Friday, October 06, 2006

How not to sell your novel to an agent

Looking back, it seems incredible to me how little importance I placed on the need to market my novel to an agent. I believe the Americans describe the process as the "Query Letter". The Query Letter is in fact two documents: the Sales Pitch and the Synopsis.

My approach over the years on the other hand is best characterised as minimalist. Show them the first three chapters and they will buy it. No selling needed. Genius is obvious after all.

How stupid can you get?

Here's an example of my standard query letter before Lynne Scanlon went to work on it. Ask yourself, Would you buy an unpublished novel from this man?


Dear Sirs

A Half Life of One

This story is set in contemporary Scotland, around Deeside, in an isolated landscape where events can unfold in a vacuum, without ever being seen.

A middle-aged man loses nearly everything when his business collapses. The bank is threatening to re-possess his home and throw his family out onto the streets. Under extreme duress from his creditors he hatches a plan to kidnap a wealthy female entrepreneur who owns a country estate near to where he lives. With the proceeds of the ransom he intends to save his wife and son from penury and the resulting humiliation. The plan goes wrong and a companion of the lady is killed, perhaps murdered. The lady is kidnapped and imprisoned in a remote, ruined cottage. In a moment of madness she is subjected to an horrific assault by the man, an act which traumatises both of them.

A short time later the man is offered a way out of his predicament. The man abandons his hostage to her fate and goes on to establish a new and successful career working for a quasi-government business development agency. He suffers no retribution for his crimes, nor is he repentant. He believes, or at least hopes, that perhaps the circumstances justified his actions.

The theme of the book relates to what happens to an ordinary – and apparently good - individual when he is subjected to external pressures with which he cannot cope. The main question I hope to provoke is: how would the reader cope in similar circumstances? The main emotion I wish to evoke is terror at the realisation of how easy it is for any of us to go off the rails. Throughout the book there are historical echoes of ordinary people placed in similar situations.

The book is 75,000 words long.

Whatever the outcome of this submission I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to look at my efforts.

Yours sincerely,

Bill Desperate"


  1. Having read the book, damned right I'd buy it. This letter, though, truly doesn't do it justice, and would get a "Sorry, not for us," from me, without a moment's misgiving.

    Horrifying, isn't it? For want of a nail...

  2. Can you give us the reworked version as a comparison? I'm sure would be interesting to anyone at the letter-writing stage.

  3. JTA - you are the world's leading authority on A Half Life of One, so maybe I should have consulted you first.

    Hi Debi - certainly. I'll put the revised version up in a couple of days once a few people have had a chance to comment on the original.

  4. I love you, Pundy, so please forgive the criticism (which works both ways, as I was guilty of the same mistake), but that query letter is well-written but bland as cardboard. I have learned (the hard way) that there is a vast difference between writing a novel and writing a query letter. Query letters need to be written by MTV video directors.

  5. Er, Daddy, I quite like you too. In a way. Not THAT way, I hasten to add.

    "Bland as cardboard" is a pretty good description. In fact, that description is much better than the thing it is describing.

    You underline the point about the importance of the query letter as an art form in its own right very well.

  6. Anonymous4:33 pm

    There's obviously something wrong with me, because now I'm intrigued enough to want to read it?

  7. Anonymous4:35 pm

    Is there something wrong with me, because I'm intrigued enough to want to read the book now?
    That a was rhetorical by the way...

  8. Anonymous4:36 pm

    Sorry...thought my comment hadn't posted the first time

  9. Anonymous7:35 pm

    Yes, there is something wrong with you dear, you have just messed up Pundy's blog with your button mis-management.

    Funny isn't it? We write the book with fire and passion but just can't seem to get that down in a submission letter. I re-wrote mine about a hundred times, cringing at every self-promoting word that I wrote. Would love to see the re-worked letter and maybe Debi could give us her thoughts, after having already gone through this process!

  10. Anonymous10:01 am

    Okay, okay, that was, of course 'cringeing' and I'm now cringeing in the corner!!

  11. Writing the query and synopsis is much harder than writing the actual novel. I take ages over mine and I'm sure that only makes it worse.

    I'd like to see the reworked version of the letter too.

  12. Guys, thanks for all your comments. Most helpful. I've posted up the revised submission so you can get your teeth into that as well.