A Perfect Proposal

A lot of the writers I’ve worked with over the years have the same complaint: “I hate doing proposals!” I admit, they can seem pretty imposing. And too often writers find themselves in the not-so-enviable position of trying to figure out what the agent or editor is looking for. When they ask for influential people, what do they mean? Those who’ve influence you in your writing, or those who will be an influence for your book project? When they want to know about your mailing list, do they mean your contacts, or something different? And what on earth do they want for comp titles??

Over the next few weeks, along with various other blogs, I’ll tackle some of the different aspects of a strong proposal. And I’ll give you all a chance to try your hand at some of them.

But today, I want to hear from you. When you think about putting a proposal together, what is the section that’s the most difficult for you?

C’mon, folks, share!

26 Responses to A Perfect Proposal

  1. Avatar
    Jackie Layton August 20, 2014 at 4:22 am #

    Hi Karen,

    One of the hardest things about writing a proposal is to inject personality into it and follow the guidelines exactly. I write it, review the guidelines, oops, synopsis is supposed to be shorter. Edit. Review. Go back to guidelines. Then there’s usually one part open to interpretation. Formatting can get to me. Especially if I’ve got the thing lined up, I put in the header, and then my spacing is off again. By the time I slog through all of these details, I’ve tweaked my proposal so much, I doubt it’s worth getting excited about. I know the rules/guidelines are there for a reason, and maybe as I submit more often I’ll get better.

    The other challenge is the writer’s bio. I’m not published so there’s not a lot to add to excite an agent.

    I can’t wait to read your comments throughout the day. Thanks!

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    Jennifer Hallmark August 20, 2014 at 5:14 am #

    To me, it’s the comp titles…

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    Tanara McCauley August 20, 2014 at 5:34 am #

    I’m so glad you asked! I think the comparable titles section is the hardest. Are you looking for comp in terms of writing style, theme, character similarities, plot and/or conflict likeness, etc.? It’s an easy category to over think, or just get plain wrong. I’m eager to get a more in depth take on this section.

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    Karen Whiting August 20, 2014 at 5:43 am #

    I like writing proposals because it helps me hone my focus and develop a marketing plan (this may come from my business background-but this is what helps me organize the project). When it’s time to start marketing I go back to my proposal and start putting those plans into action. The hardest part is the brief description and hook. I have to craft the essence of the book in a few words to attract the editor’s attention. I also know when it is well done, that description may land on the back cover or in the catalog pages. It’s the promise of what I will write and I will need to keep that promise.

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    Brenda Poinsett August 20, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    While I struggle with finding the right hook and expressing it well, I also find it difficult to describe the target audience when I am writing for Christians. I have in my head who I am writing to but I can’t translate that into a market the publisher will recognize. A little help with this would be much appreciated.

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    Jeanne Takenaka August 20, 2014 at 6:21 am #

    I’m looking forward to this series. The most daunting parts of writing a proposal for me are the hook and the brief description and the comp titles. I struggle with these when I am so close to the story. 🙂

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    Rick Barry August 20, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    My impression is that many of us have run the course and basically depleted much of our creative energy and excitement by the time the m.s. has been revised, revised again, and polished several times. There’s a yearning simply to be done with it and move on to the next story. Instead, the proposal requires shifting gears, basically out of novelist mode and into a marketing mindset, which can be daunting.

    Does any writer out there create the proposal simultaneously with the story? I’ve considered trying it, but I set that notion aside. For me, these two types of writing, although connected to one story, are too disparate to develop at the same time.

    • Avatar
      Jenelle. M August 20, 2014 at 11:29 am #

      Rick, with my current WIP, I began making notes for my proposal as I was writing. It has helped me tremendously. Nothing major, but a line here and there about the conflict in the main theme and characters(s). I also make sure to add the antagonist as well. Since it takes me months and months, to feel satisfied with even a one sentence log line or 8 second elevator pitch, I write one using generic adjectives and adverbs and then tweak it until it’s solid. Again, that takes me months to get just right and I always tell it to people and ask if the concept sounds interesting.

      So that’s my answer to the question. The log line and brief description (4-5 sentences) drives me to pacing the room. I know the formula and I still can’t do it, grrrr. I’m super pumped about this lesson!

      Laura, I did an exercise about writing a fiction synopsis that had me write a 1-2 page summary of a movie I liked. It helped show me what stuck out in my mind and why it did. And then I could apply those reasons (romance, conflict, tension, suspense, etc) to my own piece. Very cool.

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    Jennifer Dyer August 20, 2014 at 6:28 am #

    Thanks for asking! For me, writing the back cover copy is always a challenge. And, as several others said, the comp titles. Can we use ABA titles, if that applies? Are we looking for all the things @Tana mentioned? Is it, “People who like [these books] will also like my novel”?

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    Stacey Zink August 20, 2014 at 6:45 am #

    I agree with the other posters who said comp titles are hard. I always leave this area till last.

    I also struggle with knowing the right length of the proposal. What is too long and too short?

  10. Avatar
    Jan Cline August 20, 2014 at 6:52 am #

    Hi Karen,
    I’m so glad you are going to help us out with this. I agree about the comp titles. It’s difficult for me to compare my manuscript and explain why it’s unique. I don’t read as much as I would like to, I’m a slow reader. So finding books that I feel comfortable comparing mine to takes time. I also struggle with the tag line and making the synopsis not sound like a news flash.

  11. Avatar
    Shannon McNear August 20, 2014 at 7:22 am #

    The comparative analysis, although that’s gotten easier as I’ve shifted from the “mine is like this book, only different” focus to the “my story would appeal to fans of XYZ.” I still struggle with the theme, stakes, etc.–to make that part interesting or unique and not sound like half the books already out there.

    Thank you for doing this, Karen!

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    CaLana Love August 20, 2014 at 7:39 am #

    Thank you for taking the time to publish this series, Karen! For me, the most difficult is finding the marketing data, reliable databases that reveal current reader stats by genre. Do they exist? Even if it requires a subscription how do I either access this kind of info or which resources do I use, with what math formula, to generate a reasonable picture custom to the proposed project? Also, anything that shows reader trends (by genre) in, say, the last 5 years? Looking forward to this!

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    Laura August 20, 2014 at 7:44 am #

    The fiction synopsis. I would love an almost fill-in-the-blank guide. 🙂

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    Kathy @ In Quiet Places August 20, 2014 at 8:11 am #

    Market analysis and book promotion…that is usually where I feel like I am in quicksand. Still working on it!

    Although I had a great conversation with the manager of a LifeWay store in Plano, Texas when I was questioning him about the market, he talked to me for 30 minutes and it was an eye opener to the whole industry from the prospective of the store.

    It is hard to reconcile the business side with the heart of the writer but I know it is part of it.

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    Marilyn Read August 20, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    So glad you are clarifying some of the steps–an answer to prayer. It’s that audience/marketing business that is scariest for me.

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    Amber Schamel August 20, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    Hi Karen,
    I’m excited about this blog series! It’s going to be invaluable to us authors.

    Probably the most intimidating part for me balancing storytelling, style and directness in the synopsis. You want to tell the story without flowery description etc, but you don’t want to completely be boring either.

    I’m also a bit puzzled by what to put as far as experience and platform. Do you list all your social media accounts and how many followers you have?

    Thanks for helping us out!

    Amber Schamel
    Bringing HIStory to Life

  17. Avatar
    Allison Duke August 20, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    I recently wrote a fiction proposal so this is on my mind. I struggled with the synopsis. I’m really good at them when I’m writing them for reviews of books I’ve read, but it feels different with my own story. I know this story so well, but what does the person I’m addressing need to know? Can I keep some spoilers to myself, or does that make it sound too general? How much is too much? How do I make it sound compelling? I know why I love it, but how to communicate that to someone else? All of those factors made the synopsis hard for me.

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    Tedd Galloway August 20, 2014 at 10:16 am #

    Composing the very first proposal was terrifying. I was entering a world that was foreign and very intimidating. After sending it in and getting some positive feed back my stomach has settled. The question that was hard to answer was, who I compared my writing with.

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    Sandy Faye Mauck August 20, 2014 at 10:30 am #

    Absolutely the synopsis. I keep going back and re-editing the book or doing anything else to avoid it. The creative stuff is fun and I enjoy that but the synopsis is not fun. The best way I could find to get it to work for me is to pretend I am telling someone about the book. I looked all over for examples but there were hardly any.

    And I agree about the comp things. Just unsure how to approach it.

  20. Avatar
    Shelia Stovall August 21, 2014 at 3:44 am #

    Writing the synopsis is difficult for me. To include all the important elements and still write effectively is a struggle. I’d love to attend a workshop on how to write a synopsis. You question has prompted me to review the ACFW program. Perhaps there is something there that can help me with this chore.

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    Martha Rogers August 21, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    I don’t mind proposals until I get to the part about marketing and comparable titles. I enjoy writing a synopsis as it helps to hone and fine tune my story with the important facts or events. As a published author, one thing that gives me trouble is past sales facts and figures. I really don’t like trying to figure those out.

  22. Avatar
    Mark Bartel August 21, 2014 at 3:45 pm #

    What the others haven’t mentioned is the sheer anxiety of having to justify the work of countless hours and even years in a few pages. Each part of the proposal was a challenge, but I can see the reasoning for each. The synopsis helped me to focus on the core of the story, so I found it to be a good exercise that I will perform earlier in the writing process next time. The comps are difficult when I know that there are so many more books out there than I could ever know well enough to mention. Still, such comparisons helped me place my novel in the larger picture.
    The largest discouragement in the book proposal process for me was in facing the fact that marketing is up to me. No longer does the publisher take that on for the author, and so few of us are naturally gifted in those two very different callings. I hope your series (or a follow up series) can address the anxieties of what happens after the book is complete and accepted–and the work begins.

  23. Avatar
    Steve Rafalsky August 24, 2014 at 6:38 pm #

    Hi Karen,

    I never heard of a proposal until I zeroed in on the Steve Laube agency and its agents. I picked your post because it was easy to relate to. What immediately daunts me is that my genre falls between the cracks, being “visionary adventure, non-fiction”. It’s not straight autobiography, or fiction, or non-fiction (strictly speaking), nor is the “visionary adventure” tag comparable to what Frank Peretti’s done.

    I suppose the three sample chapters will be self explanatory. There’s a big difference, however, between the beginning of the book (which gives background and origins of the protagonist and his odyssey) and further along in the story which starts opening vision and activity in a number of fields, literature / aesthetics, authentic spiritual character (and consciousness), current social and cultural realities, Biblical prophecy, etc., so I might want to include a later chapter rather than a third one from the beginning.

    Aside from such considerations I find the thought of focusing in on the proposal quite exhilarating, seeing as I’ve been simply in the midst of the writing for about a couple of decades. I look forward to your further thoughts.

  24. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan August 31, 2014 at 8:52 am #

    My least favorite part is talking about my platform — it never seems big enough.

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    LL. White September 1, 2014 at 1:20 pm #


    First, I want to thank the Steve Laube Agency for being accessible to writers and for the valuable information you provide on the blog. I’m not the reply-leaving type of person but I appreciate this so much I had to respond.

    My take on the difficult aspect of the proposal-writing process is crafting a compelling cover letter that meets the rubric of the agent/publisher, and the Author statement. Honestly, talking about myself in a way that is acceptable to others is brutal. The remaining struggle is psychological. I am inclined to simply put it out there and say what I mean – not what pleases others. But I realize we cannot always write as we would speak (take that sentence for example). The second thing is the synopsis. Yikes!

    I had written a proposal before but I read Steve Laube’s articles and followed the guide for proposal writing in books by Terry Whalin’s and Michael S. Hyatt. I’ll know if I followed this guides correctly when someone calls and says yes.
    All the best

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