Okay, let’s start it simple. (I’m not a cruel drill sergeant. If you want cruelty, try my brother. But he teaches graduate students, so it’s his prerogative to be cruel.) How many of you have ever pitched a story? Out of those, how many got requests for partials or even fulls? If you haven’t pitched before, how many of you have a list of editors or agents you have to query or even submit to? (That sounds kinky, but rest assured, we’re talking WRITING here. Nothing kinky … unless you want it to be!)
Most important, how many of you are faced with the realization that you have to send these people something and you have NO IDEA whether you have what these editors and agents want, what they asked for, or whether you even sound COHERENT?
Okay, now ten-HUT! Pay attention! You, rookie, are going to put together a PROPOSAL. And it is going to be PERFECT. You hear me, rookie? I CAN’T HEAR YOU!
So what’s in the perfect proposal, anyway? The elements of the perfect proposal package are simple yet effective:
- Query or cover letter
- Chapters (the first three, consecutive, not three random ones) (yes, that includes your prologue) requested
- Bio sheet
And now, you’re going to put it all together, in just a few easy steps. YOU GOT THAT, ROOKIE? Good. I’m going hoarse typing in upper-case.
First step: Your chapters — what are you going to do to get them ready?
The first step is surprisingly and almost weirdly simple: You’re going to READ OVER YOUR CHAPTERS. And you’re not going to JUST read them. You’re going to read them aloud. You’re going to read them BACKWARD — you can find typoes you’ve overlooked. You’re going to read for specific things – specific words that you can most assuredly live without, like “very,” “just,” “a bit” — if it’s a qualifier, something that’s going to weaken your message, you’re going to delete it. You got that? MAKE SURE YOUR MESSAGE PACKS A PUNCH.
Not only that, next you’re going to check for format. Are you sending your proposal by mail or email? There’s probably a format specific to that method. Check it out, make sure it’s consistent. Make sure your paragraphs are paragraphs (check for style). Make sure the fonts are right — remember, Courier 12-point is a fixed-type font, and that makes it attractive to editors (whose eyes are bleary and tired. Be kind to them, because their eyes are shot), but go for whatever they ask for. I’m used to Courier 12-point because I’m used to sending out proposals on paper, and that used to be the norm. But now, I’m sending out proposals in a different format, because the publisher I write for does everything by email. What else do you need to know or do for your proposal chapters? Are you going to include a map, a poem? Don’t forget those, either.
The second step: Your synopsis awaits you. Make it a pleasure to read
Next, read over your synopsis. The same way: read it aloud. Look for plot and logic holes that might pop out at you (sometimes those things aren’t necessarily apparent in the chapters you just read) .Next, have someone else read it over, and if he or she has questions, make sure you can answer them IN THE SYNOPSIS. Remember, if your reader had a question, the editor definitely will. Make sure you can’t be rejected that way! Read your synopsis for style. It’s a marketing tool. Do you want to buy a product if you can’t make heads or tails of it? Do you like reading it? Then proofread it cold for those last-minute typos you KNOW will pop up. BE WARY OF THOSE SNEAKY LAST-MINUTE TYPOES! THEY’RE OUT TO GET YOU!
Third step: Bio sheet. Be clear, be succinct, don’t brag, but don’t be modest, either
This is being requested more and more. It’s a marketing tool just like the synopsis, designed to give the recipient an idea of whether something in your background might make people willing to take a second look. What goes in one? I don’t know. What have you done in your life? Have you published short stories? Articles? Have you been honored that might intrigue the reader? Do you have any relevant experience? Have you given any workshops? Any relevant? What about contest wins? Modesty is all very well, but it’s not going to be any good for you. Stand up, be proud of your successes, make sure people know you matter.
Fourth step: SASE, in the event of …
Don’t forget that there’s a possibility of success as well as the possibility of failure … but in our business, the possibility of failure looms ever large. What should be done with the proposal if the editor or agent (who will, I assure you, regret having passed on your work someday) decides that your work isn’t what they’re looking for? Recycle the manuscript or send it back? If you want it back, make sure you include the self-addressed stamped envelope. Keep in mind, also, what the editor or agent may want. Would recycling be more convenient? Give instructions if you want it recycled, or make sure your SASE is mentioned in your cover letter.
Fifth step: And speaking of the cover or query letter …
The final step on this submissions bootcamp is to make sure that your query letter, or your cover letter if you’re sending in a partial, covers all the bases. What should a cover or query letter include? Did you meet and she request at a conference? If that’s the case, mention that. Mention the title, length, and genre so it’s clear from the beginning what’s being discussed (and no, it’s not a good thing not to mention these things, so it’s a “surprise.” Trust me, NOBODY wants a surprise when they’re working, and editors and agents are working professionals). Next, why should the editor or agent do more than glance at this proposal? MAKE SURE YOU HAVE SOMETHING THAT STANDS OUT (in a GOOD way). What’s the twist that makes it unique? Can you say what it is in two sentences? Make it high concept, make it sharp, make it pithy. If the editor’s overworked eye glazes over because it’s taking too long for you to get to the point, that’s a strike against you. MAKE SURE YOU DON’T GET ANY STRIKES AGAINST YOU AT ALL.
What else? Make the editor or agent CARE. Why are you writing this? Is there a new line opening, did you attend a workshop in which this agent or editor commented that she or he wanted something along the lines of what you’ve written? You have what they want, and you can give it to them. Why are you the person who can write this particular story? Give your background, give your writing credits. Tell them why you’re special.
Finally, you can do this: You have the work they’re looking for. Now it’s just a matter of giving them the work. It’s a sad statistic that only 10% of all requests ever end up on the requesting editor’s desk. Make sure you’re in that 10%.
Copyright Eilis Flynn 2006