisher and ask for the appropriate editor's name and title. You need the name of a suitable editor because like you, editors don't like getting mail addressed "To Occupant." You need a title because you'll be writing a business letter, which means you'll need to know if they are a Mr. or a Ms. or a Mrs. or a Dr. You won't be greeting them with "Hi Kathy."
Third and most importantly, you have to write a terrific letter. Your letter is the first example of your writing that an editor will see. If it's poorly written, they will not look at your manuscript. If it's good, your letter can go a long way in selling an editor on your novel. That, too, is straight from the horse's mouth.
What makes a terrific query or cover letter?
First, let's make sure we've covered all the basics. Keep the tone professional — neither chatty and cute nor stiff and formal. Type your letter on good-quality paper — letterhead makes the best impression but if you can't afford customized letterhead, make your own using your word-processing program, good taste and a package of blank 8.5 by 11 stationery paper. I'm not going to waste space on the proper format for a business letter. Examples can be found all around you; consider that part of your research. You will be writing a letter ideally one page long; two at most.
The first thing you should say after your opening salutation of "Dear Mr. Jones" or "Dear Miss Sing" is why you are writing to them. For instance: "I am writing to inquire about submitting my mystery novel The Great Read to Big Publishing for your consideration." (Don't forget to tell the editor what genre your novel is!) It doesn't hurt to show that you've done your research here, too. If you're approaching them because they publish books by your favorite authors or authors whose work is similar to yours, say so. If you're approaching them because they have a good reputation or a good track record, say so. Everyone likes an ego massage now and then, and an educated author is appreciated. However, if all you have to say is "I got your name out of Writers' Market," don't bother.
Next, briefly describe your novel. If you've managed to distill the story line of your novel down to one or two lines comprising setting, main character, and their crisis in a premise, then this is where you put that brief distillation. Notice I keep saying "brief." Imagine you're writing a back cover blurb for the novel, and you have only enough space for a one-paragraph description that will summarize the story and make a reader want to buy the book.
What you should not say here is how great your novel is. Let them decide. Everyone's first reaction to "I am great" is "oh, you think so, do you?" Likewise, don't try to tell them why they should buy your novel. Let them decide.
What you should consider including with your novel description are things that will aid in marketing your novel, or pitching it to the publisher's buying board: comparisons, contemporary hooks, and endorsements.
Comparisons: if your novel is similar to (but not derivative of) work by a well-known author or better yet, an author whose work the publisher has already purchased, tell the editor what those books are and what strengths the two works share. If you have endorsements from well-known authors or editors, or from experts in the field in which your novel is set, do, indeed, include them. This tells the editor that those with knowledge of the industry deem your work to be of suitable caliber; the editor will not risk wasting his or her time in requesting the entire manuscript from you.
What is a contemporary hook? Something in your novel that can be tied to current events, thus opening up possibilities for media exposure of your novel. For instance, if your storyline is based on genetic manipulation, mention the research being done to map the human genome. In the "ideal query letter" Cynthia Good distributed to workshop participants, this aspect was what most attracted her.
Now we come to you, and why you are qualified to write this novel. If you have good publishing credits, list a few. If you've published only in fanzines and low-quality magazines, however, including these credits will only be detrimental to the impression you're trying to make. Say instead that you've been writing for several years and have had work published in a number of publications.
No credits? Then stress your expertise. If you're a history buff and your novel is set in your most-studied historical period, mention that — or that you consulted with experts in the field, or did extensive research, which makes you an expert now.
Don't list unrelated interests, hobbies, or details of your life. No one cares if you're married with five kids unless your novel is about a large family.
If you're a new author (read: "unknown") and you intend this novel to be just the first of many sequels, be hesitant in announcing this to a prospective editor. Many editors are leery of sequels, of taking a chance on both the salability of an unknown author and the likelihood of a first novel launching a successful series. If you intend sequels, mention the possibility, among other intended projects. And do state that you intend to be a prolific writer. Nobody wants to invest time and money in a one-hit wonder.
Wrap the whole thing up with something to the effect of "I look forward to your reply."
You're done; you've honed your letter down to one or two pages and made sure that everything is logically arranged. Now proofread. Check spelling, especially that you spelled the editor's name correctly; fix typos and make a clean copy; make sure you've included your contact information. Prepare your SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope) — ALWAYS include a SASE for the editor's reply! If you are sending a query letter only, use a #9 envelope as your SASE; a #9 will slide nicely inside a standard #10 business-size envelope without folding. Fold your letter in thirds and mail it by regular mail — don't send it registered mail or by any means that may inconvenience someone at the other end.
If your letter is a cover for a submission package, follow publisher guidelines; whether requesting a reply only or that your submission package be returned to you after the editor has read it, always include an appropriately-sized SASE with sufficient postage. In your cover letter, state that you are including a synopsis or outline and "the first three chapters/first sixty pages of my manuscript." Don't fold your cover letter. Lay it flat on top of your synopsis, SASE, and sample pages and slide the whole pile into your mailing envelope.
Now mail it, cross your fingers, and wait!
Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit http://www.scripta-word-services.com/ to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.
This article may be reprinted in its entirety (including bio) if you e-mail me for permission.
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