Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.8: My name is Bob, but you can call me B S Goodwriter

Did anyone else notice that lots of people’s names changed, at least for a little while, once they left school?

After our last long summer together a selection of my friends and I flitted off to the lure of university placements. It was when we all returned at Christmas that I started to notice the effect that the change of scenery had had on some of my friends’ previously stalwart forenames. Ellen, who had always been Ellen as far as I was aware, was suddenly Elle. Annabel was Bella. Sophia had distorted into a Sophie overnight.

If I’m totally honest I had quietly considered a name change myself.

It felt like a rare chance to reinvent the old, tired Vicki format that I’d been using for years. I even had a name in mind. I was going to go with Tora, a nickname given to me in early childhood owing to the fact that my elder sibling had trouble pronouncing the challenging V sound.

But I chickened out at the last minute.

Remembering all these new names was quite enough to think about without having to remember to call myself something different as well. The cringe-factor of the whole business got to me too. To introduce myself with a different name felt like a lie. I wanted to explain, to let my potential new friend know that I wasn’t duping them, but I could not find a way of saying ‘I’m Vicki but I’d actually quite like you to call me Tora instead,’ without sounding at least a little bit unhinged.

So Tora wasn’t to be. Vicki’s fine though. I’m used to Vicki. It fits. And anyway, almost all of the Ellens, Annabels and Sophias reverted back to what worked eventually so I suspect that Tora never would have lasted either.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I often detect this same effect in covering letters. It seems that people have a similar instinct to tweak their own names when they become authors as they do when trying to reinvent themselves at university.

Of course, this must be largely influenced by the fact that so many authors use pseudonyms (Erica Leonard being a particularly topical example of this) or employ their initials rather than their forenames (as Joanne Rowling was advised to do to make sure boys were not discouraged from reading her books. I think it worked okay, a fair few boys read Joanne’s stories eventually as I understand it).

The thing is, as with making your first introduction during freshers’ week, in a covering letter your time is precious. And I would strongly recommend not wasting that precious time discussing something like pseudonyms.

Besides using up valuable space on your (hopefully no longer than a page) covering letter this is also one of those approaches which tends to say the wrong thing about you. Just as my instincts towards explaining my personally assigned nickname would have done, all it achieves is to tell the person you are approaching that you have spent time self-consciously dissecting your own name. The image you want to feed agents is of you diligently applying your creative genius to your writing, rather than to your name.

On top of this, in suggesting a pseudonym for yourself you are somewhat jumping the gun, in the nicest sense. Discussing potential pseudonyms with new writers is something that any agent worth their salt will do before sending their work out to publishers. After that the publisher may even wish to stick their oar in. Pseudonyms, at the heart of it, are a bit like nicknames; it’s a bit embarrassing to try to choose your own.

We’ve all met that sort of person at some point, haven’t we? The stringy teenager who awkwardly insists that his friends call him ‘Playa’, no really, because he has totally gone out with loads of girls, honest. The middle-aged business man who, before regaling you with tales of how many people tell him he should be a stand-up comedian, demands that you call him ‘The Gavinister’ because (apparently) ‘everybody does’.

Sadly, it gives a similar sort of impression if you immediately suggest pen names for yourself.

I often hear the same vein of complaint being made about covering letters that include detailed descriptions of how the writer envisages marketing their work. This, again, is getting a bit ahead of the game.

It can produce the same effect as the ‘it would make a great film/tv series’ cliché, I’m afraid.

It is great to briefly mention that you are excited to market your work and to tell us if you are good at public speaking or have the charisma and rugged charm of, say, George Clooney. These are helpful things to mention. It is also brilliant to let agents know that you have thought about your reader and where your book will fit on the shelves/bestseller charts.

However, if your book has potential for blockbuster success a good agent will see this from your synopsis. If you have professional respect for the agents you are submitting to you can rest assured that they will have a detailed understanding of the book market and will be instantly aware of the marketability of your work, or they wouldn’t be trusted with reading submissions in the first place. And if you are unfortunate enough to have a name like Eugene Bogdrifter any agent you acquire will almost certainly discuss pseudonyms with you in due course.

Use your precious time to tell them something they don’t know. Like your amazing idea for a bestselling novel which you have brought to life through your fantastic gifts with the written word.

There’ll be time enough for nicknames and readership demographics later. Believe me.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

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8 Responses to Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

  1. Mark Wood says:

    Hi. My name’s Mark (I read your post, otherwise I might have considered writing ‘Algernon’). I would like to ask about another ‘label’ in the query, The title of the work. I’m concerned that the title I’m currently working on ‘Prospero’s Beating Mind’ is graphically, a little ugly. The apostrophe. Also, is it a tad pretentious (hate that word) to use a literary reference?

  2. Juno says:

    It’s interesting that agents and publishers may choose the pseudonym. Aspiring authors are often advised to have a web presence. If blogging builds readership – making a fledgling novelist more attractive to agents – then it’s important to choose the right name before starting. Have you any more advice on this issue?

  3. 3arrington says:

    I am currently writing a cover letter to your agency, I find myself being too personal and over friendly. Thanks for your advice. I shall try my luck.

  4. It’s great to have so many people reading and commenting!

    Mark:
    Titles are tricky but the good news is that it isn’t written in stone just because it is written in your covering letter. As with pseudonyms, we often end up discussing title options with our authors before we send their work out to publishers and it is not entirely uncommon for publishers to want to change a novel’s title during editing either.
    The best thing to do is to choose the title that you think fits your work. Put a lot of thought into it, as your title will be one of the first impressions that anyone will get of your work, but don’t lose too much sleep over it.
    In terms of covering letters my biggest piece of advice would be not to give several different choices for titles that you are considering or to simply leave your work untitled. Even though you may be planning to discuss titles further with your agent once you are signed sharing your uncertainty in your covering letter just takes up precious times and makes you look a little indecisive. Your work needs a brand to begin with, a name by which your prospective agent can refer to your novel. Just like nicknames and readership demographics there will be time to discuss titles further at a later date.

    Juno:
    Good question. One I could talk about for far too long. If an author has created a successful web presence I would advise them to mention it in their covering letter as it can be a good indicator that their writing is strong.
    However, cards on the table, whenever I hear new writers being generally advised to create a web presence to build readership I always feel a little concerned about where this advice is leading them.
    If you are going down the path of self-publishing then creating an online presence could be a good idea although relying solely on twitter and/or a blog following is rarely the answer. (This blog explains why in the most reasonable way I have read thus far, albeit with a little more anger than I think is entirely necessary and he’s pretty mean about whoever this ‘Snooki’ character is, but he uses maths for evidence of his opinions which I like. http://redpenofdoom.com/2011/11/08/the-twitter-it-is-not-for-selling-books/). However, self-publishing if quite a different path to take from finding an agent. (This is a topic that we wish to discuss further on the blog in future. Watch this space.)
    If you want to gain access to online writers’ groups for support with your work creating an online presence is a fantastic choice. There are loads of great online writers’ groups and I always love to see how supportive of each other new writers can be on the web. However, the name you use on writers’ forums is not something that you necessarily need to include on your covering letter. Briefly mentioning that you have been working with other writers in these forums could be a good idea as it gives the impression that you are dedicated to your work and are thinking about your reader. (Top Tip No. 9 will address further the issue of how much to mention on this subject, watch this space again.)
    However, if you want to grab an agent’s attention in a covering letter talking more than briefly about your online presence is likely to only work as a distraction from the subject that they most want to hear about – your writing.
    Therefore, even if you have created a new name for yourself online I would still recommend using your real name on your covering letter and leaving the subject of what name you eventually want to have embossed on the cover of your novel for later. There will be time.

    3arrington:
    I am glad that the blog is proving helpful to you. As ever, whatever style works best for you to efficiently communicate your enthusiasm for you work is great with us. If your writing style is chatty and approachable then feel free to use the same style in your covering letter. We wish you the very best of luck and will keep our fingers crossed for you!

  5. Juno says:

    Thanks for your advice. I’d just like to say that I’m finding this blog enjoyable and helpful.

  6. Peter Taylor says:

    Greetings from Australia – many thanks for all your posts, Vicki.

    My name really is Peter Taylor, but there are dozens of us. I was way too late to get a WordPress identity in any sensible and recognisable combination, though fortunately my parents gave me a middle name of Ernest to solve such problems. But it doesn’t solve all of them. And maybe Peterern was not the wisest choice for WordPress – it reminds me of when I was a teacher and the children twisted my name gave me a nickname of Tea Urn.

    My first publisher, Allen and Unwin, had two of us at the same time, and though I try to use Peter E Taylor, we each received mail intended for the other one.

    Should you or any agent ever Google my name, I am one of the authors named Peter Taylor who is still alive, and just for the record, I have had four books on calligraphy published, a picture book titled ‘Once a Creepy Crocodile’ and co-authored ‘101 Things to Do Before You Grow Up’. If you do, by some fluke of a chance, discover one of my books on an internet vending site and it states that books by the same author include business titles, short stories, political commentary or erotica, I’m sorry to say that I am not that adaptable, I have never been a lighthouse keeper or won the PEN/Faulkner Award.

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