Four Ways a Proposal Gives You Focus

Sometimes I receive queries from writers wondering where their focus should be. They are unsure where they fit in with publishing. Here is where writing a proposal can help:

1.) Who am I? Your author biography, written in third person, (as is your entire proposal) forces you to decide how to present yourself to the world.

2.) What am I writing? Look at your work. Where does it fit? If you are unsure, I recommend deciding for yourself before pitching to an agent or editor. If you are asking yourself, “Is my story a mystery or suspense?” then you need to do the research to make that decision. Agents can tell you, but it’s better if you come to us knowing your genre. If it doesn’t fit anywhere obvious, label it as well as you can.

3.) What is my competition? If you think Ford and Chevy don’t study each other’s cars to gauge the competition, I believe you’d be mistaken. Likewise, you should be watching what’s on the market. Not only is it a great idea to see what you’re up against with your book — and I assure you, you’re up against fantastic authors — but reading and being aware is part of being a citizen of the world. As for your work? This section shows the agent and editor where you will fit in with the current market. It’s essential in our evaluation of your work.

4.) What is my book about? Writing a summary of your novel will help you see if your story holds together. Writing a chapter outline of nonfiction will help you see if the topics flow and make sense as a cohesive unit.

These are just four proposal elements that will help you learn where you fit and what your mission is. Writing a proposal is a lot of work, but well worth the investment for those pursuing traditional publishing. We have excellent instructions on proposal writing here:

Your turn:

Have you written a proposal? How did you benefit from the process?

What was the hardest part of proposal writing for you?


27 Responses to Four Ways a Proposal Gives You Focus

  1. Avatar
    Shirlee Abbott May 31, 2018 at 4:30 am #

    A publisher asked me to submit a proposal for easy-reading adult Bible studies that includes three sample lessons. As I’m writing the lessons, potential proposal paragraphs come to mind, explaining the why behind the lessons: Why this topic? Why this style? Why these specific words? I will wind up with a collection of random thoughts that need to be put into some kind of order. Reminds me of quilt blocks waiting to be arranged and rearranged till they are just right, then connected to one another with the perfect coordinating fabric.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2018 at 10:02 am #

      Great image, Shirlee!

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      Robin Mason May 31, 2018 at 4:09 pm #

      i love the imagery of the quilt!!! so very true for the “squares” of, in your case, your Bible study – or in my case, the snags and bits that make up my story!!
      and ps, no, Tamela, i have not written / attempted a proposal. i’m indie and i may or may not pursue an agent at some point…

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    Rebekah Love Dorris May 31, 2018 at 5:57 am #

    This article’s a keeper! I plan to bookmark it for when I actually write my proposal.

    Which brings me to my burning question. How does a writer know when it’s time to trust that platform that feels like a new house, unfurnished and new-smelling, and draft that proposal? What if the platform doesn’t hold? Has that writer wasted her future on a premature proposal?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2018 at 10:06 am #

      Thank you for the compliment!

      I don’t think time is wasted on a “premature” proposal to an agent because it gets you on the agent’s radar. And my office can often offer a reply to an author with a not-ready platform based on the topic, anyway. For instance, you may have a great platform, but I don’t ever anticipate being the right agent to represent a book on vampire lore. So authors with topics that don’t work for me can at least discover that much first along. Or better yet, I can encourage authors with a fabulous topic to keep going on platform and try me later.

      But all that said, it’s best to build the platform so the agent can’t resist!

      Hope that helps!

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    Grace Kent May 31, 2018 at 6:02 am #

    Proposal writing is the most challenging thing I’ve had to do in awhile. It’s forced me to focus on the bare bones of the story, to bring out the most important elements. It’s much easier to evaluate a novel that way. However, writing a summary of my novels is also painful. The many details that make my readers laugh or cry, and the pieces of the story I worked tirelessly to create are often left out of proposals. I’m left with only hope that whoever reads the proposal will be curious enough to want the manuscript and, only then, discover all the little things that make the characters come to life. It’s definitely a tough, but worthwhile process.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2018 at 10:09 am #

      Another option is to include the complete manuscript in a separate document along with the proposal.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 31, 2018 at 6:27 am #

    I’ve written a few proposals, and since they didn’t lead to representation, much less a contract, I’m certainly no in a position to expound on Lessons Learned.

    The hardest part for me are comps, and the need to bring in solid and current mid-list titles as examples.

    There are two things that make this difficult. First, most of my writing is informed by writing that inspired me, and that consists of works that are now considered dated, by such as Nevil Shute, early Michener, and Robert Ruark. I’m sure that many editors, and some agents, have only a hazy idea of who Shute and Ruark were.

    Second, the contemporary authors whom I read (and who serve as a kind of model) are A-listers such as Nicholas Sparks and Richard Paul Evans. Comparing myself to them is a bit arrogant, to say the least. (Though perhaps they would be honoured that I would let them be in MY company, hahaha…yeah, OK.)

    So my technique (remember that it hasn’t worked for me in terms for finding an agency or publishing home) is to look up, say, a similar Nick Sparks novel on Amazon, and then see what people who bought that also bought…and investigate those. The ‘Look Inside’ feature is a pretty good way to estimate voice, and the synopsis and reviews generally give a fair picture of content and, importantly, whether’s there are any deal-killers (like graphic sex or violence) in the prospective comp.

    The smart next step would be to get a copy of the possible comp and actually read it…but being financially constrained up to now, and not realizing that the local library was not only willing but eager to do interlibrary loans, it’s one I didn’t take.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray May 31, 2018 at 10:10 am #

      That’s great advice, Andrew. Comps are often very difficult. And I see no problem with comparing your book to bestsellers. After all, you want your book to be a bestseller, too!

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    Sami A. Abrams May 31, 2018 at 6:28 am #

    While writing my first proposal, I remember calling a friend in a panic. I wasn’t sure what to do. Every website said something slightly different. I was heading to a conference and didn’t want to get it wrong. Her advice, since it wasn’t for a specific agency, was to follow the basics, quit whining, and just do it. Hehe! So I did.
    For me, writing a proposal is still a huge learning experience. However, now that I have a template from my previous ones, it should be much easier next time.
    I think the hardest part of a proposal is the synopsis. Narrowing down a story into four to five pages. What is too little, what is too much? How do you keep your voice in this bare-bones version? AND if you haven’t written the full manuscript yet and you are a pantser, how do you tell a summary you can stick with? ACK! My poor agent has already had to listen to me stress over this one. LOL!
    As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect…but hey, I’ll settle for decent.

  6. Avatar
    Debbra Stephens May 31, 2018 at 6:57 am #

    Agreed! While writing a formal book proposal can be an agonizing process, it has its just rewards. It does, in fact, help you better understand this child of yours in order to present her to the world and describe her more effectively.

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    Amanda Wen May 31, 2018 at 8:43 am #

    Although I haven’t put together a full proposal for my WIP, I did write a synopsis, and in doing so I realized that my heroine’s core issue was something entirely different than previously thought. It meant some rewriting, but the project is definitely stronger for having found that little gem!

  8. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D May 31, 2018 at 9:31 am #

    Hi folks:
    I have written proposals for nonfiction books. The hardest part for me was to write how I would promote the book, since I am just getting started on social media and do not know the ins and outs of the publishing world yet. when you sit down and really think about who you know that might be interested in helping you promote your book, however, it’s amazing the people you come up with.

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    Kristen Joy Wilks May 31, 2018 at 11:06 am #

    Oh, you know how a writer is supposed to have a kind of brand tagline. Well, I was pretty sure that I could not be that dramatic about myself and had a hard time taking it seriously. I came up with:

    I promise you a crazed animal, a concussion, and a kiss in every single book…you’re welcome!

    And then I realized that this totally is my brand. My stories are fun, they are light, until they start to get serious. I want my readers to laugh and have fun and yes, I want them to think and grow closer to the Lord, but really, I think that they should be laughing while they do that.

    Another bonus, my three sons are dedicated to making sure that I keep this promise. If I tell them about a new ms. I’m working on they will look up at me with stern and serious eyes and ask: “Did you make sure there is a concussion?” They sure do keep you honest!

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    claire o'sullivan May 31, 2018 at 1:34 pm #

    Hi Tamela,

    Oh, how I relate to all the comments. With the manuscript complete, I went on to write proposals (like… fifteen) and the synopsis (another fifteen).

    I’d like to mention here that I messed up every single process along the way, and have no idea why the agent wanted it along with the manuscript.

    But back to query/proposal/cover letter writing. Oh, yes. Let’s not forget that synopsis. Worst writing, ever. But all of these including the eight-word catch, and the fifteen word elevator pitch, I found plot aspects I didn’t like. I rewrote part of the manuscript. And then, rewrote it again. Several more times. Until my fingers bled (just kidding).

    My catchphrase I compare to Aliens, a genre I do not write but boy, it snags one. “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Genre: science fiction + horror. Then I work on the elevator pitch. Fifteen words I start with What If … etc. I then take out the What If, and rework this a million times.

    The proposal. Why did I write it? Nothing better to do? Ha, no I don’t think that works. ‘God told me to write this book?’ Again, no. More like, who am I? What am I trying to accomplish? What audience am I trying to reach? What do I read? How is my manuscript different? What’s unique about it? Why do I think it would sell? Man, oh, man. What an ordeal!

    I love drama, comedy, romance, crime, forensics, and suspense. Genre? I boil it down to (Christian) romantic/suspense.

    It’s a learning process and the next one I am writing is… not any easier. Great article, and thank you and all the comments that resonate!

  11. Avatar
    Debbie Williams May 31, 2018 at 4:54 pm #

    It’s late in the day, rather early in the evening, but this was a great article. I followed the links and found Christian Writers Institute. I purchased and have already viewed two helpful videos. Thank you so much for your content and for leading me to theirs.

  12. Avatar
    Bailey T Hurley May 31, 2018 at 7:24 pm #

    These are all true things about writing a proposal. I think it also helps clarify your audience. What they like, what they struggle with, what do they dream about it and hope for. Then it refocuses my intent to write because I want to serve them the best way I can. Thanks, Tamela, for the positive perspective on proposal writing.

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    Tracey Dyck May 31, 2018 at 8:20 pm #

    I know I’ll be coming back to this (and combing through the archives) when it comes time to craft my own proposal! Thanks, Tamela!

    Now, what if I have a pretty solid grasp on what genre I write and which readers I’m targeting, but I don’t know whether I fit in the CBA or ABA market? Do agents want first-time authors to know the answer to that question? My current book seems like it could go either way.

  14. Avatar
    Jennifer Mugrage June 3, 2018 at 2:26 pm #

    What exactly is included in a proposal?

    I know it should contain a cover letter, synopsis, sample chapters, and back cover blurbs (for fiction). But are all these disparate elements brought together in one big, unified document? I thought of them as more like a bunch of separate but related elements in a package, with the cover letter being the main proposal.

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