Writing Advice #25: Cover Letters

I almost didn’t even write anything this week… I found a terrific post on the subject of query letters on kidlit.com. I encourage you all to read it: It lives right here.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, I also stumbled upon this terrific page, wherein the inimitable Lisa McMann allows her query for Wake to be dissected.

Between those two pages, you should have everything you need to know. In the unlikely event that you still care what I have to say on the subject, read on!

Your cover letter exists for one reason and one reason only: to get the basic information across to the person in question.

So, your cover letter is your introduction. Or is it? Remember that you’ve been going to conferences (you have been, right?), so you hopefully have met some agents and they’ve said, “Sure, send something to me!” In that case, honestly, all your cover letter needs to say is…

Dear Agent X:

We met at the writers conference in Timbuktu last month and spoke for a bit. You may recall that we discussed my novel, Scampy, the Al-Qaeda Meerkat. You asked me to send along some sample chapters; I’ve enclosed the first three chapters of the novel.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Best,

Etc.

Yeah, I know. You’re like, “Is that it?” And I’m like, “That’s it.” Now, if you have a little something extra you want to drop in there (“I had a great time at the hula bar with you — I hope your back is feeling better!”), go for it. But really, all you’re doing is saying, basically, “Hey, we met, and you liked my pitch, remember? So here’s that stuff you asked for.” And that’s it. Mission accomplished.
If you’re sending something cold, though, you need to do a bit more. Now, if there’s some kind of personal connection (for example, an agent’s client said, “Send it to my agent and drop my name”), then you’ll want to be sure to incorporate that.

[AGENT ADDRESS, ETC.]

Dear [Mr./Ms.] [AGENT LAST NAME]:

I am looking for representation for my novel, Scampy, the Al-Qaeda Meerkat. It’s based on the true-life account of an American meerkat who lost his way and became a pawn in the War on Terror.

Scampy is your average meerkat, happy in a zoo in middle America. After 9/11, though, he becomes embroiled in an international conspiracy when he is accidentally subjected to rendition, spirited out of the country, and tortured in another nation. Escaping from his captors, Scampy swears revenge, linking up with terrorists in Afghanistan and training for the mission that will bring him back to America…and face-to-face with the zookeeper who let him be taken away.

[IF YOU HAVE PUBLISHED CREDITS, LIST THEM HERE. OTHERWISE, SAY NOTHING.]

[DEPENDING ON THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES, YOU’LL EITHER SAY…] I’ve enclosed a brief synopsis of Scampyas well as the first three chapters. The novel itself is complete and ready for you at any time. [OR…] I would appreciate the opportunity to send you a synopsis or sample chapters. The novel itself is complete and ready for you at any time.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration; I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,
YOUR NAME

It really is as easy as that. Yeah, I know that boiling down your novel to a single paragraph like that is a bitch and half, but it’s necessary. How do you do it?

This is probably the toughest part, isn’t it? I mean, if we could easily boil our books down to a couple of sentences like that, we probably wouldn’t write the books — we would just write the sentences! It would be a lot quicker, wouldn’t it? I mean, instead of writing a thousand pages about how human beings are all interconnected and should love one another, it seems so much easier just to write, “Human beings are all interconnected and should love one another.”

It doesn’t work that way, of course. The POWER of writing lies in the nuances. The ideas are central, but their expression is what makes them memorable, compelling, and useful.

So boiling down your book feels…icky. Trust me, I know. I’ve been there.

Here’s what you do.

First of all, you practice on OTHER books. It feels less personal that way. You can be more objective. Take the last ten books you’ve read and force yourself to boil them down to a paragraph. This will get you thinking in those terms. It will flex those muscles. You’ll become a pro at it.

You’re gonna need to know how to do this, people. If your book gets published, people are going to say to you, “Oh, you’re a writer. What’s your book about?” And if you start with, “Well, it’s about this meerkat named Scampy. And in Chapter 1, he lives in a zoo. Then, in Chapter 2, he has a flashback to his days on the plains. Then, in Chapter 3 there’s this really great scene where…” their eyes will glaze over. Trust me.

When you talk about your work, you’re gonna need to make it quick and sexy. Make people ASK for more information. When you try to force information on people, they get bored. But if they ASK for it, then — almost by definition — they’re interested. (Unless they’re just being polite. In which case tell ’em anyway — that’ll teach ’em to be polite!)

So when people say to me, “What’s your book about?”, I can immediately respond, “Well, the first one is about a really smart, really talented, really self-absorbed comic book geek. He’s secretly creating a comic book that he thinks is his ticket to fame and fortune. And then he meets the girl of his nightmares.” Bang. Three quick sentences sets the whole thing up. If they’re interested, they’ll ask for more information. If they’re NOT interested, then no amount of blather from me is going to change their minds.

“The second one,” I can tell them, “is about this kid named Josh. He’s a genius. He’s about to graduate from high school. His parents fight all the time, he doesn’t know where he’s going to college, he hates his baseball coach… Oh, and at the end of chapter two, he finds out that the teacher he had an affair with at the age of 12 just got out of jail.”

Bang. Quick and easy.

Is there more to the books than that? Of COURSE. But what matters is that you get across to people what is centrally important — the premise — and then get out of the way. When you’re face-to-face with someone, you get out of the way so that they can ask questions.

When you’re writing a cover letter, you get out of the way so that the editor or agent can move on to read your writing!

Now, here’s the second thing that’s going to help you with those little synposes: Your pitch sessions at writers conferences. (Ah-ha! Back to the writers conferences! See, it all connects together…) Those sessions are SHORT. They’re usually about ten minutes long, which — believe me — FLIES when you’re in the thick of it.

The cool thing is that for those ten minutes, that other person has NOTHING else to do but to listen to you. So you talk. You talk about your book. And you gauge their reactions. And even if nothing comes of it, as long as you’re paying attention, you WILL get something from it. At the very least, you’ll learn what did NOT get his or her attention. You’ll be able to go back to your hotel room after the session and sit down and say to yourself, “OK, well, bringing up the zoo stuff made her eyes glaze over… But the zookeeper stuff perked her up…” PLUS the person on the other side of that table is going to ask questions. (That’s important — you have ten minutes, but that doesn’t mean you talk non-stop for ten minutes! Give a quick pitch, then let the person ask you questions.) Based on the questions you get, you’ll realize, “Wow, it’s really important for me to mention Point X because otherwise people get confused.” Or “I love the scene with the Salsa Gun, but it just throws people off and distracts them when I tell them about it, so I’ll skip it from now on.”

All of these things combined will help you put together a great little paragraph about your book.

Which will go into a nice, tight little cover letter.

Which, hopefully, will get someone to read your wonderful book.

And further wonderful things happen after that. 🙂

I want to try something here now. There haven’t been very many comments lately, so I hope you’re all still out there listening and reading. I hope I’ve just been doing a really good job explaining things and that’s why no one’s been commenting.

Because I want to get some comments going now. I want you all to exercise your writing muscles a little bit.

I want you all to do one of the following:

  1. Put a synopsis of a book in the comments. Pretend you’re pitching it or writing a cover letter for it. It can be any book at all.
  2. Put a synopsis of YOUR book in the comments. Ooh, scary, I know. Go ahead — give it a try.

I promise to respond to each comment. Hopefully, we’ll see some good examples AND some bad examples. Either way, we’ll learn.

And, of course, someone will be randomly selected to get a Goth Girl minimate. ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

(To see the comment thread from the old barrylyga.com, click here. If you want to add to the conversation, use the comment form below.)

Cover Story @ Melissa Walker’s Blog

My friend — and awesome author in her own right — Melissa Walker does a cool feature called “Cover Story,” where she has authors talk about the covers to their books.

You see where this is headed, right?

Visit Melissa’s site to see me blather about the cover to Goth Girl Rising, including what I wanted on the cover and why it’s a good thing my publisher has no problem saying to me, “You’re wrong, Barry.” Plus, a little bit of trivia about the cover to The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, too!

Thanks, Melissa! It was a lot of fun!

OMGeektastic!

I’ve just discovered that I never added my Geektastic contribution — “The Truth About Dino Girl” — to the Other Work menu at the top of this page. Oops! BIG oversight!

I’ve fixed that now. Go to “Other Work,” then “Short Stories” to read about the story. Or, y’know, just click here.

20 Questions Update!

Just wanted to drop in another quick update on the 20 Questions video. The video has been shot! The people whose questions were used (and who will receive a minimate) have been notified, so if you haven’t heard yet…you didn’t get one. Sorry.

Right now, the raw footage is in my publisher’s hands. As soon as it’s been cleaned up, we’ll be posting the video all over the place, and you’ll get to see which questions were chosen…and, of course, hear the answers!

Interview: BookPage

BookPage asked some questions about Goth Girl Rising. You can see the answers, including why I said, “Screw society,” at this page.