Life isn’t like a box of chocolates but searching for new writers can be.

In the last few weeks Quality Street chocolates have been alarmingly abundant in the Curtis Brown offices, their shiny wrappers gleaming suggestively, promising that Christmas and its deluge of cheap and colourful chocolate is just around the corner.

I confess I haven’t resisted but I’ve learnt an important lesson and surprisingly it’s about new submissions.
I use the chocolate guide – you may be pleased to hear that I’m not so familiar with the flavours that I can select without assistance and I’m certainly not daring enough to do so.  Once I’ve chosen a chocolate, there’s that moment just before unwrapping it when the world is full of promise. There’s something potentially delicious and it’s just within my reach.  Then there’s the moment just after consumption where I feel let down – it wasn’t worth the calories, it fell short of expectations, I was misled.

However a little later on I might return to the tin. Ok last time wasn’t satisfying but I should really persist – perhaps a different shape or colour could be just what I’m looking for. Then the cycle of hope and disappointment begins again but I’ll persevere – maybe the next one will be satisfying…

I’ve been reading a lot of new submissions this week and the experience has been similar. I approach each new one with optimism. I’m an agent, I want to discover new talent and I have hundreds of new writers sending their work in every month so plenty of potential books to explore.  I can tell quickly if it’s not going to be for me and this is usually clear from the covering letter.  Some sound exciting with a clear, well crafted letter, an intriguing synopsis and an original idea – they stand out even before I’ve started reading any text.  Admittedly there can be a large gap between the idea and the writing itself but the submissions which grab my attention and fill me with a Quality Street-like hope are those with an alluring wrapper – a strong covering letter.  Presentation isn’t everything but unlike the writing itself, it’s something very easy to get right.
Here are a few pointers on how to write your covering letter to Agents:

  • Address your submission to an individual, not a company and explain why you are approaching them and why you think your work might be of interest.
  • Don’t suggest the age range is 0-100 – this just shows you have no sense of the children’s market.
  • Do some research before you submit. Read other children’s books, not just those you remember from your own childhood but recently published titles too. Get a sense of where your material fits in.
  • Don’t describe your book as the next Harry Potter – there’s aiming high and there’s aiming too high…
  • Do talk about your influences and how your book may be in the vein of X or Y.
  • Avoid gimmicks and bribes, they’re not effective. A carefully thought out, professional letter is more likely to make your submission stand out than sweets or toys.
  • Include any relevant writing experience in your letter but avoid mentioning the school newsletter you worked on twenty years ago, it looks desperate.
  • Your spouse or children may enjoy the book – they’re obliged to and there’s no need to mention this, it won’t persuade an agent that they will feel the same way.
  • “Do not be insane. Or at least, don’t let it show” – For this and other insightful tips check out Isabel Thomas’ blog on how not to get published
  • When enclosing a synopsis keep this short. I prefer just a paragraph or two.
  • Include paragraph breaks – I love our new submissions website but it displays text exactly as it is submitted and without paragraph breaks it can be an exhausting reading experience.
  • Dystopian is a dirty word. Despite the enormous success of The Hunger Games, other dystopian titles haven’t really taken off and publishers have bought enough in this area to keep them going until at least 2020. Trends come and go but sadly this one is on the wane.

I think for now I’ve had my fill of Quality streets – I’m after something that looks appealing and suits my taste too in terms of chocolate and new writing and preferably both! Any suggestions?

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5 thoughts on “Life isn’t like a box of chocolates but searching for new writers can be.

  1. Hi Stephanie,
    Thank you for this post, it’s very helpful. When you say that you prefer a synopsis to be a couple of paragraphs is this for children’s books or is it also true for YA fantasy with a complex plot? I’m hoping to submit to you over the next couple of months and just want to be clear about your preferences. Don’t panic, it’s no Fifty Shades of a Multitude Vampires.

    • Hi Lucy, I think even if the plot is complex it’s still best to keep a synopsis short – one A4 page maximum. It’s really just to give a sense of where the story is going and not to provide a detailed plot breakdown. If we like the sound of the manuscript and the sample chapters we’ll ask to read the whole manuscript anyway and will find out more then.

  2. Pingback: Writers, not bakers. What a literary agent wants from new submissions. | Writing about Writing for Children

  3. Hi Stephanie,

    This is a really useful post but I just have a question.

    When you say that “Dystopian is a dirty word” and that it “is on the wane,” does this mean that you are not considering any more submissions of Dystopian novels because of this issue?

    Many thanks!

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