Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Last week I wrote about what constituted a “perfect” pitch— you can find that post here— and promised that this week we’d dig deeper into proposals. I’m not going to talk about the nuts and bolts of a proposal because we’ve covered that here, here, here and here.
Instead I want to make the case for creating the best proposal you can create. Too often I hear writers say, “I hate writing the proposal. I can’t wait until I get to the place when I can sell a book with a paragraph or two.”
I’m here to say I hope you never get to that place. Too many well-published authors are getting sloppier and sloppier about their proposals. It’s a big mistake. Let me tell you why:
- The proposal process helps you nail down the book whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. The very act of creating a proposal helps you decide exactly what the book is and what it isn’t. When it comes time to sit down and write the book, your proposal is your blueprint.
- Doing a good job on the competitive book section lets you see what is on the market and gives you the information to make your book distinctive.
- A thorough proposal gives your agent the tools she needs to not only effectively pitch your book but to get downright excited about it. My newer authors are giving me proposals that make publishers open their wallets.
- A superb proposal gives the acquiring editor everything he needs to take your book to committee.
- It’s also the perfect roadmap for sales and marketing to get a handle on your book.
- Back cover copy often comes right off a great proposal.
- Your synopsis or book description goes a long way toward helping the cover designer come up with the perfect design.
I could go on and on but you get the picture. You’d never think of starting a business without a business plan. No one would ever offer a grant without a carefully thought out grant application. Why do writers think they can offer a book to their publisher without a carefully constructed proposal?
If you’ve been writing for a long time and think you are long past having to write a proposal, I’d love to show you the kind of work being done by unpublished writers. It’s one of the reasons publishers are eagerly looking at new writers and feeling ho-hum about midlist writers. Too many are cutting corners and just mailing it in these days. Big mistake. Big. Mistake.
So I’m climbing down off my soapbox.
My question for you: How can you reignite a passion for doing the hard work of writing? The unglamorous business part of writing?
You’re point about the back cover copy is so true. Most of my cover for my new book came straight from the proposal. I held a book writing meeting where my team and I outlined everything. It made writing the book so much easier, as well as creating the proposal.
I know! I hear authors say, “I wish I had more input on cover copy.” Duh!
I love your idea of a book writing meeting. It wouldn’t work for solitary writers but I do know a number of multi-published authors who plot out novels with much experienced, must trusting plotting partners.
Oh I love that idea of a book writing meeting as well!
You’ve pressed one of my buttons. As a pastor who helps train young, future pastors, I see a pattern of what to me seems falsely sanctified laziness.
Being “called” or “gifted” by God does not exempt us from the brutally joyful task of mastering our craft.
The Olympians who makes it look easy have spent innumerable hours over many years perfecting moves and strengthening muscles. They cannot rely on gifting alone. Should it be less for the Christian writer?
The work never stops. I write because I’m called; I work, study, pound out sentences, pray, dig, labor, research, write, and rewrite, trying to stay humble and teachable as I fulfill that call. True faith does not passively spew forth unconsidered words and presume God’s blessing on them; true faith works to be a “skillful writer” (Ps 45:1). If crafting proposals is no less essential a skill than crafting books, so be it.
Thanks, Wendy, for the author’s eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not be a slacker.
Bill, the AT&T commercial featuring Ryan Lochte really caught my eye for just what you described. (Okay, the ocean really appealed to me too. 😉 )
But the words –
Luck doesn’t get you to the Olympic Games.
You can’t wish your way onto the podium.
You can’t buy it.
Or hope for it.
It’s not enough to dream about it.
Luck didn’t get me to London.
I swam here.
The very first time I saw the commercial, I was struck by how applicable those comments are to achieving any goal.
Amen, Bro. Bill! Giftedness is good for the first couple Ooooos, then it comes down to having the skills to do the hard work, the daily work.
I’m copy this Bill quote and adding it (attributed, of course) to my quote file: Being “called” or “gifted” by God does not exempt us from the brutally joyful task of mastering our craft.
This very point about not being able to rely on gift alone is playing out with Michael Phelps and it’s very interesting. He may be one of the greatest swimmers ever, but he didn’t train for the 4×400 free relay, by his own admission, and it showed. He did train for the 200 butterfly, and it showed. It was still something though, getting to watch him lose a medal for a change.
Heather Day Gilbert
OOOH, great post. Even though I read extensively on the internet about writing proposals, I never knew how to properly write one until I had an agent who invested in showing me the ropes. I appreciate that so much, and it’s beneficial for the agent and the client–you both have a finished product you can stand behind. But you’re right–it does take work! Editing that synopsis often involves cutting out extra side characters and plot layers, which is grueling!
I just wondered if there’s a reliable online resource for fiction proposals that you’d recommend? Seemed like most of the ones I found were for non-fiction.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
Thank you, Heather. This was my question too. It’s seems like there is so much available for non-fiction writers and not so much for fiction writers in terms of queries, proposals and platform-building.
Caroline @ UnderGod'sMightyHand
Heather, I’m not a novelist, so I don’t know as much about fiction proposals, but Michael Hyatt (former CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers) has a fiction proposal tutorial you can purchase here: http://michaelhyatt.com/writing-a-winning-book-proposal (It’s below the nonfiction tutorial.)
You’ve probably seen Rachelle’s posts on fiction proposals on her own blog, including this one: http://www.rachellegardner.com/2011/07/how-to-write-a-book-proposal/
Mary DeMuth wrote a fiction proposal tutorial, too (sold on another site now): http://www.alicecrider.com/product_category/getting-published/
I used her nonfiction proposal tutorial, and it helped clarify a few points for me.
I hope those links help! I’m sure the ladies here can give you even better information than I have (including what’s in the “book proposals” category in the right sidebar!).
I’m not sure if there is one place. We agents blog on it all the time. Every agent has his own style guide, so there is no one one right way. And besides, creativity counts. Come up with a new way to showcase your book and we’ll all sit up and take notice as long as your proposal answers all the questions we need answered.
Way back when (1990s?) I started trying to learn how to write a proposal I came across an article in a writer’s anthology by Michael Hyatt and Robert Wolgemuth about how to write a nonfiction proposal. Much has changed since those days– like citing psychographic demographics– but that article formed the basis of my own proposal learning curve.
Proposals ARE hard to write, but you’re right – they SO help you see the book.
And I had NEVER considered a cover designer using the book synopsis to help with design. That gives me another angle to prepare from. Thanks!
Think in those terms when writing your synopses, giving the kind of visual clues that whet an artist’s appetite.
Such a helpful post, Wendy. I haven’t written a proposal yet, but I plan to try it soon, if for no other reason than to overcome my fear of writing it. 🙂
I appreciate this post because it reminds me that all I do should be done in a way that glorifies God. Laziness is not something I want to be known for.
I appreciate your links to the other posts on the how-to’s of proposal writing. I’m checking those out next.
Jeanne, I hope you’re going to love writing it. It’s like designing a book and then standing in front of the pub committee and getting to sell it. So many writers wish they could pitch their own books to the publishers. Guess what? That’s exactly what your proposal does! Don’t wish for a ticket to fly to the publisher and stand there with sweaty hands– use the proposal to knock their socks off.
PS–I just tried to access the posts you linked above (“here, here, here, and here”), but I was only able to be directed to the third one. Is there another way to see the first, second and fourth? Now, that I’m thinking proposals, I’d love any information I can find. 🙂
Sorry, Jeanne. My colleague, Rachel Kent, is working on those for me right now. (I’m post surgery recovery and trying to limit computer time. Sweet Rachel to the rescue.)
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
I didn’t know that you had surgery, Wendy. You are in my prayers for complete healing.
I’ll be praying for you too. I had that last week, but mine was outpatient. You’re sweet to answer all our comments. 🙂
Thanks, Wendy. Great posts!
Thanks Rachel for fixing the links! 🙂
Writing a proposal definitely helped me to get a fuller picture for my work. It can be intimidating, but it’s definitely worth it!
Thanks for the testimony. It’s like building a house without an architect and plans. You get what we call a builder house– a ho hum box.
Thanks, Wendy. I needed the reminder today!
Does that mean you’re going back to work on your proposal? 🙂
It does indeed!
Caroline @ UnderGod'sMightyHand
It seems like a solid proposal helps with every step of the process!
I don’t have enormous amounts of experience with proposals yet, but the research needed to complete a proposal help me map out solid ideas. Chapter summaries alone help me make sure I’m not repeating information.
Thanks for always showing us there’s more to a piece of this industry than we may initially realize!
You’ve got it, Caroline. It also helps stave off writer’s block. With a complete proposal, on those days when you are just wrung out, you open your chapter summaries (nonfiction) or your synopsis (fiction) and just do the next thing. Voila!
That’s so true, Wendy! Before I begin writing, I print off my synopsis and scribble in the chapter breaks. That way when I’m tackling the writing portion, all I have to do is the next thing. Basically, the next chapter description. It’s a wonderful roadmap that makes the writing much faster.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
Thank you, Wendy. I’ve been focusing on finishing my novel and working on the query letter, so I haven’t even dealt with the book proposal. Should I have the book proposal written before sending out queries (It’s a very green question, I know.I’m sorry)? I was wondering about that the other day, so I’m so glad that you brought up the topic today.
It’s not a green question at all. And the answer is yes.
In the ABA (general market) editors are less used to a full proposal for fiction. You’ll often hear them ask for a cover letter (with your hook and bio information included in the body), your synopsis (of varying lengths depending on the publishing house) and sample chapters.
In the CBA, a complete, compelling proposal (including synopsis and sample chapters) sells an author and sells the book. We even want to see how you are connected social-media-wise and how you can help market the book.
You want to have the proposal ready before you query because the next step may be a request for the proposal and sample chapters.
Christine Dorman / @looneyfilberts
Thanks so much, Wendy. It helps a lot to know this so I can be as prepared and professional as possible. 🙂
Susi Robinson Rutz
When I get bogged down with my book proposal, I set it aside a bit and get back to my manuscript. I’m so completely passionate about the message of my book that working on it motivates me to develop a presentation that will get it into the hands of those who can help me get it into the hands of readers. So, working on the manuscript along with the proposal keeps the project exciting for me.
Good point. Going back and forth is a right brain/ left brain switch. Great creativity enhancer.
What a wonderful post and great comments! The proposal is terrifying, but I’ve learned to appreciate it. Since it has the potential to be used as back cover copy, etc., it’s our first chance to sell the reader as well. That writing in the proposal is what could compel innumerable readers to pick up our books and wade through 300 pages. I would be thrilled to have someone pick up my book, read the 75 to 100 words on the back, think “hmmm,” and decide to part with their hard-earned money to read more. Anyone can blather on for thousands of words, but it takes that mastery mentioned above to sell a story and win a reader base in 75.
I’m in the midst of writing my first proposal. As much as I dreaded doing all this hard boring work, I’m blown away by how valuable it is!
I thought I’d be intimidated by the competitive book analysis, but I’ve had a ball getting familiar with the conversation that’s already on-going re: “my” (as if!) topic. And I’m far more clear about my particular angle and unique message than I ever would have been without seeing where we overlap and where we don’t.
While I don’t want to spend my life writing book proposals, as friends have asked me, “So how’s it going?” I’ve been able to honestly say, “Whether or not we get a traditional contract, the proposal has been a journey of great worth, in and of itself.”
You say, “whether or not I get a traditional contract. . .” Interestingly enough, if you self publish you are in essence starting a business and your proposal will be more valuable than ever.
Okay, I confess, I’m one of those people who looked forward to the day I didn’t have to write a full proposal. Sigh! But I guess it’s like how I feel about doing a homeschool review at the end of the school year for my son. It helps me really evaluate his progress, noting what works and what doesn’t as well as the places to begin for the year to come. Thank you for reminding me of this.
I’m guessing you’ll get to the point that you feel uncomfortable without the preparation of a solid proposal behind you.
Thank you, Wendy. This helps me hone my focus as I prepare to revise my proposal.
Somewhere on Books & Such’s website/blog, one of you lovely ladies summed it up nicely saying “we want to give publishers every reason to say yes, and no reasons to say no”.
Bingo! The more compelling info we can give them, the more ammunition the acquiring editor has to get to the yes.
This is a little odd since I’ve never sold a book and you have only my word for it, but after I started doing most of the proposal ahead of time, thinking about comparable books, and writing synopses of varying lengths, I found that my manuscripts really improved.
Proposals 1) keep me from wandering around wasting time in the middle, 2) help me to see if my idea is one that will hook readers, and 3) help me to see what’s out there and think about how to come up with a new twist.
Once I started writing from a proposal I started winning contests and getting requests for fulls from editors and agents.
Okay, I’ll admit it. I LIKE writing proposals. Everything has it’s own little compartment and you can even work in statistics. Writing is so creative, the proposal satisfies the analytical part of my brain.
Sarah, we are kindred spirits. I think my analytical side is equally as strong as my creative side.
Any time someone uses the phrase “kindred spirits” I fall in love with them immediately. There should be an Anne of Green Gables Kindred Spirits Society.
Sarah, you beat me to it! I was going to ask that people not throw stones, and admit that I LIKE doing proposals. My type-A, math-loving mind likes this-goes-here type activities. (I kinda miss filling out those bubble tests in school … )
The hard thing for me is that I think it should be easy. Since I figure I know my book and I’ve written more than a handful of proposals, I get discouraged that I can’t pull one together in a few days. I can spend hours and hours on the one paragraph summary and the one-liner hook! I have to remind myself that it’s about quality, not quantity. 😀
And, as you know, Christina, I’ve used your near-perfect proposals as samples many times. You create the kinds of proposals that open doors. (Now if only we can successfully walk through each and every door you open.)
I’m going to pretend that’s not some kind of pain medication talk there, Wendy. ;p Gives me warm fuzzies!
Yep, somehow I have to figure out how to slip by the bouncers waiting at the open doors. 😀 Working on my camouflaging techniques as we speak …
Exactly! I’m taking a test to earn a certification in my field at the end of this month and I’m kind of excited about it. It’s multiple choice!
But I also agree with your frustration that proposals are not as easy as I think they should be. How many hours have I spent seeking out comparble titles? Oh, but the satisfaction of completing a specific section. Heaven!
Sarah, sometimes I’m jealous when my kids bring home fill-in-the-blank worksheets. 😀
On the more serious side, I’ve found that ACFW’s Fiction Finder is truly a godsend when looking for comparables. Have you used it?
If we remember why we wrote the book in the first place, I think it helps us to summarize the most important points and get to the crux of our work.
Hopefully the proposal is there at each step of the writing journey. And not just to summarize the crux of our work but to talk about the readers and to tell what else is out there for them and why our book is different.
Great post, Wendy. I had never given much thought to book proposals as a novelist. I always thought a query could get you in the door. However, when I started considering writing a parenting project, I asked some of my nonfiction writing friends. At first, the book proposal seemed like this monster I’d never be able to tame but that would suck up time I should spending writing.
I’ve found the experience to be educational and inspiring. Once I actually started writing the proposal I found it helped me cement the basic premise of my book and focus on what I wanted to truly communicate.
A query might get you in the door but if you get the yes, send more, what would you send? If you just send the book you are missing half the “woo.” You need to also send the “about the book” info– the proposal.
Kathy Boyd Fellure
Thanks for the encouragement, Wendy.
Such a convicting blog to come home to.
I know exactly what I’ll be working on for the rest of the week!
I’ve written one proposal, and it was AWFUL! Both writing it, and the work itself. I had no idea one was needed when I started querying, so when it was requested I wrote it in a weekend, and it shows. No surprise I got a pass.
I’m switching up reworking my proposal and writing my second book. My biggest problem is the comparison section, because I don’t seem to be able to find many others writing American Revolutionary War period historical romance. There doesn’t seem to be much to compare. I’m not sure if that makes me unique or unmarketable, it could go either way. Hopefully the former. 😉
I love the thought that this is my opportunity to stand in front of the publishers and sell my book. It gives me a much better attitude on the entire process. Now I’m excited to work on it!
Hope you heal quickly, Wendy. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.
I posted this, then did a new search, and found more books written in the same period as mine. Doh! I must have been typing in the incorrect words for searching. Yep, I’m a newbie.