SUBMISSION KNOWHOW Writing a covering letter that will get you noticed

Agents get literally hundreds of submissions a week, so how do you make sure yours doesn't go into the dreaded slushpile? Bryony Pearce shows us how.

So now you have your synopsis, you’ll need an attention-grabbing covering letter. Firstly, be sure to address the letter to the specific agent who you've decided to approach. Presentation of the letter should be similar to that of the synopsis – Times New Roman, 12-point spacing, single line layout. Make sure that you lay out all of your contact details at the top of the letter, allowing the agent to easily get in touch with you.

It’s good to lay out all the crucial information about your submission at the outset of the letter. Mention what you are including, reveal your title, genre and target age range. You should also include the word count at this point. Something like this:

Dear Catherine,

I am seeking representation for my Young Adult horror novel, Savage Island, which is 70,000 words long and aimed at older teenagers. I include my synopsis and first three chapters for your interest.

Waste paper basket icon
The last place you want your work to go is in the bin. Photo: Pixbay
Do personalise the letter and give an indication of why you’re targeting this particular agent or publishing house. You might explain that you read an article about them or attended a talk they gave, that you have looked at their website and know they specialise in books for your target age range, or even that you have read a book by a writer they represent. Ideally, you want something to show you’ve done your research rather than picked them at random. The more particular your reason the better. For example:

I attended a talk you gave last year about the importance of writing fantastic characters and found it incredibly inspiring. I put your ideas into my own protagonist, a boy who is trying to survive against all odds. 

A single paragraph outlining the plot should follow. The idea is to provide a tantalising taster, but you don’t need to go into detail. This is where your blurb comes in. I describe my novel as a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Apprentice. It's about teenagers who are trying to win a million pounds by completing a geocaching course on a remote island. However, not all is what it seems. I ask the question what would you do to protect your family and what would you do for £1 million?

A field of red flowers with one yellow one standing out
A well-written cover letter will make your
submission stand apart from those of less accomplished writers.
Photo: Charles Chan
Talk about why you wrote the book, what drew you to the subject, genre or audience. My novel deals with the monsters in the human psyche, which is a subject that has always interested me. I chose to write this into a geocaching competition as it is a sport enjoyed by all ages and walks of life. Do think if there is anything particularly interesting about your own personal story – agents and publishers are always seeking a hook with which they can sell a writer (for example JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter while she was a single mum living in a one-room apartment and writing in a coffee shop).

This story of survival is particularly important to me as I personally survived a shark attack two years ago. 

This bit isn’t true by the way, you’ll need to think of a true story! If you can, demonstrate that this is not your only project. 

While this is a stand-alone story, I have already started writing a new novel, based on a seventeenth-century witch trial, one equally dark and thrilling.

Do talk about your work and hobbies, the agent wants to get a sense of you as a person. Do mention any particular writing qualifications you might have, for example competition wins or previous publication history.
I have had seven novels published and am a winner of Undiscovered Voices, the Leeds Book Award and the Cheshire Schools Book Award. In my free time, I enjoy films, theatre and reading, and walking in the Forest of Dean. However, I have two children, so my free time is strictly limited. 

Let the agent or publisher know if you are sending your work out to more than one institution, it is only polite. 

For your information, I am submitting at this time to a total of five agents, a carefully selected group who I am excited to send my work to.

Finally, proofread, proofread, proofread – there’s no excuse for grammar and punctuation mistakes. And good luck!

Header image credit: Olga Filonenko

Cambridge graduate, Bryony Pearce, fled her ‘real London job’ in 2004 and now lives in the Forest of Dean. She is a reader for Cornerstones Literary Consultancy and has her own consulting business called Unique Critique. When the children let her off taxi duty and out of the house, she enjoys doing school visits, festivals and events. Her novels for young adults include the multi-award winning Angel’s Fury. She also has short stories appearing in the anthologies Now We Are Ten by Newcon Press and Stories from the Edge. 

Twitter: @BryonyPearce

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