Thursday, February 24, 2011

Pitch Perfect

There seems to be a lot of chatter out there on how to write a cover letter.  How long should a letter be? Do you include comp titles? What if you have no "platform"?  And of course, every agent out there seems to have different submission guidelines which makes this whole process all the more labor intensive. 

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, 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.

Warm regards,

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.


  1. Beautiful first page! Thanks for sharing this query. It was really helpful.

  2. A ferociously delicious query. Thank you for sharing it and explaining why it works.

  3. Kudos to Seré for the awesome query & to Elisabeth for getting it sold in 'record speed.'

    Just curious, from the time an agent sells the story to a publisher, how long does it take to see the finished book on the shelves @ stores?

    Also, it gives me a lot of hope to know that it IS possible to be published without an well-established platform.

  4. Hi Sophie--Typically a year but a lot of thought goes into what season or month makes the most sense for the book. Publishers consider what else they are publishing and what time of year a book would be best received. Hope that helps!

  5. Wow- what a letter. I really appreciate you sharing it with all of us. The first page is great too.

  6. I love seeing this kind of post, and the book looks great. Congrats to both of you.

  7. Beautiful first page. I would buy it without reservation.

  8. Love the pitch perfect voice and its reflections!

  9. Thanks so much for the response Elisabeth! Yes that really do put things into perspective! A year ... wow!

  10. "For three years, I did back flips in the deep end of happiness." I loved that.

  11. Can't wait to read the rest of this novel. Thanks for sharing a great example of a cover letter.
    I like Lynne Griffin's work too. After reading and reviewing Life Without Summer, I reviewed Sea Escape on Sept 14 along with several other books on my Write and read with Dale blog.
    You can bet I'll review the Underside of Joy too when it is released here in Australia.

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