- The cover letter should introduce you and the novel in one page.
- The first three chapters really means about 50 pages, and that’s the main selling point.
- The synopsis should be one double line-spaced page.
- The agent will read the documents in that order.
– A cover letter.
– A synopsis.
– The first three chapters of the novel.
Having covered the clangers that more than a third of the authors dropped before they got past the heading of the cover letter, I’m now going to talk about what Jessie and Hellie had to say about what should be in it.
The cover letter
The short answer is not too much. No more than one page with a size 12 standard font, such as Times New Roman or Arial.It should contain a few sentences describing the novel, though there’s no need to say too much as the synopsis is on a separate page. At this point, you’re trying to let the agent know whether it’s worth their while to read the three chapters and the synopsis. Over-explaining won’t do that.
Give an idea of the tone of the novel, but remember you’re an unknown writer pitching your first novel. My apologies to Margaret Atwood if you’re reading this, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I didn’t expect you to be reading about how to pitch a first novel to an agent. Something like ‘Robert Harris meets Reservoir Dogs‘ shows a touch of humour and intrigues the agent to want to know what it means. ‘I’m a mixture of Kate Atkinson and John Le Carré’ is hubris. Personally, I used the construction of saying the novel ‘will appeal to fans of…’ and listed a few well-known authors, which hopefully gives an idea of where it would fit into the market without actually claiming to be in the same league as the authors.
Finally, say a little about yourself, but be judicious. Several points about what will and will not impress them came up, and they’re worth repeating in detail as they contradict a lot of advice that is in danger of being accepted as received wisdom:
Social media: They would be interested if you have a blog or a Twitter account but they won’t be particularly impressed by a novelist’s social media platform. The platform is more important for non-fiction, as it helps if you can show that people are interested in what you have to say on the subject you’re writing about.
Self-publishing: They won’t be put off if you’ve self-published in the past, but don’t expect them to be impressed by a few thousand sales. If you’re not in the top 2% of self-publishing sales, which means around 500,000 copies sold (their figures, I haven’t checked them), you’ll get a big ‘so what?’
Writing courses: There are a huge number of writing courses, ranging from short courses of evening classes to masters degrees. Jessie and Hellie were rather scathing about all of them. It’s worth mentioning it if you’ve done a course, are a member of a writers’ group or even if you’ve attended a one day event like the session we were in, but they won’t make you an offer on the basis of any of that. There’s a reason why bookshops don’t arrange their fiction section by the author’s level of relevant education.
Editors: They were as dismissive of freelance editors as they were of writing courses. Their view is that a freelancer isn’t in touch with what’s going on in the industry, and that the novel is likely to be edited by them and edited again by a publisher. They don’t see what a freelance editor brings to the table. This was the one place where I repeat their advice with some reservation; I’ve seen some first time novelists effectively coached through theirfirst novel by a good freelance editor, and Hellie and Jessie don’t know what an edited novel looked like before the editor got her hands on it. So you pays your money, you takes your choice and you don’t expect an agent to be influenced by it.
Sequels: The big moment for trilogies passed a few years ago, and that a promise of sequels is not the selling point it used to be. The corollary to that is that standalone novels are more saleable than they were then. There is still a market for series, but it’s not an essential selling point so don’t feel you have to pitch a sequel for the sake of saleability.
Fluffies: Apparently a lot of letters say things like ‘I’ve always loved reading novels’ or ‘I’ve been writing since I was six years old’. So many that they’re bored of it, and they’re certainly not going to be impressed by it.
“The synopsis should be no more than one page, double line-spaced with one inch margins,” said Jessie.The sound of thirty sets of teeth being sucked filled the room. Not one of us had written less than double that.
Jessie relented. “Maybe one-and-a-half line spaced.”
For me, that was the biggest ‘oops’ moment of the day. Writing a synopsis is tough. Until I tried it, I never realised how tough it is to distil the tens of thousands of words in my head down to one page, and I hadn’t doubled the line spacing. Talking to other writers, we’d all had the same problem of trying to put too much of the novel into the synopsis. As Hellie and Jessie talked about it, I realised that a big part of the reason why it was so tough was that I hadn’t understood what they were looking for in a good synopsis.
They both said that they only look at a synopsis after they’ve read the first three chapters. If they’re looking at it at all, it’s because they’re impressed by the writing already. They want to know that the story is going somewhere interesting. They’re not interested in all the subplots it weaves its way through on the way there.
The lesson I take away from that is that the best synopsis in the world is not going to sell the novel to an agent, but a bad synopsis might put the agent off.
While they will consider novels that aren’t finished, don’t try to flannel your way through a synopsis of a novel you’ve barely started. It was tried, and they smelled it a mile off.
They had a particular warning for writers of epic fantasy: don’t overdump (their word, not mine) the invented names. There’s a good reason why epic fantasy novels introduce those words gradually. When every sentence contains three words the agent doesn’t know, they’ll struggle to keep track of which is a character, which is a magical spell, which is a place and which is a fancy word for a flying unicorn.
The first three chapters
The first three chapters are what really sells a novel to the agent. No matter how good your cover letter is, the best it will achieve is to persuade the agent that looking at the first three chapters will be worth their time. Don’t send them your first draft and expect them to be carried away with the story outlined in the synopsis. If the writing in the first three chapters doesn’t impress them, they won’t look at the synopsis.‘Three chapters’ is an ambiguous length, as different novels have very different chapter lengths. In the course of the discussion, it emerged that what it really means is ‘about 50 pages’ with one-inch margins, a normal size 12 font (Times New Roman, Arial or equivalent) and double line-spaced. If you have long chapters, it might be two of them. If you have short chapters, it might be four of them. The point is to see where the novel starts and how good the writing is.
They may be flexible about how many chapters but they’re not flexible about which chapters they should be. Don’t send Chapter 43, even if you think it’s far and away the best chapter in the book. Someone browsing through a bookshop is not going to turn to Chapter 43 before they decide whether to buy it. They’re going to start at the beginning, so the beginning had better be good.
Next week, I’ll be talking about what happens if you get it all right and you get the coveted ‘yes from an agent.