Sample literary agent query letter

You want to know what a query letter should look like? Well, here’s an sample one below.

Just before we look at it, I should say that I am a real author describing a real book – and I already have an agent. So the letter which follows simply pretends that this book is a first novel and I have no track record in the industry.

The second thing to say is that I’ve assumed the agent has allowed to me to send a synopsis and opening chapters along with the query letter. (That’s standard practice in the UK, though things can be different in the US.) But obviously you need to check what the agent’s requirements are and follow them.

Third, this letter does NOT say anywhere, ‘I love Mr Angus Author, whom you represent, so I felt that your tastes and mine might have something in common.’ If you want to put that in you can. I’ve got mixed feelings about whether it’s helpful. (Most literary agents represent 2-3 well known clients and a huge chunk of their query letters will reference those 2-3 authors. It’s therefore questionable whether you do anything positive by doing likewise. Agents tend to vary in what they think about these kind of personalisations. I tend to recommend the lower effort option, but it’s no big deal. You can do as you please.)

OK. That’s enough preamble. If I were a total newbie, I’d probably write something like the following:

Dear Amy Agent

I’m writing to seek representation for my first novel, TALKING TO THE DEAD, a police procedural of 115,000 words.

The book opens with news of a murder: a young woman and her daughter have been found dead in a rough area of Cardiff. The house where they’re found is in very poor condition – a squat, with no power or working toilet – yet in the corner of the room is a platinum bank card belonging to a local millionaire. A millionaire who died in a plane crash some nine months previously.

Puzzling as this crime looks, it’s not the heart of the book’s mystery. It becomes rapidly clear that Fiona Griffiths herself is a very peculiar woman, who is withholding crucial secrets from the reader. Who exactly is her father? What was her childhood illness? And what is it with her and corpses?

I’m a [thirty-five year old lion tamer] and this is my first novel.

I enclose the first three chapters and a synopsis. I very much hope you like what you see and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours,

Wrichard Writer

There! Simple, no?All the letter actually has to do is:

  • give a very brief 1-sentence summary of the book
  • a somewhat longer, 1-2 para, introduction to the book. (Not a plot summary – that’s for the synopsis)
  • a brief introduction to you
  • not be badly written

If you achieve those things, then the literary agent will turn with curiosity to your manuscript. That’s all you can hope for at this stage – the rest is down to your novel.

Oh, and if you get rejected 10 or more times, then don’t start stressing about your letter, or your synopsis or your star sign or anything else. You are being rejected because your book is not yet strong enough for commercial publication. That’s no big deal. All pro authors had to learn the game too. If you want to improve your manuscript (and you should want nothing more urgently than that), then get some tough honest feedback from a professional editor. Pro authors get exactly that (for free, from their publishers). You’ll need to pay, but you need the same service, the same devastatingly accurate insight. Novel writing ain’t easy – and getting help does pay.

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  • Derek West

    Still trying to find an agent. Are you sure they read all the submitted ms. ?

    (Incidentally, I spotted the deliberate typo in para. 3 of your Sample Literary Agent Query Letter above)

  • Harry

    They’ll look at every MS that comes their way – “look at”, please note, not necessarily read. If an MS is obviously not making the grade from a cursory inspection, no on will be bothered to read on.

    And agents are correct to be that brusque. Publishers are only going to take the best of the best, so a couple of awkward sounding sentences will strongly suggest that the author concerned hasn’t yet achieved the standard needed for success. The harsh truth is that authors do need to be perfectionist if they want to succeed – and that at least 95% of books that are rejected, are rejected because they just aren’t yet good enough.

    The only thing I would add: of course some agents won’t look at stuff because they’re just overwhelmed with submissions or their other business. So never just send your stuff out to 1-2 agents and think you’ll get a reliable guide from that. You do need to hit 8-12 agents, give it a few weeks (6-8), and then take stock. But if you approach a dozen agents and get nowhere, your MS is not yet strong enough. Which is where we come in!

    Oh – and thanks for alerting us to that typo.

  • Maria Gloria

    Thanks, this was really helpful.

    Not sure if this is the right place to ask this question, but here goes. If your novel has been rejected by an agent say two years ago, but is now completely improved and re-written, is it okay to send it to the same agent again or will it just be automatically rejected?

  • Harry

    Fine to resend. But if so, just add a note giving the history. Any sane agent will look at the MS. If that’s good, no worries … and, as ever, don’t go nuts. If you get 10-15 rejection letters (with the current draft) you almost certainly need to start paying attention to the MS, rather than figuring out a new list of agents to send to. That’s what our Critiques service is for!

  • Keith

    Hi,

    I had an agent for a year – I’m working on my first book, non-fiction, and the agent said that he really liked my work but he never submitted my proposal to publishers, so after a year I decided to initiate a parting of the ways as I felt I wasn’t going to get anywhere with it otherwise. He never told me why he didn’t submit it (even his PA was bewildered) but I think he was just busy with bigger projects and lost track of mine. Now that I’m writing to new agents, should I mention that I previously had an agent? Thank you.

  • Harry

    No, don’t tell them. It just raises a question as to whether you or the agent was the idiot here. Your proposal should be strong enough on its own.

    I do, however, think that behaviour of the sort you mention is totally unprofessional, unjustifiable under all circumstances – and far too common. Alas, however, there is no professional body to whom such things are reported, so nothing changes.

  • Danielle

    Harry: you recommend above that an author sending queries should send out 8-12 queries to different agents. Do you mean at the same time? I had read elsewhere it was best to wait a respectable amount of time between each agent before pursuing others. Can you clarify whether agents would really mind. Is it something that should be mentioned in the query letter, that ones have been sent to other agents?

  • Harry

    You might want to send those letters in two batches with a gap (of 6-8 weeks?) in between, but it’s OK to do it all in one blast if you prefer.

    These guys aren’t endangered animals. They’re people who will, you hope, become important business partners and make a lot of money from you. So they ought to compete a bit, to fight for your business. Don’t worry about making them do a bit of work. It’s their job.

    Having said that, I’m strongly against badgering agents with questions, sending work to dozens of agents, and so on. That’s pointless – it doesn’t help you and it creates unnecessary work for agents.

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  • Sonia

    Hello Harry,
    I have a few questions. Firstly, I am a teen writer, do I have to mention that in the query? Secondly, do you have to copyright your book and can there be a chance of a agent stealing your book? Im in Canada but I want to publish in USA, is that a good idea or do you have to meet the agent? If the agent likes your first 1-3 chapters, do you send the whole manuscript or can that be dangerous (in terms of the book getting stolen)?

  • Harry

    Hi Sonia, If you’re a teen writer, it’s probably better not to mention that: most agents will take your age as a sign that you will not yet have the maturity to write a saleable novel. So don’t say anything and let the novel itself make your case for you. And plenty of Canadian writers will have their agents in NY – no reason why not. And please, please, please just forget about the risk of your manuscript getting stolen. In the first place, I’ve never heard of a manuscript getting stolen. Never. Remember that the likely value of any individual manuscript is $0.00! And secondly, how are you going to get an agent if he/she hasn’t read your MS? You’ve got to trust these guys to do their job. Best of luck!

  • Hi Harry, thanks for the great blog and for this post. I’m in need of a little advice…

    I had two full MS requests for my novel this week (I gave it to both agents non-exclusively). One of the agents has now offered to represent me. I plan to tell him that I’d love to meet up and discuss it etc. etc. I also plan to tell the other agency that I’ve had this offer (I think it’s polite and professional – is that right?). I’ve been trawling around trying to find out what agents expect in this situation and the etiquette. I don’t want to offend the agent that’s made an offer by looking like I’m holding out for another one, but I also want to make sure I’m with the right agent.

    Anyway, the bit of etiquette I can’t find an answer to is whether I should tell the three other agents I’ve submitted my partial to, or not. At the moment, presumably, my MS is sitting on their slush piles. Should I tell them that I’ve got an offer? Should I just tell them if/when I sign to an agency? They may well not be interested – I’ve had one other rejection already – but I want to be polite and do things “properly”.

    (By the way, although my book never went through WW, so you won’t consider it one of “your” books, I kind of do. My first attempt at novel writing was critiqued by you and, although I didn’t find an agent for that, I learned so so so much from the critique I totally consider WW to have been vital to my “success” (I know getting an agent isn’t the same as getting a publishing contract!) with this one. Thanks very much!)

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  • Tony

    Your article/advice has literally saved me endless days of angst and stress. The agency I’m planning on sending my MS to have requested a synopsis, query and first five pages of the final copy. My MS is close to 160,000 words.
    In your opinion, should I include the ending and ‘Every’ plot twist, character, location etc. in my synopsis?
    Look forward to hearing your reply, if not, thank you for the simple and informative query example, you’ve saved one man from another night of migraines.

  • Harry

    Thanks for the kind words – on the synopsis, you should describe the whole plot, but not necessarily every single twist etc. Keep the synopsis to a couple of pages and do what you can in that space. There’s also more info on this site about synopses. Good luck! And if you get stuck with agents, we’re here to help …

  • Christopher Jenkin

    I have written a religious memoir – my own story, hopefully interesting, thought-provoking, amusing, even moving, but definitely Christian. Taking what you say about agents being generalist, while he/she does not of course need to be a believer, some familiarity with the Christian book market would definitely be an advantage. Is there any way of seeking out a list of such agents in UK? (I found online a long list of Christian agents, but ALL in USA!)

  • Harry

    There isn’t really a Christian book market here, the way there is in the US. That is, books pitched specifically at Christians tend to sell in far smaller volumes and therefore attract much less attention from agents. I’m not aware of a list of the kind you mention, but if you find one, do let us know as you’re not the first person to have asked. Best of luck!

  • Harry Help
    Pleas help me out… below is the start of my query letter is it OK or just destine for the bin.

    I am seeking representation for a children’s fiction novel entitled Jacob Jones and the order of seven: The manuscript consist of 79,000 words, 14 chapters and has been professionally edited and formatted to industry standards.
    I am a self-employed animal behaviourist with a degree in psychology. I started writing as a press officer for an art gallery. My first press release was for the beetles’ photographer Bill Zygmant.

    Thank you Damien.

  • milan

    this is my first non-fiction novel, which contains child abuse and molestation. It’s not very graphic or detailed. But I want to get a strong message across about sex abuse due to my childhood experiences.
    Is that something that i should mention in my query? Does most publishers stay away from that message when its dealing with sex abuse?

  • Harry

    If the novel is good enough, then your childhood past will actually help as a sales hook. But approach the matter cautiously in your query letter: no agent wants to read a novel that is really a work of therapy. They get too many of those!

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  • martine

    Hello Harry,
    I stumbled across this page and have found it so useful although it has left me with lots of questions.
    I have started writing a book, its basically about going from being married to single, and the fun journey that is had by the newly single lady going out drinking and meeting men and learning to have fun again, some of it is true (some of it is made up to make it more racy that I am) its a funny look at life, sex and drinking in your 30s
    I have let about 6 of my friends read it and they all love it and say they cant wait for the next chapter.
    I now wonder what i should do? should i finish writing the book before finding an agent or should I show what I have written to an agent and see if its worth me completing.
    Sorry lots of questions but I’m very new at this and am every excited that other people love my book and said they would actually buy it!

    Thank you for any advice that you could give me

    x

  • Harry

    An agent basically won’t look at something until it’s finished and in excellent shape. If you want feedback between now and then – probably a good idea – you’ll need to get in independent critique, of the sort that we can offer. See here for more info on what we do.

  • Martine

    Thank you for taking the time to reply and for your advice.

    X

  • Leonie

    This is such a helpful site! However, I have a query that I’m hoping you might be able to answer for me.

    I have a recently published novel, and I’m two thirds of the way through the first draft of part two. I did not self publish, but I’m currently published by an e-publisher.

    I’m Australian, and as you’re no doubt aware, attracting an agent in Australia, for a (soft) sci-fi novel is very difficult. I was rejected – by the only two agents accepting submissions in my genre – the year before last, so I’ve decided to try for an international agent. I have checked and rechecked the Australian Agent list a number of times, and there are still only the two I’ve already tried listed as accepting submissions.

    Is this the time to approach an agent for representation? Or should I wait until Book 2 is completed? And would it be acceptable to re-approach the previous two?

    Thanks for any assistance.

  • Harry

    No, don’t look for agents untl book #2 is completed, honed and polished. Then do reapproach the 2 Aussie agents, but also look for agents in the UK and the US. The best source for UK agents is our very own Agent Hunter. There are similar sources for the US market, and as an Australian writer of sci-fi, it’s OK for you to approach either market.

  • Leonie

    Thank you very much for the advice. Much appreciated!

  • Shawna

    Harry,
    Thank you for all the really great advice. I had a couple of questions that were not answered through here though. My first is how probable is it for a first time author to gain an agent? I hear that you should provide your background and credentials, but I’m a current graduate student with my studies concentrating in creative writing. I essentially have no experience publIshing. Also, I’ve read different blogs where some say to have a completely edited and publish ready book before seeking out an agent. Others however state that you want an agent before you even begin writing. What’s the story there?
    Thanks

  • Harry

    First question: newbies get agents and book deals all the time. Quality is what matters. Nothing else.

    Second question: yes, of course you need to have completed (and edited and polished) your MS. Aside from certain types of non-fiction, an agent will never offer representation if you don’t have a completed MS.

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  • Son of Incogneato

    Typo – ‘an’ instead of’ ‘a’ (If an MS is obviously…)

  • Harry

    yes – but is that really a typo? I mean, we’d say A manuscript but surely AN MS. Hmm. Let’s have a heated debate. Or a smallish war.

  • Andy

    Is the QL the same for a non-fiction book as for a fiction novel? Can I follow the sample above with a non-fiction book?

  • Harry

    Good question. The main differences are that:
    A) your covering letter can be longer for non-fiction, as you may have to set out the territory in a little more detail. eg: if you’re writing about the second world war, you may have to explain a bit more why your angle is unique and compelling.
    B) you may have to say more about yourself as agents are more likely to care about your authority / platform. So give yourself enough room to make the case for why you’re the right person to write this book.

  • Elle

    Hi there,

    I’m a very young writer, and people are always surprised to find out my age after reading any of my work. So, I was wondering if including my age (I’m 17) in a query letter would be detrimental? Sometimes I feel like if people know how young I am, they assume my work will be mediocre- is this the case or not?

  • Harry

    Hi Elle, tough call. On the plus side, if your work IS strong enough then your age would be a superb selling point. On the other hand, if it’s not strong enough – and, in truth, I don’t think we’ve ever seen novel-length teenage work that was strong enough to sell – then the age would be a negative. Bit of a coin-flip which you go with. If it were me, I probably wouldn’t mention the issue and just let my work speak for itself. Good luck!

  • Maria Wynn

    Hello Harry 🙂

    I just want to ask a question if I may.I am a first time novelist and my book is fictional and contains witchcraft in some places. I am actually a witch myself, none of the book is about me at all, but in my query letter do I put that information? I want them to know that what I mention about witches is true and factual, but don’t want to be rejected just because of my beliefs. I would rather be rejected because my book isn’t good enough rather than what I choose to be, so any advice would be gratefully received and much appreciated 🙂

    Maria

  • Harry

    Maria, I’d probably not go with that info if I were you, but it’s no biggie either way. But if you want your book to speak for itself, then you just don’t need to say much about yourself. All that can come later. Good luck! (If you need luck. If you have a spell, then phooey to luck.)

  • Raymond Scott Thomas

    Hi Harry
    Regarding a manuscript idea being stolen – I have a professional model-making friend who submitted an extensive synopsis to an agent, after 1 year, they sent it back saying no one was interested: A year or so later – a sci-fi movie came out starring Kurt Russell, which spawned a few spin-off TV series. I would be careful on who to send any manuscripts to …

  • Some time ago I started writing on a regular basis and left my career as a graphic designer. I’ve research all angles but find errors from format ms to query letter to formatting chapters. How to save 80,000 word document plus backup?
    It seems to be a colossal assignment This is my first novel and I feel it has
    a chance for success because it’ s different from any publication.
    I spend hours on research and meticulous proofreading.
    I’ll revise my query to eliminate long descriptions. I tried to save space
    no agent address no chapters, only asterisks. It was bad judgment.

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  • Matthew Davies

    How does one write a query letter when concerning poetry?
    As in, what would be included?
    Would one write of the inter-poem coherency or ‘mood’ development throughout the book?

  • Harry

    Ah, Matthew, a basic misapprehension here.

    The good news is that you do not need to worry about a query letter. The bad news is that no agent will represent your poetry unless you have achieved something like the stature of Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes or Philip Larkin. The reason is that agents – the pests – have nothing to get them through their sad little lives except the thought of money. And poetry, beautiful and wondrous though it is, earns less money than a five-year-old’s homemade lemonade stall. So you don’t need an agent, because no agent will ever represent you.

    So – how do you get your Big Breakthrough? Answer: you submit poems, one by one, to the various poetry magazines that take em. (They won’t pay you, but you might get a nice letter.) When you’ve had a few poems accepted, then you can go crawling to Bloodaxe or someone like them and ‘umbly beseech the favour of a collection. If you do get published in book form, you will still make no money – well, you might make enough to get a decent Indian takeaway – but you will have the happiness of Being a Poet, which means you are legally allowed to wear a velvet coat, even in summertime, and you’re allowed to take laudanum and die young. Good luck!

  • Matthew Davies

    In terms of publishers, there’s Banner of Truth Trust.
    Don’t know about agents though.

  • Genevieve

    Hi Harry,

    I stumbled across this site quite by accident and I love it!

    I’ve got a bit of a query regarding my new novel. It’s 95,000 words long, a YA adventure, but I’m only fourteen.

    I’m really worried that my age means people won’t take me seriously. I’ve been writing for a long time, and though it might not be ideal for everybody, I really think I’m onto something with my novel. All my friends and some of my teachers have said they’d happily buy it in a shop.

    I’m going to apply to some agents – but what do I write in the bio section? And what can I do about my age?

    Please help!

    Genevieve 🙂

  • Harry

    Hi Genevieve

    The answer to the question of age is simple: you just don’t mention it. No reason to. The book’s what matters; you can discuss age later. For that matter, you can leave the bio pretty much empty as well. “This is my first novel but – I adore writing – I’m certain it won’t be my last.” That’ll do fine.

    And, look, let me also say this. It’s brilliant that you’re writing, that you enjoy it, and that you had the guts and drive to write a full length 95,000 word novel. But I’ve never heard of a fourteen year old getting commercially published, simply because children your age don’t yet have the maturity and learning to get this incredibly hard job right. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t send your work to agents – you blooming well should! – but don’t be too upset if you get rejected. The fact is, you probably will get published one day . . . it’s just that that day may be a little way off yet. Very best of luck! Harry

  • safia

    Hi Harry,

    I never knew about your site – it’s really full of beneficial information. This page has been really useful. I’m assuming what you call a query letter is the cover letter? What if you are entering a competition which is to be judged by several people, one of whom will be the agent? Who do you address it to, and how do you structure your first sentence?
    Another Q – the said competition is run by a reputable publisher, and they have already selected the agent the winner will work with. This seems like a conflict of interest to me, seeing how the agent should represent the author and not be hand-picked by the publisher…?
    Further, if the competition has already stated the advance that will be paid to the winner, and guarantees their work to be published, what is there left for the agent to do? Isn’t an agent’s job to find a publisher for the manuscript? In this case the publisher is already guaranteed.
    Hope to hear from you soon. Many thanks.
    Safia

  • Harry

    Hard to say, since I don’t know the precise set up. But just write a covering letter (=query letter) that would suit your situation. And remember that an agent is there for your whole career, and for much more than just the sale process, so yes you will need an agent whatever.

  • Megan

    Hi Harry,
    Just a quick question. I live in London with my husband and I’ve just finished my novel. I’m waiting for critique from my reader. I’d like to ask you something though. I’m on a spouse visa here in the UK. I don’t intend to leave the country. My husband is a kind of manager for me. He helps a lot with my book and we’re planning to start looking for an agent very soon. But I’m not sure whether my visa could be a problem for publishers. I would appreciate your opinion.
    Regards,
    Megan

  • Harry

    They couldn’t give a damn, is the short answer! They won’t ask, won’t think about it. Just sell that book & be happy.

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  • I find your site when google this, How to get my book published, I find it very helpful going through it. But am a Nigerian living in the city of Lagos, am an adult who have been writing since 2012 but yet to be published. In fact I have about three books ready for now in my laptop that I need to get publisher for. My challenges here is first my way of writing which is in (except form) although what I write about do make sense, the second is where am base. Please I your advice on how I can be able to an agent, thanks

  • Gea Vox

    Surely NEVER a consonant next to another.. so “A MS” .. “An MS” is unpronouceable!

  • Tony Harmsworth

    Problem. I seem to have screwed things up.

    I self published two non-fiction works to get feedback and they sold 6,000 and 2,000 mainly to tourist retailers and only a few on Amazon etc.

    Thinking this was standard procedure I also put my two science fiction books up on LuLu, Amazon etc. and they haven’t sold more than half a dozen copies. I then discovered from SFF Chronicles that I have ruined any chance of an agent or publisher now considering them because I self published (they are also on Wattpad).

    Have I ruined any chance for them? They have now been extensively edited and I hope they are close to being REALLY ready.

    When writing to agents, do I tell them about my foolishness or keep quiet about it?

    I didn’t go reading ‘how to publish’ books/websites until it was too late.

    I’m also attending the WW event on 4th March so I have the dilemma over what to do for my sample agent’s letter.

    Advice please – we have a really high bridge nearby!

  • Harry

    No, mate, don’t worry. Self-pub used to be a way to tattoo “I’m a nutter” on your forehead without going through the whole ink-and-needle thing. These days, no one really cares. I’d just take the books down and forget about it. If/when an agent takes you on, just mention that they were briefly self-pubbed – the agent won’t care, but at least that way it’ll be off your mind.

  • Tony Harmsworth

    Thank you for that info. I tried taking one down, but it still remains on Goodreads and Amazon but says not available. I spoke to Goodreads and they said it would be there forever. Should I change the titles to get around that?

    Thanks.

  • Harry

    Nah. It’s just not a big deal. Have a beer and forget it.

  • David Roberts

    Hi Harry,
    I am 44 and have finally written my debut novel after wanting to write since I was in my teens. The time was just never right for me, until now. I am just about to start my query letter and synopsis. What I would be very grateful to know, is whether having a criminal record will effect my chances of ever being published. To my knowledge there are some very famous writers who have been published from behind bars, so I’m thinking along the lines of something you said to somebody earlier, “They couldn’t care a less as long as it sells.” I do hope this to be the case, in both not caring and it being accepted and selling.

    Kind Regards,
    David

  • Harry

    It’ll make no difference at all. Don’t even mention it until you sign up with an agent, then ask how they suggest dealing with it. to be hoens with you, a little bit of spice in your past is actually likely to help, if anything.

  • David Roberts

    Thank you so much for your advice.

    David

  • Ankita

    Hi,

    I read a bunch of sample query letters before writing mine. I only just began querying. Most websites advice on getting to the point, that being said, I wonder if starting my letter a little differently, just a little, would hurt my case? (P.S- Just because of my style of writing). For example, my first paragraph looks something like this, and would love to know your opinion on the same.

    Dear Ms. XYZ,
    Two years ago, I chanced upon an idea that turned me into the Duracell rabbit. It gave me hope, and a hefty dose of validation, and with that same hope, Jaded Dreams transformed from a few pages into an 84,000-word manuscript; a contemporary romance where, when Manhattan royalty, Ian Sanders’ seemingly flawless world collides with aspiring, bright-eyed chef, Ella Scott, who has the power to reduce his intellectual abilities to alarming proportions; their lives are sprinkled with sexy liaisons, a dollop of hope, and a tragic dose of consequences that would bury them under a cloak of darkness, forever. The first novel in a series of three is complete, and ready for your consideration.

  • Harry

    Um. I’d probably go more conventional if I were you. And you need to pay more attention to your sentence structure. Read this bit again: ” a contemporary romance where, when Manhattan royalty, Ian Sanders’ seemingly flawless world collides with aspiring, bright-eyed chef, Ella Scott.” Where and when? And “Manhattan royalty” seems to be tagged to the phrase “Ian S’s seeminly flawless world”. But a world can’t be royalty. A human can. You need to slow down and get more attentive. Sorry!

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