by Kitty Felde
There’s only one thing worse than trying to write a synopsis of your play: writing the cover letter that goes with it.
Many theatres and contests have moved to online submissions with no place to fill in the extras that don’t fit the categories in the form. That’s a shame. Standardized submission forms eliminate any opportunity for you to show more of yourself, making it more difficult to stand out from the crowd.
But if you’re given the opportunity to submit by email – or even help the U.S. Postal Service survive by sending a paper script – you need a great cover letter.
For years, I dashed off a couple of paragraphs in the “enclosed please find a copy of my play XZY for your reading pleasure.” Then my editor – the guy I married a million years ago – read me the riot act. I got a half hour lecture on the importance of cover letters. He should know. He spends days crafting the perfect submission letter to go with his book manuscripts. So I asked him to help me with my submission email for a new Fina Mendoza mystery novel. As a result, I got two kind, but personal rejections, but also a pair of “send me more”s.
Children’s books are not plays, but the cover letter format works for both. I’ve pasted my latest cover letter below and highlighted the elements that (I think) make it work.
Dear Mary Jane, – I think in this day and age, we can get away with first names.
I’m Kitty Felde, author of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” and host of the Book Club for Kids and producer of The Fina Mendoza Mysteries podcast. – It never hurts to lead with your most recognizable credit. Since publishers are looking for writers with their own “brands” these days, this is what I chose to include at the top. For a play, I might instead list my most current production or the best-known theatre or director.
Now you get to brag for a paragraph or two:
These months of lockdown have at least been good for both my writing and my podcasting. – Because Covid has changed everything, especially live theatre, do acknowledge the existence of the pandemic.
On my multiple award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast, a trio of young readers discuss a novel, interview the writer, and hear a passage from the book read by a celebrity. When the schools shut down this spring, both teachers and parents discovered the podcast. Our episode downloads exploded, jumping more than 200%. Then The New York Times profiled us, writing: “This virtual gathering space for young readers feels more vital than ever in the social distancing era.” And even before the pandemic, The Times of London named us one of the top ten kidcasts in the world. – Go ahead and include links to your reviews and website. Why not? They don’t have to click on it, but they might.
I also adapted “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza” into an episodic podcast. This summer, I was invited to make a presentation at the high-profile Bay Area Book Festival – virtually – to talk about both the book and the process of turning it into a podcast. In addition, right before the entire city shut down, the Los Angeles Public Library hosted me at a live author event. And then after the shutdown, I was featured in a “LAPL Instagram Live Author Conversation.” – Don’t be a “girl,” too humble to talk about your accomplishments. Brag, brag, brag. Nobody else is going to toot your horn for you.
Now, in my old journalism days, this would be called “burying the lede.” You may want to put this paragraph at the top, but like any good playwright, I chose instead to set the scene, introducing the characters (me) and then launch into the story – or in this case, the reason for writing:
I have completed the second book in my Fina Mendoza mysteries series set on Capitol Hill. My contract with my current publisher just expired at the end of August. The rights to the first book in this series reverted to me at the end of the contract.
And here’s where I mention the specifics about why this particular publisher – or theatre – is perfect for my work.
I’d very much like to bring both books, and subsequent ones in the series, to a new publisher – one with a track record of getting books into libraries and classrooms.
I’m quite proud of my work on the first book in the series. I secured fine blurbs from the chief tour guide of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, several members of Congress, NPR First Lady Susan Stamberg, and children’s writers Leah Henderson, Wendy Wan-Long Shang, and Gail Carson Levine. I did more than a dozen book talks at various venues in both Washington and Los Angeles. And I got a terrific review from Kirkus. – More bragging. It may be overkill, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
Here’s where you pitch the play or book itself. Note that I didn’t give a blow-by-blow of all the action in the story, just the highlights:
The second book is called State of the Union: A Fina Mendoza Mystery. In “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza,” 10-year-old Fina, a recent transplant from Los Angeles to Washington, solves the mystery of the legendary Demon Cat of Capitol Hill. In “State of the Union,” our intrepid young detective must track down a mysterious bird who poops on the president’s head during the State of the Union address. It’s also the tale of tensions in the Mendoza family as Fina’s outspoken grandmother joins the family in Washington, combat in Congress as lawmakers struggle with immigration reform, and even rivalries between a pair of congressional dogs that Fina walks after school.
When you submit a non-fiction proposal, you include an extensive marketing plan. Do you have a marketing plan for your work? Something that – besides the excellence of the writing – will help a theatre sell tickets? Or in this case, sell books?
I believe this series can be quite successful for three reasons. First, it fits solidly into the middle-grade mystery novel genre. Second, our protagonist is a smart, strong, brave young Latina who can serve as a role model at a time when many parents – Latinx and otherwise – are looking for such a heroine. Third, it’s just the thing for parents who want their children to learn a little something about the U.S. Constitution and national politics and the ways of Washington. There’s quite a dearth of books for young readers, both fiction and non-fiction, that tackle the workings of our government. That’s why the Library of Congress, the gift shop for the House office buildings, and at least three of D.C.’s independent bookstores carried the first book in the series.
Got a second play that a theatre might be interested in? Why not pitch it, too? You never know if they a project under contract that’s too similar to your first masterpiece that you pitched earlier in the letter:
I also wanted to let you know that in addition to my Fina Mendoza mysteries, I’ve been working on a second mystery series also set in Washington, DC. This one takes place at the turn of the last century. Our amateur detective is Quentin, the youngest child of President Theodore Roosevelt. He terrorized the White House with spit balls on the Andrew Jackson portrait, bringing a pony up to the second floor in the elevator to visit a sick sibling, and dropped snowballs on the heads of the Secret Service. I’ve finished the first few chapters of Murder on the Potomac: A Quentin Roosevelt Mystery.
Get personal. Don’t be afraid to show something about yourself. This paragraph includes a bit of bragging, a bit of marketing, and an admission that I’m new at this genre:
This mystery writing thing is a sort of second act for me. I had a long career as a public radio journalist, with NPR and KCRW and KPCC in Southern California, including stints as a field reporter, U.S. Capitol correspondent, and talk show host. Three times my journalist peers named me the “Los Angeles Radio Journalist of the Year.” And I’d like to think I’m still something of a public figure in Southern California – which, as you know, is both the largest book market in the country and home to millions of Latinx.
Remind them to look for the attachment:
I’m attaching an e-manuscript for the second Fina Mendoza mystery. I would also be happy to snail mail you a copy of “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.”
It’s always nice to end with a compliment:
Thanks so much for your consideration. I’ve so enjoyed diving into the mystery genre. And I would love to continue to build my writing career with the help of a wonderful agent like you at XYZ Representation.
Don’t be afraid of length in your cover letter. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll just skim to get to the bottom.
These are just my thoughts about what to put in a cover letter. I’d love to see what works for you!