What Goes into a Good Fiction Proposal?

So you've written the first draft of your novel (you have, right?) and you're ready to approach agents and acquisitions editors to begin your path to certain fame, eh? Good for you!

On this page I tell you how to put together a first-rate proposal for your novel.

I've served on the editorial staff for three Christian publishing companies and have read literally thousands of proposals as an acquisitions editor and imprint manager. Plus I've written proposals that have sold my own novels, so I know what works and what it is that editors and agents are looking for.

An acquisitions editor, by the way, is the person who goes through all the proposals submitted by agents and authors and decides which are good and should possibly be published, which are not and should help start fires, and which to get very, very excited about.

Here are the elements agents and acquisitions editors need and value in the fiction proposals they review.

Note that while I'm speaking largely of my own experience and some of my professional colleagues may disagree with one or two points, if you build a proposal like this you won't go far wrong.

Also note that I'm assuming you'll put all of these elements into a single Word file and attach that file to an e-mail message you'll send to the agent or editor in question.

The Elements of a Good Proposal

  1. A cover letter
  2. One page with:
    1. A very brief (~10-word) hook
    2. A short (~100-word) blurb
    3. The title of your novel
    4. The genre of your novel
    5. The length (in wordcount!) of your novel
    6. The audience for your novel (age, gender, etc.)
    7. Whether or not the novel fits into a series
    8. Your previously published books (if any) and the to-date total sales of each
  3. A 1-2-page synopsis that does give away the ending (here's how to write such a synopsis)
  4. One page with anything else you think is pertinent: short bio on you, historical note, personal experience that undergirds the story, reason for special timeliness, one-paragraph summaries of other books in the series, etc.
  5. The first 30-40 pages of your novel (sample chapters)

That's it. I'll discuss each one in detail below, but first let's notice what is not there.

What Not To Include

First, there's no lengthy marketing analysis or list of comparative titles. Other editors may disagree here, but I always found such things to be useless. Besides, it's my job to know what else is out there that would be similar to or might compete with any given book.

Individual authors don't usually have access to the industry sales figures like I have, so I can find that information quickly. And authors often don't have the same breadth of knowledge I have. Seeing, "As far as I know there's been no other book written about dinosaurs being brought back to life" does not encourage me about the author. Better to just leave all that off, imo.

There's also no life history of the author. "Born in Tuskogee, Michigan, to a rice farmer and a brain surgeon, Joe Author had a hard but starch-rich childhood..." Yawn.

Dude, unless you're a former mountain climber writing a novel about climbing K2, we pretty much don't care about your life story. Unless something in your life pertains to something in your novel, leave it out. If something in your life does pertain to your novel, then by all means mention it. But I don't need to know where you went to high school.

Finally, there's no mention of your awesome marketing plan. I don't know why writing teachers tell novelists to put in this kind of information. It's silly and, most likely, what you can do as an individual is kind of pathetic compared to what the publisher could do. It's like "Display Your Anonymity Day."

I'm poking fun at myself, too, when I say that, so don't hear me wrong. Most individuals, and especially most of us mousy novelist types, haven't erected massive media empires we can bring to bear to market our novels. And if we have, we'll probably self-publish and keep all the dough for ourselves!

Putting on a sheet of paper that you can guarantee the sale of fifty copies of your book or that you intend to create a Web page or you've been invited to speak to a group of two hundred people may be impressive to the lady in the cubicle next door, but it's all but laughable to a publisher.

Another source of chuckles for editors is when novelists write that they are ready and eager to devote themselves to multi-city book tours and interviews with Oprah. Um...okay. But unless you're funding and arranging those things yourself, they're probably not going to happen. It's not like publishers are sitting around waiting to publish the first person they can find who would be willing to go on the talk show circuit.

Now, if you really do have some impressive "platform" abilities, like you're a speaker for Women of Faith or PromiseKeepers or you're the head of Salem Communications and can put content on 300 radio stations, then be sure to mention that in the proposal.

If you're like most of us, though, and you're just a regular Joe, keep it out of your proposal. The publisher will be able to do much more than you can, and you'll save yourself the pointing and laughing (not that such immaturity ever happens in the hallowed halls of Christian publishing; ahem).

All right, let's talk in detail about the components that do belong in a good fiction proposal.

A Closer Look at What To Include

There are guidelines for how to format your proposal so that it looks professional. I've written them up in Tip #2, so please be sure you adhere to them.

All right, on to the elements.

The Cover Letter

This is just like a query letter except without the query.

A query letter is basically the proposal on one page. You pitch your idea, summarize your qualifications, and ask for permission to send the proposal to the editor or agent.

For your proposal, you're obviously past that stage (because it's included in the proposal), so you can dispense with the "May I please send you the proposal for...?" bit. Instead, replace it with a "I am pleased to present..." sentence. If you'd like, you can ask for permission to send the full manuscript.

(If you need help on what goes into a good query letter, consult the many books and Web pages on the topic.)

Only one note: In your cover letter you need to mention whether or not you're sending this to more than one agent and/or publishing house at the same time. If you're doing that (and the term for it is simultaneous submissions ) you need to be sure to let everyone know.

The One Pager

This is like a tip sheet for sales. It's a one-sheet, a brief, sometimes bulleted sheet with the facts about your novel.

The hook is a little (10-word) grabber or tagline for your novel: "What happens when cloned vampires drink their clones' blood?" or "Jennifer loves Thomas--too bad Thomas died nineteen centuries ago."

The blurb is a short but arresting summary of your story. Here you can give sizzle but no steak. In other words, this is marketing copy designed to further hook your reader while giving a little more detail about your story.

"When molecular biologist Jennifer Reeves discovers a lost source of prehistoric DNA..."

The Title, Genre, Wordcount, and Audience of your novel should be self-explanatory. As for genre, read Tips 16-18. Understand that certain genres and topics are trigger words that will automatically raise or lower an agent or editor's interest in your project. It's just reality.

As for your book's length, be sure you speak in wordcount. Pagecount is all but meaningless as font size, margin size, spacing, and a host of other variables make quantification impossible. But wordcount tells no lies.

Note that you can include several of these in one paragraph. You could say, for instance:

Death by McNugget is a supernatural thriller for preteens set in the dark crevaces of a Cleveland mall's food court. The manuscript is complete at 90,000 words. Available upon request.

The Series Description is where you explain that this novel is the first in a proposed 4-book series that follows Jennifer Reeves as she uncovers further prehistoric mysteries. Just mention the series here. You'll have an opportunity later to summarize other books in the series.

Your previously published books should also be self-explanatory. You either have them or you don't. If you don't, just leave this portion out of the proposal.

If you do have other books, the editor needs to know their titles, who published them, when they released, and (most importantly) how well they sold. Give exact sales data.

One note: if the previous books were published by another publisher, the acquisitions editor is going to wonder why you aren't being published again by that publisher. You might want to go ahead and provide that information here--unless it makes you look bad, in which case a don't-ask-don't-tell rule applies.

The Synopsis

Since I've done such a brilliant job of explaining this elsewhere [pauses for applause], I'll just refer you to that article.

One note: I can't stress enough the importance of a good, 1-page synopsis. A synopsis that is too long (more than 2 pages) or poorly done or that does not give away the ending may sink you.

Some agents and acquisitions editors will skip over all your front matter and go straight to the sample chapters. Artistic purists! But if they like what they see there they will inevitably come back and read your synopsis. So it had better be good.

Note that you can begin the synopsis on the bottom of the one pager listed above if you have half a page or so available. Otherwise begin it on its own page.

The Other One Pager

Very often there is about one more page's worth of pertinent information that needs to be conveyed in the proposal.

It could be any one or more of a variety of things: a brief (1/4-page) bio of you (recommended), a one-paragraph summary of each of the other books in the proposed series, or some other historical note or personal experience piece that will cause a "buyer" to be more inclined to invest in your "product."

Take a page or two to include that information.

Keeping in mind, of course, the section on What Not To Include.

Last thought: if you're especially good-looking, a photo of yourself on this page would not hurt you. It's hard to find photogenic novelists, let me tell you, and the publicity department will be interested in finding a new one.

The Sample Chapters

Here, more than in any other portion of your proposal, your chances rise or fall.

As I've mentioned, many agents and almost all fiction acquisitions editors are fiction purists. We love to discover great fiction. That's why we'll often skip over everything else and turn to the first pages of your actual writing. If we love it, you're golden. If we don't, you're sunk (er, dross?).

Note that I said you want to include the first 30-40 pages of your novel. Agents and editors need to see that you know how to start a novel well. That tells so much. This is not the time to include chapter 12 because it's really cool and chapter 21 to show that you can write snappy dialogue. Give us your first 30-40 pages and make sure they're your best writing because they will determine your publishing future.

Notice also that I've said to include the first 30-40 pages. I didn't say include the first three chapters. Why? Because some people write chapters that are 2 stinkin' pages long and others write 65-page chapters. We don't want that little or that much. We want 30-40 (double-spaced) pages.

Go Now, My Child, and Find Your Destiny

Wow, that's a little melodramatic, wouldn't you say?

Anyway, that's all I have to say about how to create fiction proposals that will give your novel its best chance.

Oh, a word about writer's guidelines. If the publisher you're targeting has published writer's guidelines that determine what they want to have included in any proposal sent to them, then by all means do it the way they say even if it violates what I've said here.

But by and large if you include these elements, abide by the formatting rules, and write incredible fiction, you'll have a fighting chance, young padowan. Go now and find your destiny.