How To Write A Proposal

You want to write a novel?  For me?

You want to write a novel? For me?

If you’re going to go through traditional publishing (which might still be feasible at times) or even if you’re submitting to one of the new micro presses, there will come a time, after you’ve done a pitch for the book or after you met an editor at a convention, or even after you sent in a query asking if they wanted to see your idea, where someone will say, “Sure, send me a proposal and three chapters.”

There was a time when these words struck terror in me.  This is because I had clue zero how one wrote “a proposal” or a synopsis, or any of that stuff.  (Technically the “proposal” is three chapters and a synopsis, but half the time the editor asks for a “proposal and three chapters.”  Don’t stress, she really means a synopsis.  Well, sort of. Calm down, all will be revealed.)

Then while I was sitting at a writer’s group meeting, I told the lady next to me I had no idea how to do this, and she sketched it for me in the back of an envelope.  This was not QUITE all that was needed.  The subtleties of the different types of proposal and developing the art of a “selling” proposal took a little longer.

I can’t in a single article propose to teach you all the details of writing a selling proposal, but I can perhaps help you along.

First, remember that a proposal/synopsis is a selling tool.  Unless you’re asked to do a chapter by chapter synopsis, don’t do that.  I thought that was the only form of proposal for the longest time, but if you read a proposal that is written that way, your eyes quickly glaze over.  Yes, it might be a complete picture of your plot, but a book is more than a plot.  First, the person must know why they would care about what your characters are doing.  This is often a mistake of newbie writers, too, when you ask “tell me about your novel.”  They don’t give us what is neat about their novel, or the overarching reason I should care, but (using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice because even if you haven’t read it – philistine! – you can look up the plot or watch a mini-series – but not the movie, because it sucks) they’ll tell you something like this,

“There’s this family, and they have all these girls see, and then there’s this assembly in town, and then the older one meets this guy and he’s rich and they like each other, but then the younger one meets his friend who is even richer, but he’s all like stuck up and proud.”

A chapter by chapter synopsis is often like that, but at greater length and even more boring.

The purpose of this exercise is to sell them your novel!

The purpose of this exercise is to sell them your novel!

So, if the only thing you get from this is “A proposal is a sales tool” – remember that.  Your point is to make the story interesting to someone – so interesting they want to buy it and invest their money or time in publishing it, so other people will be able to buy it and read it.

In my day – you should hear this in my most decrepit voice – about twenty years ago, we were told to start a synopsis with a question.  In fact, when I sold my first novel (on proposal), fourteen years ago, the editor told me to add the initial question.  My friend Amanda Green, who has started writing in the last five years, says that starting with an initial question is no longer good, and in fact it dates you as having been at this much too long.

That might be true, but sometimes it’s good to ask yourself the question, particularly if you’ve written a full novel and find yourself with all these characters and plots that you don’t know how to summarize in ten pages. (Unless you’re asked for longer, keep your outline to ten pages, this will keep it to the essentials.)

So, say, for Pride and Prejudice, the question would be “What happens when you meet the most important person in the world and make a horrible first impression?” (At least I feel that would be the appropriate question, since the novel was first called First Impressions.) This helps you focus the thrust of the plot. Even if you don’t use it, it becomes something to tell you HOW to summarize the story.

So you could say,

“In the regency there were limited times and highly formalized occasions for young men and women to meet potential marriage partners, and yet this was a very serious business, much more serious than it is today.  For women of a certain class marriage was almost the only honorable profession.  And for men of a certain class marriage could make or break your fortune and your life.

For Lizzy Bennet, pert second daughter of the Bennets of Longbourne, making the right marriage is even more important and more unlikely.  After all her father’s manor is entailed away from the female line, and since she has four sisters, that means when her father dies the manor will go to a distant cousin, leaving Lizzy and her sisters almost destitute.  But that very penury, makes it unlikely anyone will want to marry one of them.

To make things worse her family comes “from trade” and not from landed gentry, a serious check against them in regency England.

You’d think that the arrival of Mr. Darcy, a very rich man, to town would be a boon under those circumstances, but when Lizzy meets him at the local assembly, she finds him very proud.

Her first impressions of him are so bad that when another newcomer to town – the dashing Mr. Wickham – tells her quite appalling stories about Mr. Darcy, Lizzy can easily believe them.”

Make it interesting!

Make it interesting!

And then you go on.  Yes, all the way to the end.  Even though Pride and Prejudice is, in our terms, a very short novel, if you’re going to keep it to ten pages, you have to take care to not get into too much detail.  For instance, it’s possible to write a synopsis to Pride and Prejudice while naming only Lizzy and perhaps Jane, Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley and of course Mr. Wickham as the antagonist.  Everyone else bets talked about by relation to those four, so you’d have Mr. Bingley’s sisters, and talk about Lizzie’s youngest sister.  Avoid bombarding editors with names, because you don’t have time to make each of these persons interesting. Instead make the one person interesting and then define the other characters in relation to her.

One way to learn to do this is to read reviews or summaries of movies – the well-written ones that actually make you want to see them.

Now as to the terms – most of the time when they ask you to send a proposal and sample chapters you should aim for about ten pages of summary of the novel, and the first three chapters. If they say a synopsis or a “treatment” and the first three chapters, then you should keep your summary of the plot to about three pages.

When you’re using ten pages, you might perhaps put the occasional line of dialogue in to give the flavor of the character.

Also, if you have a really punchy opening to the novel, you might want to use it.  For instance, my opening for both Death of A Musketeer and the proposal for the novel was “D’Artagnan knew he was going to die.”

Some other rules about proposals that are true, at least in my experience:

  • They’re always in the third person and present tense.  No, I’m not sure why, but that seems to be the convention and it applies even if your novel is first person and no matter what tense it’s in.  (Yes, you can write your proposal in the first person; in the form of emails; in the form of a letter from the character to the publisher, or a thousand different variations. And you might even get away with them, particularly after you have a name. But the standard, professional-sounding summary/synopsis/treatment/proposal will be in the third person, present tense.)
  • Try to avoid lengthy explanations and passive verbs (and I’m sure I have a bunch above, but in my defense writing a proposal for Pride and Prejudice nowadays would be hard.)
  • Concentrate on the interesting bits.  This means, in Pride and Prejudice, you might completely skip the part where Jane rides through the rain to Netherfield, and gets sick, and just say that after they’ve met several times, then—
  • Remember the proposal is a sales tool. Make it as exciting as you can. However, do give away how the novel ends.  (No, seriously.  This is where it’s different from a back of the book blurb. In those, you will leave the ending untold.  But editors get very upset if you finish with something like “you’ll have to read the novel to find out how it ends.” Don’t do that.  It’s a sales tool.  They have to know how it ends to figure out if they even want to ask for it.)
  • If asked for three chapters, unless otherwise specified (sometimes they ask for one from the beginning, one from the middle, and the last one) send the first three chapters.  If you find yourself thinking “But the story starts on page 50!” then perhaps you need to rewrite.


When Mr. Darcy comes to town in his spaceship, are YOU going to tell him he’s too proud?

Writing proposals for non-fiction books is different and though I’ve done a couple of them, I’m no expert.  However, if what you want to sell is a non-fiction book, you’re in luck. Most of the books on how to sell your book are for nonfiction.

To get you started, though, start by outlining why the subject is worthy of a book, the order/manner in which you propose to present it, and then finish with your reason to write the book and why you’re uniquely qualified to do it.


“Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice – initially titled First Impressions – is a story of social distinctions, a story of struggle to survive in a man’s world, and a story of love. Though written in the regency, it has captivated generations, down to the latest film adaptation and all the fanfic sites devoted to it.

In my book, I explore how Jane Austen came to write Pride and Prejudice, which characters in her own life might have inspired our beloved fictional characters and—“

And on, explaining how you plan to analyze the movies, etc, finishing with the closing of half a page explaining “I’ve been fascinated with Jane Austen since first reading the book at twelve. I have a phd in literature and did my thesis on Jane Austen and the literature of the intimate feminine.  I’m the president of the local Jane Austen fanclub.  I sleep clutching a stuffed Mr. Darcy doll.”  (No, none of those apply to me, I’m just trying to make up a bio that might say “I was born to write a book on Jane Austen and Pride and Prejudice.”)

However, say that what you want to propose is an anthology. How do you go about it?

Well, I proposed a few (and sold two) of those in my day, so here’s how I’d word a proposal (After the salutations you know

“Dear Ms. Bloomer, I enjoyed meeting you at Rocketcon, and I’m glad you ask to see the proposal of my anthology Pride and Prejudice in Space! You should have a cover letter with your proposal too, remind the publisher of asking you for the proposal, and giving your bio and credits.)

Pride and Prejudice in Space will be a reimagining of Jane Austen’s masterpiece in a Science Fiction format.

What would  P & P be like if Mr. Darcy were an alien who mistrusts humans?

What if the reason Wickham seduced Lydia and took her away is that she has a great scientific secret coded in her genes?

What if  people’s social conditions are determined by their level of bioengineering?  And yet Mr. Darcy falls in love with the un-altered Miss Bennet?

I have already secured commitments from Mr. Bignameauthor, Ms. Binameauthor, and Mr., Ms and Mrs. Solidmidlister would love to play.

I’ve edited many things, since I edited my kindergarten newsletter, including….

Thank you for your attention, etc.”

You could of course go into greater detail.  The stories might be those that you’ve already discussed with some authors, or they might be off the top of your head.  And yes, before you propose you should have talked to some authors – particularly if these are not your friends and/or it’s your first anthology. And don’t be shy about it.  No one ever gets offended by being told you love their work and want to buy their story. They might not agree to work for you – because they have other commitments, don’t have time, or don’t write short fiction – but they won’t be upset or offended.

And that’s it.  Now you know how to propose.   Good luck.

(If there is interest, I can post one of my proposals that sold!)

Photos courtesy of shutterstock
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