Friday, July 18, 2008

You've got 30 seconds - convince me!

Yesterday, as I was putting the last of my notes for this weekends conference, I got to thinking more about query letters, pitches and the whole submission process. What struck me was the approach that many authors make which results ALL OF THE TIME in a rejection letter.

For some reason, writers just don't see the correlation between the submission process and getting a job in the business world. There is simply NO difference. Still, we continue to see the same mistakes over and over again. Here's some of the best!

- I received an e-query just last week that simply had three other individuals comments about this author's writing followed up by "and I would be happy to send samples of my work.

- I received an e-query that only had the first 3 chapters embedded into the email.

- Query letters that tell me all about this person's personal life.

- Letters that start off with "I'm sure you see a lot of bad letters and I hope mine is not one of them."

- Conference pitches with authors dressed poorly.

- I had an author once sit down and offer me half of her sandwich. I've also had people offer me candy, snacks and soda.

I really could go on and on with this forever but you get the idea. The deal is this. If you are submitting material to an editor or an agent, I don't care if it is via email, snail mail, or in person, please remember this is a job interview. The majority of you blow the entire thing from the first impression we get of you. I don't care how good your story is, you've lost me.

Remember that employers only review your materials for about 30 seconds. That's it. In pitches, we are making judgements about you from the moment we first see you and hear the first words out of your mouth.

So, here are some things to consider:

Query letters are business letters.

Here are 10 simple tips for general cover letters:

1) Make yourself stand out. Get the competitive edge by writing a cover letter that focuses on your unique and exceptional qualities. What makes you an ideal candidate? Be strategic, persuasive, and concise.

2)Target the right person. Sending your letter to the proper person can make all the difference. Avoid generic addresses such as ?To Whom It May Concern? or ?Dear Sir or Madam.? Instead, call the company and find out the name and title of the person who does the hiring for the job that in which you're interested. Remember to ask for the correct spelling of his or her name.

3)Stay simple. Keep your cover letter brief. Never send a letter that is more than a page in length; half a page is ideal. Be sure to use clear, professional language while steering away from buzzwords, acronyms, jargon, or anything overly personal.

4)Make it shine. The overall visual impression of your cover letter can be just as important as what's written on it. Make sure to use crisp, quality stationery. Match the style of copy on your cover letter with the style of your résumé. Stick with one font and avoid solid walls of text that make the reader?s eyes bounce right off the page. Break your text into digestible morsels with lots of white space.

5)Be an attention getter. Don't waste your first paragraph by writing a dull introduction. Grab the employer's attention from the start by pointing out how you can make a difference in a way no other candidate can. Keep in mind that you have only about one to two seconds to get your initial point across before the reader moves on to the next letter.

6)Sell yourself. Don't expect to wow a prospective employer with a lengthy checklist of past accomplishments and titles. Instead, position your accomplishments in terms of how you could bring the same benefits to their company. Your cover letter needs to answer the question ?What?s in it for my company?? Clarify how your expertise will benefit them directly.

7)Grammar and spelling count. Never underestimate the negative effect of bad writing, which can greatly hurt your chances of landing a new position. Check your cover letter for spelling, grammar, and overall readability.

8)Avoid exaggeration. There's nowhere to hide when you finally land an interview and the prospective employer wants to know what you meant by "best in the world." Avoid saying anything that sounds like hyperbole, which can project the wrong image and damage your credibility. And remember never to speak poorly of former employers or coworkers.

9) Close encounters. Don't depend on the employer to take action. Request the opportunity to send additional materials.

10) Don't forget the follow-up. After sending your material, keep track of the time. All editors and agents have no problem with slipping them a small email or post card to check on the status.

I should stress here that this cover letter should contain all of the basics about the manuscript you are submitting: Title, genre, word count, and brief summary.

Your in-person pitches are the same as well:

1) Be professional.
2) Look and dress professionally.
3) Sell yourself and your manuscript (same information here)
4) Come prepared to the pitch (business cards, paper, pen, etc.)
5) Eye contact is key. Don't forget to smile.
6) Stay on topic. This is not the time to babble on about personal problems and what not.
7) Follow up. If you are asked to submit, do so immediately.
8) Ask questions. Show you are interested and you know something about their business.
9) Don't argue if they say no.
10) Know your stuff - No note cards, no notes. Be prepared mentally.

I know this is a lot to consider but let's face it. When you receive as many submissions as we do, we are, at some level, looking for a reason to reject you. Don't make it easy on us by making stupid mistakes.

I'll see you on Monday. I'm off to Arizona. See you soon Northern Arizona Romance Writers!


Information for cover letters came from the All Business website.


  1. Deat Scott.
    You continue to be so very funny. What if you had been hungry ? Would you have preferred that the interviewee comsume food under your nose while you were starving? At least the poor schmuck was offering to share.
    Meanwhile, two posts back. I found the solution to romances novels apparently written for, and by, fourth-graders, if that, by moving directly to historicals. There one will find beautiful, top-of-their-game. writing by professionals. I read and buy as many as possible. Writers like Bernard Cornwell, Steven Pressfield, Philippa Gregory, have everything to teach new writers about dramatic structure and effective prose.
    As for the inane gynecology textbook copying that now passes for erotica, I imagine it will fall of its own weight soon enough. Even worse than being poorly written, it commits the really unforgivable sin of being boring. By the time I got to the lip-smacking description of the "winking sphincter," (author name and title upon request)I knew I was reading the efforts of an utter;y desperate writer. How to distinguish one's self from the pack? That would be the dilemma. Egad, I have it! The last time I noticed it was time to worm the barn cats...that might work! Give it a try.
    What can can one say, but...keep those sphincters winking!
    Back to The Trail. And thanks, as always, Scott, FOR A good, good, time. Hold the sandwich.

  2. It's hard to believe that with all the resources there are for aspiring writers there are still so many people that think they can just sit down at a keyboard and pen the next masterpiece. If only it were that easy. I'm reminded of a Hemingway quote. "It's none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way." Unfortunately, lots of writers MUST think it's just something it's your genes, instead of the hard work it actually is---at least most of the time. As for the sandwich, I'm not sure what to say except that it's taking casual to a whole new level. I used to work in television news and I was amazed constantly at what people were willing to do to get on camera. I am beginning to have a sneaking suspicion that it's the same thing with writers. Good writers, or those who are on their way to becomming good writers, value each crticism and critique, have the grace to thank an agent or editor for his/her time even if it's a NO and get back to the keyboard the next day. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. And while occassionally a new writer hits the NYTB List, they usually have some writing experience first, even if it's not the same kind of writing. While there is a lot to be said for natural talent, it's just not enough. It's like sports, you need some talent and a whole heck of a lot of practice to land a professional contract. And as for the query letter with the rave reviews---did you know any of the quoted reviewers? I sure hope one wasn't signed "MOM." Thanks for a great post and getting my focus back on query letters and conferences. I needed that.

  3. ...people who do not dress up for a/e appointments and spend their time running around the conference with their whatzits hanging out aren't thinking long term.

    You only get one chance to make a first impression, especially if you only meet that person once.

  4. Hello,
    I wanted to thank whoever mentioned the books of Lois Bujold. I don't read SF and was not familar with this authot, but found one of her books in the library and am thoroughly enjoying it.
    Given the availability of this level of writing, I can only wonder once again why anyone spends time and money on the poor quality, rushed writing that is everywhere for sale.
    All it took was the beautiful opening prologue contained in either of the first two Draikon trilogy books written by Shana Abe, and i knew i would buy that book and find the rest of her work. Why settle for less?
    But, to each his own, and thanks especially to Scott for taking the time to share his thoughts about publishing with all of us. I hope to see more romance novels that are clearly the work of professionals who have spent a lifetime learning their art, and art it is. Hold the tapeworms, too. Seen one, seen them all!

  5. lol, anonymous, that was me. Glad you enjoyed them. I particularly like the two-parter that introduces the series. Shards of Honor and Barrayar. And if you ever have the chance to find them (also at the library they're out of print now) The Readers Chair (and only the Readers Chair) version of the audios is absolutely wonderful.

    Bujold is a Hugo/Nebula award winner and a Grandmaster. Her Vorkosigan series rocks!!