Two weeks ago, we (or more specifically, I) discussed common mistakes made in writing a cover letter meant to interest an agent, editor, or other big deal in your writing (and Josh pointed out just where I was wrong). This week for a refreshing change of pace, I thought we'd look at how to do so in an effective manner. It's meant to be helpful without the layer of snarkiness.
Be gentle. It's my first time.
Let's start with a (fictional) example:
Dear Ms. Agent: (Don't get too familiar with someone you don't know. "Hi" is out of the question. "Dear Sally", not much better. This is a business communication.
Ernestine Hawthorne is facing a difficult decision: Her aging mother Bernice is confined to a wheelchair in an assisted living facility, but is mentally sharp as a tack. At least, that's what Ernestine thinks until she hears her mom's story of ghosts in the building warning of coming violence.
She consults the facility's medical staff about possible dementia, but is told her mother is essentially a very healthy 77-year-old.
Then her mom's friend dies, seemingly of natural causes, and Bernice insists it's murder. Ernestine has to make a decision--assume her mom is hallucinating, or start asking questions that someone might not want answered.
Notice that the first three paragraphs don't mention the writer at all. That's because the agent cares only about your story, so that's what you're selling here. Never mistake a query letter for anything but what it is--a sales tool. The product is your work. Sell your story, not yourself.
That's the premise of my new 85,000-word mystery novel, ASSISTED DYING. As she gets deeper into the investigation, Ernestine will encounter doctors, administrators, psychiatrists, patients, residents and caregivers... and each one will have something to hide. All the while, she'll be balancing each new revelation with the possibility that her mother is fading mentally, and might be imaginging the whole thing.
You've introduced the idea that this is the plot of a novel, but you're still telling--or more accurately now, describing--your story. You are the last thing this letter will discuss, and the least.
All the while, she'll be threatened anonymously, insulted to her face and intrigued by the attentions of Dr. David Patel, the handsome gerontologist whose interest in Ernestine is clearly not professional--she isn't old enough.
Can't hurt to have a little romance thrown in.
ASSISTED DYING is the first in a series of Ernestine Hawthorne mysteries. In each novel, Ernestine will be reluctantly looking into a crime while dealing with the problems of life in today's world: her mother will require watching, her friend Nancy's husband will be showing signs of straying, her job might be in jeopardy. But she'll persist with a wry sense of humor and more than a little attitude.
Now you're showing ambition. Note that it doesn't say the book will be the first in a PROPOSED series and the word "hopefully" does not appear anywhere in this letter. Confidence, not arrogance (see the previous post).
The book represents my newest work, although I have written short stories that were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and several articles on crime fiction for bookstuff.com. I am currently hard at work on the second Ernestine Hawthorne novel, BURIED UNDER A TBR PILE.
Finally, you get to talk about yourself. A little. Very little. Nothing about where you went to college or your day job at the Walgreen's. If the author in this case had some expertise in an assisted living facility, it would make sense to say so--any connection to the material that lends credibility is good. But NEVER mention directly that this is your first novel; let them ask when they're interested. The job here is to GET them interested. And by the way, I completely made up bookstuff.com.
I believe ASSISTED DYING might appeal to you because of your work with Samantha Bezlowitz, and because your firm has always had a practical, realistic approach to the publishing business. I would love to discuss any possibilities with you, and hope you will be interested in representing my work.
You've done research on their agency. This is a little blatant in its pandering, but it can't hurt to show you didn't simply copy the agent's name off a list. Do the work and know your prey.
I look forward to hearing from you.
Don't call every day asking for an update. From your research, you should know the agent's policy regarding submissions, and many will state how long it usually takes to get a response. Wait that amount of time plus at least two weeks to get in touch.
A query letter is a first contact. It's meant to be an arm waving in the air and saying, "Hey, look over here!" But that's all it's meant to do. Nobody ever asked for the rights to represent a query letter. Make sure you have the goods before you offer them for representation or publishing. Don't ever promise what you can't deliver. And never, ever, lie in a query letter--just leave out the pieces of information (like it being your first novel) that you don't want the recipient to know.