Proposals– Taste and See

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA

Are you tired of talking proposals yet? Hopefully I’ve made some converts over the course of the week. It’s such a valuable part of the process.

So finally we come to the sample chapters. Let me just give you some random factoids about sample chapters:

  • Most editors and agents confess that when they open a proposal they skip over the proposal at first and turn right to the sample chapters. As one editor put it, “If the author can’t write, why waste my time on the business aspects of the book?
  • We request three sample chapters with a proposal but YMMV*. (*Your Mileage May Vary– meaning it may be different for different agents and editors.)
  • With a novel those chapters need to be chapter one through three.
  • With nonfiction, it need not be the first three chapters. However, if you cherry-pick it may raise questions. Was the first chapter weak? Does this mean the book doesn’t really get good until the sixth chapter?
  • We like the whole proposal to weigh in at about fifty pages. YMMV.
  • The proposal and sample chapters should be in one single file, numbered consecutively. (Don’t get me started about multiple files for proposals and manuscripts!)
  • No fancy formatting. You are sampling the text, not interior book design. If you have a sidebar or another feature, simply label it such and include it in manuscript form.
  • Don’t make the mistake of over-editing the first three chapters. We often see manuscripts where the first three chapters have the very life edited out of them. The voice and ease of writing doesn’t show until chapter four. Or, some authors pay to have the first three chapters edited by someone else and they end up not even being representative of the authors writing. I also see writing that has been what I call “workshopped to death.” That’s where the critique group has worked over every word so many times the writing wears you out while reading it with every beginner “rule” followed religiously. Show-don’t-tell results in laboriously showing every single movement. Each simple word is pumped up to the level of passionate purple prose. All I can say is relax. If you are proposing a novel, just tell the story in your own unique voice. Or if it’s nonfiction, write clearly and simply.
  • Typos and grammar mistakes should never be allowed to slip through. At this stage they are a red flag–distracting.

So that’s it. Hopefully this week’s proposal clinic has given you new things to consider. Remember, the proposal is your chance to “talk about” your book to all layers of publishing gatekeepers. You won’t be able to hand sell your book all the way up the chain but your proposal will. Great proposals sell books.

10 Responses

Leave a Reply

  1. Jill Kemerer says:

    Fantastic series, Wendy! If anyone asks me advice about writing proposals, I’m directing them to this week’s posts. Thanks!

  2. Sarah Grimm says:

    Thanks for this great information. Really.

  3. Very helpful information on proposal writing. I’ll use this as my guide when it’s time to write one for my WIP. Many thanks, Wendy.

  4. I agree with Jill. Fantastic information all week long. Thanks so much!

  5. Wonderful information this week, Wendy!

    Typos and grammar and everything in between…triple yuck. Those are indeed quick turn-offs, aren’t they?

    My favorite book, after God’s Word, is my 16th Ed. of The C.M.S. It goes everywhere with me…the grocery store, the mall, the powder room. *Kidding* 🙂

  6. Sarah Thomas says:

    Thanks for the comment about editing the life out of the first three chapters. It’s easy to get obsessed about that “first impression!”

  7. Larry Carney says:

    Thanks for the great info Wendy. Speaking of sample chapters, after reading so many proposals or sample chapters are there any trends you have noticed in contemporary fiction that writers should take note of? You mentioned the problems many writers have where we write books by committee, listening to closely to the workshop and not our own voice. Are there other negative or positive trends like that showing up in the proposals and sample chapters you read as an agent?

  8. Wendy, this series has been extremely helpful. Although I’ve read about proposals and heard about them in conference workshops you included some information that was new to me.

  9. Anne Love says:

    Very useful candid advice. Thanks.

  10. Rick Barry says:

    I’m officially converted. You’ve taken me from “You won’t like it, but you’ve got to do it” to “Here’s a cool way to package your story for the entire publishing food chain!” Simply reading your explanations of why to create them replaces the drudgery with new purpose.

    Thanks again. I’ve copied and filed your entire week for future reference.