Next hurdle: how to write a proper cover letter
by Elizabeth Mazer, Assistant Editor
A little while back, I wrote a blog post on how to make a great impression on an editor or agent before s/he opens the envelope on your submission. (If you missed it the first time around, you can find that post here: First Impressions–Right Down to the Wrapping Paper). So now let’s assume that you read my brilliant and insightful post, and have followed my advice to the letter. You know just how much tape to use to protect the manuscript without provoking the editor, and your envelope is prepped and ready with your name and return address clearly and legibly displayed and the address on the envelope directing your submission to precisely the right person for the exact line that you wish to target. Good job! Your envelope is ready to make a good impression—but what about the rest of your submission? A new hurdle looms on the horizon. And that hurdle is called…your cover letter.
Writing a cover letter is a little like getting dressed for a blind date. Making the right choices can be key to winning someone over…but what’s the best route to take? What blouse can you choose that says “I’m funny, charming, and make a killer apple pie”? You don’t even know this guy—how can you guess what he’ll like or hate? You can spend three hours getting your hair, makeup and outfit just right and there’s still always the chance that he’ll be allergic to your perfume, or have an unnatural aversion to the color of your favorite sweater.
Here’s the simple truth: there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what makes a good cover letter. But there are some things you can keep in mind. As someone who reads a lot of cover letters, there are definitely things that I’d like to see. So here’s my two cents (or rather, three hints) on ways to help your cover letter shine.
- Cover the basics: Writing your cover letter may be like prepping for a blind date, but receiving it? Well, it’s kind of like speed dating, especially when I first open it and am skimming for what I need to know to file it properly in one of my to-be-read piles. Help me out here, and start the letter with some key facts: word count, time period (if it’s a historical novel), some of the main “hooks” of your story (also known as the selling points—things like “reunion romance” or “secret baby” or “hero bodyguard”). Also be sure to let me know that the manuscript is complete. (I’m afraid I can’t review works-in-progress. Finish it first, and then decide whether or not to submit it.) All of this is very useful information for me to have by the end of the first paragraph. And what I want to know most? The title! You’d be surprised how often I get cover letters where the book’s title isn’t mentioned at all.
- If you know it, show it!: You’re a smart and savvy writer, right? That’s why you’re reading these posts, learning about the wonderful, diverse range Harlequin covers. It’s a great move on your part—you’re putting yourself ahead of the pack by learning about our different lines, the requirements that we have, and the types of stories we want. So once you’ve gathered all of this useful information, use it in your cover letter! You’re sure your book is perfect for Desire? Prove it to us by stating explicitly how your story fits the requirements of a hot alpha hero in passion-driven conflict with your strong, sexy heroine. Or maybe you’re submitting a Love Inspired story for consideration? Be sure to note how your sweet-rather-than-sensual romance grows as the hero and heroine face challenges together and achieve happiness in a realistic but still faith-driven manner. You’re the advocate for your book, so make your case to us—show us in your cover letter that you know what we’re looking for, and that you have it, ready to deliver.
- Toot your own horn—especially if your hero’s a trumpet player: The information describing your story (word count, title, plot, line suitability) definitely needs to come first, but when you get to the end of your letter, leave room for a little bragging. Has this story won awards from your local writers’ organization? Have you won awards—or maybe landed on a bestseller list—for any other books you’ve written? Or perhaps you have personal knowledge or experience that enhances this particular story? If you’re writing a story with a special forces hero/heroine and you served in the military for fifteen years, then that’s great information for us to know. But please keep it professional and related to this project—your personal bio may be fascinating, but if you’re selling me on your book, then that’s where your focus should be.
There aren’t any guarantees in life, but by following these tips, you stand a much better chance of getting a second date—or at least a letter from an editor to say something other than that s/he’s just not that into you. And as with dating, even if one guy falls short of the mark, don’t let that stop you! Believe in yourself, believe in your story, and keep trying. If I’ve learned anything from working at Harlequin, it’s that happily-ever-after—in romance or otherwise—could be waiting around any corner. Keep your chin up and your eyes open, and let me know if my hints have helped you find your way!