Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Winging my way to an author-agent-publisher meeting
You have the right idea? Check.
You have the right title? Check.
Now, it’s time to write an attention-getting proposal.
Yesterday I referred to editors and agents as sort of being asleep at the wheel. It’s hard to explain, but while we’re carrying a daunting load of work, keeping up with the needs of contracted authors and current clients, we also like nothing better than the adrenaline rush of finding a new client who is exciting and holds the promise of future possibilities. But we see so many queries that’s it’s truly mind-numbing. Your job, therefore, is to jar us into paying attention to you.
Now, there are wrong ways to do that:
Picking up the phone when the agent has specified he or she doesn’t want to be queried via phone.
Making pronouncements about your work being the next ______________ (To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, Gone with the Wind, Purpose-Driven Life, etc.). We hear that all the time.
Stating your novel is a romantic suspense when it’s really a mystery. (Shows you don’t know your audience.)
Announcing the audience is everyone, ages 6 to 60. Hmm, not exactly a targeted group.
What awakens us in a good way?
- A well-written query, with no misspellings, grammatical errors, or overstatements, that’s clearly to that agent, not to long list of agents. (Use the agent’s name, and spell it correctly.) Tell the agent why you’re contacting him or her–you’ve read about the agency online, you’ve followed that agent’s blog, you’re a Facebook friend–whatever connection that is authentic.
Do these items seem basic? Guess why I’m mentioning them? They seldom are done correctly. I have an unusual middle name (which is my maiden name). But a little concentration will enable a person to spell it right. Not doing so shows a lack of attention to detail, a quality a good author needs.
- Make your proposal easy to peruse. Use bulleted points. Keep paragraphs short. Use white space to give the feeling that reading the proposal won’t take lots of time. Why? Because this is the document that ultimately will end up on the desks of everyone in a publishing committee. And not all those folks have lots of time to read a proposal’s details. Make your proposal accessible.
- Start your proposal with your book’s hook. In other words, what makes your book unique? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not really. For example, one of my clients has written a historical romance centered around a real portrait of a young woman in the late 1800s. The woman is wearing only one glove. The author asked herself why that would be, and from there a story about misunderstandings, lost loves, and a ruined reputation unfolded. What was the hook we used in the proposal?
Isabelle, a rich young woman, who has just become engaged to one of New York City’s elite in the 1880s, celebrates the engagement by commissioning an up-and-coming portrait painter to paint her. When the painting is unveiled, New York society is aghast to see that Isabelle is portrayed wearing one glove, which suggests she has become the artist’s lover. She hasn’t, of course, but she has fallen in love with him. Now, what must she do?
These few sentences give the setting, the time-frame, the inherent conflict that the story centers on, and what’s different about the story from other historical romances. Later in the proposal, we placed a picture of the real portrait the idea was based on, which heightens the interest.
Here are the details of a nonfiction proposal two of my clients created:
Title: No More Christian Nice Girl
Hook: Christian Nice Girls have created a dangerously wrong formula for life. Keeping everyone happy + avoiding conflict + ignoring their own needs does not equal a satisfying life; instead, they’re living a sure-fire formula for ruining relationships, crippling careers, and devastating their ability to function well.
Genre: Women’s self-help
Word Count: 50,000 words
Intended Audience: The 90% of American women who identify themselves as Christian (Barna, 2005), many of whom struggle with people-pleasing tendencies, fear of conflict, and religious and cultural pressure to be falsely nice instead of truly good.
- These details are important to have as easily-located facts early on in the proposal for both fiction and nonfiction. Identifying the audience for fiction is trickier than for nonfiction, but if you don’t have a reader in mind as you write your novel, it’s unlikely it will appeal to anyone.
- For a novel, you’ll want to provide a compelling synopsis of the entire story. Yes, tell us how the story will end. Often a story can sound great until I come to the conclusion, which I can tell is all wrong. If I like the writing enough, I might ask the writer if he or she is willing consider a different conclusion.
- For a nonfiction book, you’ll need to supply a chapter-by-chapter synopsis. This is where you can show off the book’s strong structure and chapter titles that will help to pull potential readers into the book.
Here’s the first chapter summary from the proposal for No More Christian Nice Girl:
Introduction: Frustrated, Fearful and Fake: Meet Nicole, Christian Nice Girl
The introduction begins by inviting the reader to ride along for “A Day in the Life” of Nicole, a Christian Nice Girl who goes through her day feeling every bump in her frustrating life. Women will immediately identify with Nicole as she tries to act nice and make everyone happy, from demanding friends to unpleasant coworkers—and ends up unhappy and unintentionally hurting others. Because Nicole believes that Jesus was always pleasant and accommodating, she allows others to take advantage of her instead of saying “no” and standing up for herself. Through her life, readers are introduced to three common forces that compel Christian women to behave like nice girls instead of powerful women of loving faith:
- Force #1) One-sided spiritual training that encourages false niceness instead of true goodness.
- Force #2) Social and cultural pressure that trains women to hide their true thoughts and feelings to avoid conflict, rejection, and being
seen as a complaining, unpleasant, domineering woman; and
- Force #3) Difficult life experiences (such as an absence of female role models, anxious parenting, or physical/sexual abuse) that initiate a pattern of
fearful, passive behavior instead of courageous, assertive behavior.
After Nicole’s story, readers are given a brief overview of the hard truth about acting nice, the authors’ credentials, and a 40-item true/false questionnaire to help women diagnose “Nice Girliosis” in themselves or friends. The introduction ends with a summary of subsequent material to engage and excite readers and help them visualize where they will be going in the book.
Chapter One: Force #1— One-Sided Spiritual Training: Sanctified Sweetness
Can you see how readily apparent the book’s structure is from this sampling? And the authors showed the unique aspects of the first chapter, including the tests readers can take–which sounded fun, by the way.
- The author’s bio is a very important part of the proposal. You need to explain one thing: Why you’re qualified to write this book. For nonfiction, research, credentials, and personal experience make the triumverate that editors and agents are looking for. For fiction, writing prizes, short stories published, a well-known author’s endorsement perk us up. Regardless of genre, we also want to know what sort of online presence you’ve created for yourself. I saw a proposal the other day in which the writer’s blog is among the top 10,000 in the world. Okay, that’s good.
- Connected to the author’s bio is the type of marketing he or she brings with the project. One of my clients is making a small investment in a book tour. She has friends in various corners of the country and will be staying with them. But she’s not just hoping that people will find her in a bookstore near her friends’ homes. She’s going into knitting shops, since her book is a devotional centered around the knitting theme. Her plan is to join a knitting group for that day, and they’ll all knit squares for blankets she’s creating for needy children connected to a specific charity. As she travels from town to town, she’ll spend the time knitting the squared together. Smart lady. Each town she goes to she’ll have informed the media of her arrival and the work she’s doing–and talk about her book. She’ll make sure copies of her book are available at the knitting shops and in bookstores. Obviously this type of marketing isn’t for the faint of heart, but mentioned such a plan–if the publisher agrees is a good idea–shows the publisher you’re serious about marketing your book.
See how you don’t need to have a lot of money or any special inside track to market your book? You do need to be creative in thinking about how to reach your readers.
The same ideas could apply to fiction. If you have a craft as a part of your story, it becomes a jumping off spot for promotion. I once read about a woman whose main character loved to bake pies. So the woman conducted a national pie recipe contest (and baked all the recipes!). She received national media attention, and her novel was mentioned prominently.
- The grand finale of your powerful proposal: the first three chapters of your book. Make them the best you can. Ultimately, everything stands or falls on the quality of the chapters.
Now, tell me. Have you learned something you didn’t know before about proposals? Or has this post stimulated some thoughts on changes you want to make to your current proposal? What new ideas have occurred to you about how to wake up a snoozing agent or editor?