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Category : Proposals
I regularly get people sending me notes asking, “Why haven’t you shared any bad proposals with us lately?” So this morning I sat down and gathered together a bunch of the great projects people have sent my way over the past several months…—I received a proposal that starts with this line: “A serial killer masquerading as a priest is brutally murdering convicted rapists….” He also notes that his killer “blots out child rapists.” It ends with these words: “This is a family-friendly story.” And he also notes in his proposal that “kids loved it.” (Yeah… nothing sells books like the family-friendly combination of serial killers, rapists, and children.)—And here’s a great bit of salesmanship from an author (the title and author’s name has been changed): “After reading MY BLOODY LOVER visual trailer, who do not like to see MY BLOODY LOVER made into a movie? Tell me now!!!!! I, Dong ValDong, have been told many times this is the greatest horror romance ever written and women around the world are in love or in lust with me that I am in no hurry to shoot MY BLOODY LOVER into a full feature. I will let them salivate and be romance for the taste of their dream man in the pages of MY BLOODY LOVER. Read the magic of the dialogues of what your lover should be saying to you, as my character in the world of MY BLOODY LOVER. BELIEVE IN TRUE LOVE AGAIN.” (I believe!)—Speaking of romance, I culled out this great line from a romance query: “Balloons don’t even scratch the surface of what you mean to me…” (Um… what?)—One of my favorite opening lines of all times in a query? “Ring! Ring! said the telephone.” (Yes. It’s brilliant writing like this that led me to drink.)—And another romance query came in with this biographical note: “I have written and illustrated a
I’ve had three different people ask me about query letters recently… specifically, “What does a query letter look like?” and “What goes into a good query to an agent?”
Happy to help. To query an agent or editor is to simply approach someone and introduce your book
idea. The goal of your query is to get them to read your proposal. (Let me repeat that: your goal in sending an agent a query is to get them to read your proposal. No industry professional has the time to look out the window, much less sit down and read your entire unsolicited manuscript.) So you entice them with your pitch, get them to want to see the writing, and then give them the details in a quick, industry standard proposal — then you walk away, praying they’re going to want the full manuscript. The goal of a query is not to move them from “I don’t know you” to “let me make an offer on your book.” The goal is to move them from “I don’t know you” to “hey, your book sounds interesting… I’ll have a look.”
If you are sending a query letter, it should be only three to four paragraphs long and contain your pitch, your writing bio, the manuscript status, and some comparable titles. If you are querying face-to-face at a conference, where you’ve signed up for appointments with editors and agents, your query will have these same elements, beginning with a verbal pitch lasting no longer than two or three minutes.
And, of course, before you even consider querying, you need to make sure your manuscript draft is honed and polished, including a developmental edit (i.e., has your novel’s plot or structural flaws been revised? In a nonfiction book, is your overall argument complete and logical?) and a final proofreading, preferably from a professional editor. If you are serious about publishing, you need to take yourself—and
Someone asked, “What is an acceptable time period to wait before following up on a proposal to an agent? And how do agents feel about writers following up on a query or submission? ”
I’ve answered this question a couple of time, so let me set some ground rules. First, I’m assuming if you sent me your proposal, we met somewhere, and I asked to see it. Remember that if I didn’t actually ask for your proposal, I don’t owe you a response. (I’m sorry if that sounds rude, but look at this from my perspective: If I had to respond to every proposal that comes in cold, I’d have a full-time job just responding to proposals… and I’d never make a dime.) So if I read your query and give you a response, even if it’s a “no thanks,” I’m doing you a favor. Second, I’m going to try and get to it quickly, but there’s no guarantee it will be immediate. I have current projects and authors, that are already making me money, and those are the priority. (Again,not trying to sound hard; just offering a reality check.) I’m the type of person who hates having a bunch of stuff sitting around the desk, so I’m bound to get to the new proposals as soon as I can. But I can get busy with travel or meetings or simply working on projects for the authors I already represent — so sometimes things can slow down considerably. Third, I understand this is a business on the writing side, so if an author needs info, I want to be fair about it; if she decides she needs to go elsewhere, I’ll probably be understanding.
All right, so when an author sends me a proposal I’ve asked for at a conference or because we met through a mutual friend, I try to get back to people within four to six
Welcome to what will probably be the conclusion of my “Craft for a Conference” series (unless someone asks a question about an aspect of conference materials that I haven’t addressed already). Through my last four posts on conference craft, I repeated one mantra: that the purpose of any material you take to a conference (including spoken pitches) should be to gain the interest of the person you’re talking to as quickly as possible and to make yourself stand out from the crowd (in a positive way) as much as you can. When I meet with authors at conferences, the thing I see missing from pitches/conference materials more than anything else is that memorability factor– I read a lot of good hooks, some nice one-sheets, but at the end of a day where I’ve taken 20 appointments plus heard pitches at lunch and dinner, I’m often hard-pressed to recall ONE story idea without looking at my notes.
Now, obviously, there’s an element of information fatigue at play there; even a great, memorable story can get lost in the annals of memory if I heard ten forgettable pitches after it, and that’s what my notes are for. But when I read those notes, I want to go, “OH yeah, this one!” because I recognize the unique elements that stood out for me when you pitched it. I want you to have made it easy for me to remember it by pulling out everything that is most unique and most characteristic of that story in your one-sheet or your pitch. The fact that this doesn’t happen more often tells me not that authors aren’t writing memorable stories, but that they don’t always know how to make themselves/their pitches or materials memorable, that they don’t know what elements of their book stand out from the crowd and how to highlight those.
With that in mind, here are some places to start in your quest
Welcome back to my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference. Today, I’m discussing the value of bringing a writing sample with you to a conference and how to make sure it represents you effectively.
Like I said the first week of the series, there isn’t one hard-and-fast rule as to what you should bring to your editor and agent meetings at a conference. Some editors are happy to glance through a full proposal, some agents love to see a one-sheet on your project, and some people don’t want to look at anything on paper, preferring to hear you talk about your project and ask you questions instead. NONE of us wants to leave with a big stack of papers, and word is starting to get around that it’s increasingly difficult to get us to leave with any printed materials you bring us, so the practice of authors carrying around their sample chapters or first 50 pages or, heaven forbid, their full manuscript, has become much less common at conferences.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad fewer authors are trying to send me home with ten extra pounds of paper, but I have been disappointed, on many occasions, when meeting with an author who’s done a good job of hooking me with their story or concept through their one-sheet or pitch, to ask if the author has a writing sample with him and be met with a blank, slightly panicked stare and the stammered apology, “I– I didn’t know– I’ve heard you don’t want– I don’t have–” by which they mean, “No, I don’t have a writing sample, either because I didn’t expect to get this far, or because I’ve been told not to bring a big stack of paper to a meeting like this, or because I thought you would only be interested in hearing about my platform, and now I’m having a heart attack
Continuing my series on crafting effective pieces for use at a conference, I’m talking more today about the synopsis and how to make sure it’s doing its job for your proposal. We’ll look briefly at format and then look at ways to avoid several common synopsis mistakes.
A synopsis is similar to a proposal in that there isn’t one “correct” way to format it. While there are elements that every synopsis should have in common, rarely are you going to be “disqualified” from consideration just because your synopsis isn’t formatted exactly the way that agent or editor prefers. That said, there are still a few fairly standard conventions you should be aware of:
-Synopses are often single-spaced. This may seem strange, since your sample chapters/manuscript should be double-spaced, but remember, an agent or editor is reading your synopsis to get a complete picture of your story from beginning to end– having all the info contained to a single page (as you should 9 times out of 10 be able to do for any book shorter than 100,000 words– see more below) helps us think of the book as a whole because we literally “see” it all in the same place.
-Names are often written in all-caps the first time they appear in a synopsis. Again, this is a way for the reader to visually track when a new player enters the story, and tells them to pay attention, they need to know who this person is.
–Synopses are always written in third-person present tense. Tense discrepancies in a synopsis (such as switching back and forth from past to present) interrupt our experience of the story.
Common synopsis mistakes and how to avoid them
I mentioned last week the mistake of being too vague in your synopsis (writing that “tragedy strikes,” rather than “Helen dies of the fever”), but here are a few more repeat offenders from the “synopses
This week, I’m continuing my series on how to best channel your craft in your conference materials by talking about your novel’s synopsis. A synopsis is an important part of any proposal– sometimes an agent or editor will read it at the conference when taking a look at your proposal, other times they won’t see it until you send them the requested sample chapters or full manuscript, but whenever they get around to looking at it, they’ll be expecting certain things from the synopsis, and if yours doesn’t deliver, you risk frustrating or confusing that important reader. Remember, agents and editors are looking for reasons to say “no” to a project– not in a jerky, we-can’t-wait-to-stomp-on-your-dreams kind of way (well, not most of us…), but in a realistic, we-hear-pitches-all-the-time-and-have-trained-ourselves-to-listen-for-certain-dealbreakers-so-as-not-to-waste-our-or-an-author’s-time-by-pursuing-a-project-that-doesn’t-fit-our-guidelines/preferences/areas-of-interest kind of way. A synopsis that doesn’t do what it’s supposed to creates a potential place for us to say “no,” so make sure you understand the function of a synopsis in a proposal and how to make sure it provides what an agent or editor is looking for in a synopsis.
What is the purpose of a synopsis? When an agent or editor looks at a synopsis, they’re looking to get a feel for the WHOLE book, beginning to end. If they’re reading the synopsis, you’ve most likely already “hooked” them with a dynamite paragraph or pitch giving the main idea of the story– “some particular big thing or big problem happens to a main character or two in a particular setting and hijinks ensue as colorful secondary character’s arc or additional subplot unfolds in tandem with the main character’s journey to learning something.” This hook paragraph has given them the basic premise, a hint of your voice, and a feel for the most unique elements of the book, but now they want to find out more. Sometimes, they’ll read the synopsis first; sometimes, they’ll want to look at the
I’ve had leftover questions from our “ask the agent” segment, so I thought I’d do some housecleaning. Always love it when writers send me interesting questions…
How many books does it take to not be considered a new author?
Probably two. By the time you’re releasing your third book, nobody considers you a newbie any more.
If you’re a writer who gets an award or accolade for your work, is it true that these can be used to the writer’s advantage? If so, what can we do to capitalize on the award?
Absolutely. Publishing houses tend to really like award-winners, since it reveals that the work was judged best at whatever contest it was in. So by all means include that in your cover letter, stick the info in your bio or publishing history, and if there is a logo or sticker they give you, put that somewhere in the proposal so it gets noticed. One warning: There are some contests that aren’t really contests… they will give an “award” to everyone who enters, so long as you can pay the entrance fee. These don’t count. Most agents and editors hate scam awards. But most of them love to hear about genuine award-winning writing.
I currently have three titles with a very small publisher. Is there a sense that until an author has a book with a major house, she is always “unproven”? Perhaps on a par with self-published authors?
Not with me. Some of the best writers in history have remained with small houses. But I think among authors there is more of a pecking order (“You’re with little Coffee House Press? Ah… I’m with Little Brown.”) Listen, don’t buy into the BS. Publishing is hard enough without spending your life comparing the size of your publisher to someone else. My advice? Write what you love and feel called to write, become the best you can at the business
This question was sent to my personal email: “Do you think there is any rush for an established writer to get his/her next book published in the current climate? That is, are things likely to get better or worse in the next few months?”
My crystal ball is in the repair shop, so I don’t know what the next few months will bring. If I guessed, I’d probably get it wrong. But no, I don’t think there’s any rush to get your next book published. Every writer who has worked with me has heard me say something numerous times: Good is better than fast. I’d rather an author took the time to make something really good than to rush it out quickly.
And this came in as well: “I was wondering what your advice would be to an unpublished writer interested in writing a 3-book series. I understand those are much harder to sell, and publishers prefer if each book ties up the story enough that they can be read individually/out-of-order.”
What’s easier to sell – a car, or a fleet of cars? When you’re starting out, it’s much easier to sell ONE book. That doesn’t mean it can’t be the first part of a series (and you may very well want to mention that when you create your proposal, pointing out the sequel possibilities so that the publisher knows what would come next if they were to contract the book). But keep in mind when creating a series that most publishers want each book to stand on its own. So the first book in your proposed series needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And your second book needs to be the sort of project that readers can pick up, get into the story, and appreciate without feeling as though they’re stepping into the middle of something they don’t understand, or that doesn’t
I recently had an online discussion with a writers’ group, and they had several questions for me…
What are the three most important things you look for in a query?
A strong writing voice, clarity of argument (if nonfiction) or story (if fiction), and author platform.
How important are queries to your agency?
I use them as ways to look for talent. Of the queries that come in cold (that is, not introduced by authors I already represent, and not someone I met and spoke with at a conference), the percentage of queries that turn into clients is very low.
What experience is worth mentioning in a query?
Anything you’ve had published is worth mentioning. Anything that reveals a big platform is worth mentioning.
Do you think going to conferences and making connections is a better way to meet agents than querying them?
Absolutely. Being face to face with someone, in order to gauge personality and likability and trust, is far more important than choosing someone off the web. I think going to conferences is a GREAT way to connect with agents and editors.
What subjects and genres are currently overdone in the queries you see?
I don’t know that anything is overdone at the moment. Tastes change. Every generation needs its own voices. We see new ideas break out, and we’re always surprised. I know some people will say “dystopian is overdone,” or “Amish fiction is overdone.” They might be… until somebody creates one that sells well. (Having noted this, I’ll admit I hate the question, which get frequently. The fact is, we’re always surprised at the latest breakout hit.)
Which genres do you deserve a comeback? What genres would you like to see in queries?
Beats me what deserves a comeback. Chick-lit is making a comeback as romantic comedy. I suppose I’d like to see westerns and spy novels make a comeback.
Which genres will the public never