Putting together proposals

Lately, I’ve been building a proposal for Cell Story, my work in progress.

Proposals are a surprising amount of work, mostly because there’s so much that I need to address that I don’t necessarily know about yet. Mine tend to be really detailed and have a lot of things others might not need, but my agent and I are on the more-is-better side of the fence when it comes to these things.

Here’s what we always include:

1. A sample of the writing.

Contracts for option projects generally say they require three chapters and a synopsis, but three chapters just isn’t enough for me. Again, I’m in the more-is-better camp, so for this project, I have about 30,000 words written and revised. That’s a third of the book. (I think. I hope only a third.) I figure, the more of the actual story I can offer them (editors and acquisitions people), the better idea they will have of the story I’m trying to tell.

And it’s not just for them. I want to make sure I’m enjoying the story enough to keep going. It’s a huge commitment, agreeing to write an entire book! I don’t want to get a few chapters in and discover it’s not a project I want to spend at least the next two years with. So I write as much as I can, because I want to be sure of it for myself, too.

2. Elevator pitch.

It’s important to be able to tell someone quickly what the book is about. When you’re doing a signing in a store and someone walks up to your table and asks what the book is about, they want a sentence, not a speech. Hook them with a short description to make them want to hear the longer version.

I try to hammer these out from the very beginning, because it’s useful to know how I’ll describe the book–and also because it’s something I can always refer back to if I lose focus.

3. Query/flap-copy description.

I usually write a query-style description of the book even before I start–it helps me get a better idea of the story I’m wanting to tell–so all I have to do for a proposal is get it polished up. (And make sure it still lines up with the story I’m going to tell. This time, it didn’t. I had to rewrite the description from scratch.)

Again, this is something I often refer back to any time I start to lose focus in the story.

4. Synopsis/es.

Synopses are one of the things most proposals will always include. Again, it’s to give the publisher people a sense that you know where you’re going with the story.

I try to have a good, detailed one for the first book. Sequels usually have something shorter and broader, closer to a query description but with an ending point, because I don’t always know how I’m going to get somewhere, but I need to know where I am going, at least.

5. Character list.

These are useful for giving a sense of the size of the cast, and simply as a reference for later. In my character lists, main characters get detailed descriptions, while minor characters get a line or two about their role in the story.

6. Location list.

Since I write fantasy, this is really useful as a reference–and for getting a quick idea of the scope of the world. Again, more important locations get longer descriptions, while minor locations get briefer descriptions. And in worlds that have a lot of moving parts and characters traveling places, this can be extremely useful for showing that there is a difference between the locations and they’re not all Generic Medieval Fantasyland.

7. Comp titles.

Comp titles are always a challenge for me, but they’re really useful for publishers when determining how to position the book and how to market it. “If you like X, then you’ll like Y!”


So there I was, buried under all these things I needed to put together when I realized how completely weird putting together proposals is. I dashed out a quick email to my agent, who responded that this needed to be a blog post. It’s a bit short for an entire post, so you get the above as a bonus. But here’s where this post began:

Proposals are kind of like announcing I’m going to decorate for Christmas.

Here’s a tree that’s decorated on one side, and I’m going to do the whole house like this! No, better than a partially decorated tree! I’ll finish decorating the tree, too, once I know what everything looks like and how the tree needs to fit in. I might have to move the tree over there. Or do you think it looks good here? I can’t tell anymore.

Scattered around are more decorations, some for the tree, but the rest for the house. It’s kind of a mess and it doesn’t look like much, but don’t worry, I have another order coming in any minute now. And a plan! This house is going to look ah-mazing. I swear. It’ll blind passersby and put all the other houses to shame. Now if only I could find the lights for the reindeer I want to put in my yard. Wait, did I order lights for that? I’ll just order some more.

Watch your step.

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