Last year, I received the following query. I'm sharing it here because I think it's pretty damn good. In fact, it was so good, I used 90% of it as my pitch letter to editors and ended up selling the book in (agent brag!) record time at auction last week. So, here it is:
Dear Ms. Weed,
The work of your client Lynne Griffin reflects themes and sensibilities similar to mine. I'm writing to ask if you would like to take a look at my contemporary women's novel, The Underside of Joy.
To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the Northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known. But when Joe drowns off the coast, his ex-wife shows up at his funeral, intent on reclaiming the children. Ella must fight to prove they should remain with her while she struggles to save the family's market. With wit and determination, she delves beneath the surface of her marriage, finally asking the questions she most fears, the answers jeopardizing everything and everyone she most loves.
The Underside of Joy is not a fairy tale version of step-motherhood pitting good against evil, but an exploration of a complex relationship between two women who both consider themselves to be the "real" mother. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars -- both physical and emotional -- to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during WWII and postpartum depression and psychosis.
I'm an advertising copywriter and brand consultant. I also work as the senior editor and writer for a newly launched eldercare website, icarevillage.com. But writing fiction is my passion. I was accepted to the Squaw Valley Writers Conference in 2006, and attended, by invitation, Elle Newmark's Lake Como Writers Conference in 2009 with author Janet Fitch. I was granted a residency at Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in 2004 and recently served as a judge for the San Diego Book Awards short story competition.
The first chapter of The Underside of Joy is pasted into this email. The completed manuscript runs about 82,000 words. Would you like to see it? Thanks so much for your time and consideration.
Seré Prince Halverson
With Seré's letter as example, here are the top 5 things I think a writer should convey in his or her cover letter:
1. Personalize--By mentioning another client's work, in this case Lynne Griffin, the writer shows that she's done her research on the agent she's submitting to.
2. Think jacket copy--This first paragraph sounds like it belongs on the back of the book. And guess what? There's a real chance it might end up there! Seriously. Seré is thinking of the book and how it would sell to readers, which is kind of empowering for a writer when you think about it.
3. Discuss themes--In the second paragraph, Seré lets me know what, beyond the plot, the book is about. In this case, it touches on several themes--motherhood, depression and family secrets.
4. Tell me about yourself--The author doesn't have an MFA or stories published in journals, but what she does have is a passion for writing, which she tells me, but also shows through her attendance several conferences, applying for a residency, and being actively involved in the writing community.
5 Be nice!--Seré is polite and professional and sounds like someone I want to work with. I am a nice person and I prefer working with nice people and I know this sounds weird, but from experience reading letters like this over the last 12 years, I can spot people that are going to be really difficult. There, I said it. My favorite was one last week where the author pitched me and asked that I be in touch with what books I'd worked on in the past and why I would be a good fit for her. Obviously in that case, I didn't need my sixth sense to find the delete button, but you get what I am saying... (you can and should ask those questions once you have an interested agent and are deciding if it's a good fit. More on that later.)
Oh, and for those of you who are frustrated with all the different submission guidelines out there, I want to point out that my guidelines don't ask for the first chapter but Seré sent it anyway, and I am so glad that she did. From the first paragraph, I knew she could write, and I requested the entire thing and read it immediately. So I am going to add one more rule of thumb here:
6. Don't get bogged down in all of these rules and guidelines. You know your book best and how best to make it shine. I suspect Seré knew that if I read a bit of her work, I'd be hooked, and she was right.
With that, here's the first page of The Underside of Joy:
I recently read a study that claimed happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics -- a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can only be as deep as your gene pool.
For three years, I did back flips in the deep end of happiness.
The joy was palpable and often loud. Other times it softened -- Zach’s milky breath on my neck, or Annie’s hair entwined in my fingers as I braided it, or Joe humming some old Crowded House song in the shower while I brushed my teeth. The steam on the mirror blurred my vision, misted my reflection, like a soft-focus photograph smoothing out my wrinkles, but even those didn’t bother me. You can’t have crow’s feet if you don’t smile, and I smiled a lot.
I also know now, years later, something else: The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind.