story craft #11 Cover Letter Mistakes

Mike Grist Story Craft 4 Comments

This week I went to the Tokyo Writer’s Workshop for the first time in years. I took with me 8 pages of the first Dawn book, plus its cover letter to agents, hoping to get advice on how to make both more eye-catching and intriguing. The feedback I got was incredibly valuable, and pretty darn surprising. In short, they really liked the 8 pages of actual story, but strongly disliked the cover letter.

That’s a big problem, because the cover letter is what agents and publishers see first. In some cases it may be the only thing they see. They may only read the first few lines of it. They may briefly skim it. If nothing hooks them, or if anything in fact turns them off, they toss the accompanying manuscript away unread.


Someone in the group said-

“I read the cover letter, and expected the actual pages to be just as bad; overwrought, overdone, and exhausting. I was very pleasantly surprised when they weren’t.”

Ok, this makes alarm bells ring. I need to fix it. I wonder if this was how agents felt when I sent the same cover letter and sample pages to 30 or 40 of them earlier this year? Did any of them even look at the sample pages? Perhaps not. Perhaps the cover letter consigned the pages to the trash pile without a chance to speak for themselves.

Here’s the cover letter I showed to them, and to the agents. Can you pick out any mistakes?

Cover Letter

Dear Agent’s name,

Please find enclosed the first three chapters and a synopsis of my fantasy novel The Rise of the Truth for your consideration. It is the first book in The Dawn Cycle, a fantasy/science-fiction saga of 5 books. It is 152,000 words long.

The Rise of the Truth begins the story of Dawn, a boy born into torture and abandonment at the hands of his mother Sophia, who claims she is only protecting him from the wrath of the Pain, a dark and all-consuming God.

After her abandonment he is raised in a web of lies; believing his mother died in the birth, believing the scars of her abuse are birth-marks, but the lies build up within him like a sparking tinder-keg which ultimately explodes, catapulting him into a search for the truth which puts him into conflict with the city of Jabbler at large, with the horrific system of Caste, and ultimately with King Aberainythy himself.

The world is a bizarre fantasy somewhat akin to the worlds of China Mieville, Terry Pratchett, and Mervyn Peake. The narrative bears resemblance to the work of Orson Scott Card and the TV show LOST.

Three of my stories have been published by print magazines, one by Aoiffe’s Kiss, one by Something Wicked, and one by Shelter of Daylight. Stories from the Dawn Cycle world have been purchased by TQR, AtomJack, and Something Wicked.

I am a 30-year old English teacher living in Tokyo, Japan. I am an avid ruins explorer, and my website features a wide range of photographs from those ruins. The site has been favorably reviewed by the Guardian newspaper, and excerpted for numerous magazines and a Japan guidebook. I hope to publish a book of ruins photography in the future.

I am submitting The Rise of the Truth to other agents also. I am enclosing an International Reply Coupon and SAE for your convenience.


Michael John Grist.

encl: synopsis, first 3 chapters

So, could you find some mistakes? Here’s what the group told me-

Cover Letter Mistakes

1- It is the first book in The Dawn Cycle, a fantasy/science-fiction saga of 5 books.

Agents don’t want to pick up a 5-book series from an unknown author. It’s an unrewarding risk, I imagine. So I should pitch it instead as a stand-alone book, at least to get my foot in the door. If they like it, of course I can mention there are more.

2- It is 152,000 words long.

Apparently this is too long. The target for a book of this type, for a first time writer, should be between 110,000 – 130,000. That makes sense. Of course your Robert Jordan’s and George R. R. Martin’s can produce opuses 200,000+ words long, but they’re established. Surely a book that long is just more costly to print, to package, and even to market- again, too much of a risk on an unknown author.

Fixing this is harder- it means either cutting the book by a large chunk, or splitting it in half and making it two books. I’m currently thinking about how to split it. The funny thing is, I already split it once. I guess that’s what happens though when the first draft is more a DM’s manual than a proper linear story.

3- The Rise of the Truth begins the story of …. ultimately with King Aberainythy himself.

This ‘blurb’ is probably the hardest bit to get right. The group had lots of problems with it;

Clichea web of lies, a sparking tinder-keg which ultimately explodes

Too many odd (and for now meaningless) names- Pain, Dawn, Aberainythy, Jabbler

Overwrought- horrific, explode, sparking, catapult

Grammatically exhausting- long run-on sentences using semi-colons. The whole second paragraph is one long sentence.

All of this is fairly easily fixable, but hard to not just replace it with a similar passage with similar mistakes. I think writing this kind of blurb is a special skill. You want to give a taste of the book, also a taste of the highlights, but that’s really hard to do well in just a few paragraphs. Perhaps a slow-burn approach would be better. Build from the ordinary world, offer a few hints of possibilities spreading out. Anything else I’m afraid will just seem overwrought.Especially as the book itself is turning out to be much more slow-burn than I’d thought.

4- The world is a bizarre fantasy

Don’t call my own world a bizarre fantasy- let others judge that. Probably it’s not good to compare it to other writers at all, that may make me seem consciously derivative.

5- Three of my stories have been published by print magazines…

This is good but could be better. It should be higher up in the cover letter, perhaps even in the top paragraph. Also I don’t like the phrasing- sounds like I’ve only ever had 3 stories published, which is not really true- I’ve had many more. Probably a better way to handle this is to mention only the stories published from the the Dawn Cycle- though again not to reference ‘Dawn Cycle’, but instead just the wider world.

6- I am a 30-year old English teacher …

Actually nobody mentioned this, so I’m not sure if it’s a good idea, dead weight, or makes no difference either way. Some guidebooks say the editor will be interested to hear more about you, as well as if you have any special experience to help you write the book. My ruins exploring has definitely fed into my writing, so the two are connected, but who knows if an agent will care about that.

7- I am submitting The Rise of the Truth to other agents also.

Don’t tell them this. They assume it.

8- I am enclosing an International Reply Coupon

Don’t do this either, instead go to the trouble of getting the correct stamps for the country. IRC’s require someone to go to the post office to exchange them. I thought about doing this but it seemed a major production- though at least I have family in the two main countries- USA and UK. I guess I should just suck it up and do it. Roll on the days we all use the same stamps system.

Alright, so what did you make of all that? Agree, disagree, any further advice? I’m working on the replacement letter now (the blurb is the hardest bit) and will post it soon.

Comments 4

  1. To be upfront, I’m not a fan of fantasy/SF so I’m not sure about the conventions in that area but one thing that struck me about your summary of your story is that the main character sounds very passive. The action is happening to him, he’s not actually doing anything. He’s “catapulted” and “put into conflict” but what action does he take? What’s the main conflict here and what does he do about it that’s unique enough to make this story worth reading?

    Personally, with the writing credits, I’d say something like “I’ve had short stories published in magazines such as xx, yy and zz.” Then mention the ones relating to this novel.

    I don’t think you need to mention your age but the interest in ruins is good. I think you could relate it more to the actual novel
    with the intention of 1. showing you have an audience via your blog and 2. having a hook to publicise the book if published that sets you apart from other fantasy authors.

    These are just my thoughts. I’m not a published writer and don’t work in the publishing industry so take it as you will.

    1. Post

      Hi Kathryn, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I agree that the protagonist comes off very passive in this blurb, and that`s the last thing I want. In the book he`s the driving force, very willful, so of course I need to make sure that comes across.

      Also I agree it`s a good idea to pimp my site more- I often read about publishers/agents wanting authors with a platform of their own these days. I have that with this site so should definitely mention it.

      Thanks again!

  2. Mike, are you familiar with the blog of Miss Snark? She is an anonymous NYC literary agent who blogged for a couple of years answering questions from writers who wanted tips on how to get published. Her snarky replies to their questions were funny, honest, and ultimately very helpful. She also did critiques of cover letters and of sample pages submitted by very brave readers.

    Someone made an index of the entire blog after she retired from blogging. Here it is. Spend a few hours reading her advice and I think you’ll be ready to write a much crisper and more appealing query letter.

    I agree about putting your “credentials” much higher up in the letter, and rewriting the summary.

    Good luck!

    1. Post

      Hi Geekmom, this is an excellent suggestion, in fact after I wrote this post I went out and searched for query letter advice, and found in fact not Miss Snark but a very similar (I think) blog called the ‘Query Shark’. I think she does a similar thing to the snark- she takes real queries and tear them apart for their faults.

      I rewrote my query and sent it to her- there’s a small chance to feature it and give me feedback. I also took it to one of my writing groups and they seemed to like it, but I’ll hold off on sending it out again until the other, more critical, group takes a look.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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