Most times my clients’ proposals are constructed not just by the author but also by me. I thought it would be helpful for you to see how that type of teamwork unfolds.
Consider the Challenges
This particular nonfiction project was complex, with lots of elements to explain in a proposal, including the possibility of a video accompanying the book. My client had a powerful idea of how to use story elements that would make the book’s point vivid for the reader. But she had to visit the locale of the book and conduct several more interviews before she could envision its precise structure–expenses and time commitments the author would want to make after she had received the first portion of her advance. Therefore, the proposal was a challenge to create because the precise unfolding of the idea was unknowable.
Remember that the Publishing Committee Needs to Envision the Book
When I first read the proposal, I realized that the order in which the elements of the project were presented tended to muddle how the story would be told. Individuals on the publishing committee “build” books. As they look at a proposal, each person around the table pictures what the end product will look like. But if the concept isn’t presented in an orderly way, no clear vision of the book is formed.
I did major cutting and pasting rather than try to communicate what needed to be done to my client. It was simpler just to do the work because I could put myself into the committee members’ place and knew how I would need to have the concept explained to me.
Shape the Proposal by Adding Detail
I also added quite a bit to the proposal to help to explain the book’s idea. I’ve found that often an author doesn’t know how to talk about his or her project in the most compelling way. That’s the case either because the idea isn’t fully formed for the author yet or because the author sees the idea in such a molecular way, she doesn’t know what details to highlight–they all seem of equal value to the writer. On the other hand, when I’m working to shape a proposal, I see it as my job to massage the proposal to highlight what I think are the strong selling points.
When Rewriting Is Part of the Process
I invested days honing this proposal, but I handed it back to my client after I read the sample chapters. They had the essence of what they needed to be, but I thought they were overly literary to the point of obfuscation and too wordy. I did some editing but mostly provided direction to the author.
A short time later, the proposal was back to me.
When Editing Is Part of the Process
I read over the chapters and found them gaining ground, but they hadn’t arrived at their destination yet. So I dug out my editing pen (figuratively, of course) and went to work. I really overhauled the chapters.
I sent the proposal off to my client so she could see what I had done. Then I worried. Would she be upset that I had used such a heavy editing hand? Would she think I had exceeded my role?
I’m thankful to say that she responded with a clever email about her overwrought writing, recognizing I had pulled the chapters into the shape she would have formed, if she knew how to get them there.
Now, I have to be careful not to take the chapters beyond the point the author can take the entire book. This particular author has the writing chops; she just needed help to find the right voice and pacing for this project.
What Does All This Mean to You?
So what can you learn about this explanation of how an author and an agent tag-team to shape a proposal?
- Trust your agent to guide the proposal revisions. An agent’s eye is always on how to get the publishing committee to say yes.
- Be responsive to suggestions for change.
- Use the process as an important part of shaping the end product. The manuscript will be more sharply focused, with clearer reader benefits, with a stronger outline from which to write, and the sample chapters will be refined–sometimes you’ll have found your voice for the book.
When an author and an agent work together hand in hand, it’s a beautiful thing. And everyone benefits. (I do have to add that not everyone agent is so hands on when it comes to book proposals. It’s a lot of work, and some don’t see the benefit in engaging in it.)
How has your agent helped you to shape proposals? What about critique partners–have you ever used them to help with a proposal?
How an agent and an author work together to create a book proposal. Click to tweet.
Ways an agent can help you prepare the strongest book proposal possible. Click to tweet.
Kristen Joy Wilks
This is fabulous, Janet! And one of the reasons we writers keep hunting for an agent, even though it takes so long! I have gone over quite a few proposals with my critique partner and we get better at it every time. Thank you so much for this look behind the curtain.
Though the thought did make me tremble,
I found it good advice
that my proposal should resemble
a sculpture made of ice,
with sparkling bright clarity
cut careful to internal planes
that illustrate its rarity,
and underline the vital claims
that this will be that which you seek,
a work that fits, and yet
is nothing if it’s not unique,
and thus is worth the bet
of your time and caring sight
to nurture new prismatic light.
Andrew, that’s an excellent poetic expression of the goal of each proposal. Thanks for that.
This is very helpful to me as I am crafting a proposal now and realize that even my best efforts will likely leave much to be desired. I’m encouraged to know that an agent will work with me to get it ready for the publisher.
WOW! YES! Happily this has been my experience too. I’ll let ya’ll know, Janet is my agent and she recently went to the mat with my proposal too. We went back and forth several times to get the proposal just right. I am grateful to know I’m not the only one who didn’t get it right the first time and had the trusted hand of a good agent to guide me. When working as a team it’s much easier to take criticism and work to make the project even better. When Janet asked me to write an entire section of the book (for the sample writing) in a week I did. It honed the project even more in my mind. In fact I got so energized the writing has taken off. Wheeee. The help/guidance/care of a good agent can’t be over stressed. I am fortunate!
Lisa, well, you are a model client, willing to work, rework, and yes, rework aspects of the proposal. It’s intense! But you’re a real trooper.