Book Proposals

on July 19, 2007

Over at my personal blog, I’ve asked people to ask me questions so I don’t have to come up with blog topics since I have a couple deadlines all about the same time and I’m brain dead 🙂

Susan Hatler, a friend of mine from the Sacramento Valley Rose, had a great question about proposals. And since it’s more craft/writing related I decided to answer it over here.

Question: Since I’ve heard you’re not a plotter, is it difficult to write a proposal before you’ve written the book? How do you deal with writing the actual novel if the characters decide to do something other than what you’d put down in your proposal?

First, we need to define “proposal.” A proposal is one of two things. It’s either a synopsis (anywhere from 1-25 pages, with the most being between 5-10) or it’s a synopsis plus the first three chapters.

Most authors I know with Harlequin need to submit three chapters with their synopsis as standard before going to contract. But not all. Many established single title authors need to submit a synopsis plus three chapters, but usually when they are switching houses or genres or agents.

It is more common, however, for a published author to sell “on proposal” meaning a synopsis only. The author will have a successful track record in 1) delivering a manuscript on time and 2) telling a good story. An editor is not going to worry as much about the final product from an author with ten books on the shelves (even if they are not bestsellers) than she will from an author who was either late last time or only has one book out.

Sometimes, authors can sell on an idea. A sentence or paragraph.

I’ve done all of the above (except the three chapters.)

For THE HUNT and THE KILL, my contract was such that I had to submit a synopsis prior to the manuscript in order to get paid (often authors will get paid on signing, proposal, acceptance of manuscript, and publication.) My synopses were 10-12 pages long. I had the first draft of THE HUNT finished before I even wrote the synopsis, so that was easy 🙂 . . . THE KILL was a pain in the butt. I wrote the first 160 pages of THE KILL before I could even write the synopsis–and the synopsis was all about the beginning, with two pages on how I thought it would end.

I tried so hard to stick to the synopsis that I made myself loony. I turned in the book but I wasn’t happy with it. Surprise, neither was my editor. She thought it felt forced and contrived. No brainer–I DID force my characters and my original ending WAS contrived, but as I said to my editor, I thought I had to stick with the synopsis. No, it’s just they need it for the files so I can get paid.


For my next trilogy, I wrote a five page synopsis for SPEAK NO EVIL and a paragraph each for the other two books. In SPEAK, three pages were backstory. Very easy for me, because I generally have a good sense of basic characters. And I knew Nick from a previous book. The last two pages were how I thought the story would go. But I never looked at it while I wrote the book. Good thing, too, because even the killer changed! I’d killed Steve in the synopsis, but he lives in the final book.

BTW, even in those two paragraphs for the other two books, I couldn’t stick with the story. For example, I swapped heroes. After 60 pages of writing SEE NO EVIL I realized that no way was Dillon the hero of that book, so I swapped him with Connor. Much, much better.

So now, I write a couple sentences and they are pretty much good as gold–for my prison break trilogy it was “An earthquake under San Quentin facilitates the escape of several death row inmates.” Then I did a sentence on each book. Karin sold a book on one sentence: Mafia princess meets jaded cop (Karin, correct me if I got that wrong!)

Some authors can’t do this. Not because they’re not allowed to, but because they are paralyzed if they don’t write something in detail. And this, I think, is the key point: every author is unique. If you need to get it out there, great. Do it.

But the GREAT thing that I’ve learned from many authors is that most editors DON’T expect you to stick to the synopsis. They expect you to deliver a good story on time. But most editors never look at the synopsis again.

The one caveat is if you change the story so much that it isn’t what they bought at all, for example you’re writing romantic suspense and turn in historical fiction. If that’s the case? I’d definitely talk to the editor first 🙂

Oh, and one more thing. Usually at a certain point before pub date–say about 9 months–your editor is going to ask you for a brief synopsis. One page or less. This is what the back cover copy is written from. It doesn’t have to have the conclusion, but the major conflict and characters should be established. This CAN be changed, up until about 4-6 months before pub date. I know. I changed it with SEE NO EVIL and FEAR NO EVIL because I swapped heroes! So you should know enough about your story at that point to produce that page. Harlequin has a far more detailed questionnaire. I would love to see one someday!

FWIW, here’s my previous method of writing a synopsis:

1) Hook. 1-2 sentences (i.e. in THE PREY: Former FBI Agent turned crime fiction writer discovers someone is using her books as blueprints for murder.)

2) “Back Cover” — essentially an extended back cover copy of what the book is about, focusing on conflict and key crises.

3) Climax — the pivotal scene in the book where everything looks bleakest.

4) Ending. (BTW, for SPEAK NO EVIL, I had NO idea how Nick and Carina were going to live happily ever after. They loved each other, but Carina had moved around her entire life and finally had a home. Her family is the most important thing to her, and she couldn’t imagine up and moving 1000 miles away. For Nick, he had no personal attachment to Montana, but he was the elected sheriff and had duty and honor to uphold. So in the synopsis I didn’t write how they were going to get together, but said, “They live happily ever after.”) I figured once I wrote the book I’d know how.

This should be one page, and can be cut and refined for a query letter.

Any questions on proposals? Do the other murderous ladies have something to add?