Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Book Proposals (Getting a Literary Agent Part 3)

Part one

Part two

Okay, part three - book proposals. I used to haaaaaaaaate book proposals. But like most other things in life, the more you do it, the better you get.

By book proposal, I basically mean the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis, which is a 2ish page summary of your book. Sometimes book proposals also include market summaries and stuff like that, but agents I’ve dealt with usually just ask for the first three chapters and a synopsis.

First three chapters should be easy, because they should be done already. Your whole manuscript should be done before you query agents, unless you write non-fiction. Use a basic font, like Times New Roman, double space it, and the header on each page should have the page number on the right, and Your Title/Your last name on the left.

Now. The synopsis. While I used to hate them, I actually really enjoy writing synopses now, and apparently have developed a – er – reputation for being somewhat hard on my writing buddies when I critique theirs.

Synopses are kinda like back cover copy in that you’re selling your story. It needs voice and pizzaaz, and should have a rhythm of its own. The way they differ, however, is you’re not building intrigue. You’re giving everything away. EVERYTHING. Your clever plot twists, your fab ending. All of it. Agents (and on down the road, editors) need to see all your brilliance coming through, so no holding back.

All of my synopses open with back story, which is amusing and frustrating to writers since we work so freaking hard to keep back story out of the first few chapters of our novels. Here, however, you put it in. So here’s the opening paragraph to a synopsis of mine:

Sixteen-year-old Marin Young has always believed sex should be saved for
marriage. It’s a principle her parents raised her with—but of course they also
said marriage was forever. This summer, her father moved out and now lives with
his former high school sweetheart. Who’s due in December with Marin’s
half-sister. Now it’s just Marin and her mom rattling around the large house.
It’s been three months since Dad left, but Mom still hasn’t said a bad word
about him. Marin’s worried that before too long, Mom will run out of surfaces to
clean and she’ll crash.

Like you might gather from that last sentence, this book doesn’t actually start until three months after her Dad has left, but those first few sentences are the set-up of the book, and are therefore important to the synopsis.

After you get your first paragraph down, you work through the rest of your novel in semi-chronological order. While you still want to build up to the climax in the book, there’s no need to build cliffhangers into your synopsis. In this book, Marin’s dealing with a lot of issues involving her two best friends. They’re strung throughout the book, but I don’t write it that way in the synopsis. In the synopsis, the friends basically get their own paragraph, and then I move onto Marin’s issues with her mom. And then Marin’s issues with her hunky-hunky boyfriend.

Then there’s a paragraph that describes the climax, and talks about how Marin feels about everybody in her life at this point. You know in writing when we say, “Don’t show, tell.” Yeah, that doesn’t hold up in a synopsis. In a synopsis, it’s all telling. “Being broken up with is a first for Marin. She’s used to being in charge of her relationships, of saying when they start and end.” You would never actually say this in a manuscript, but it’s a vital piece of information in my synopsis.

And then to conclude, you basically tell what your character learned. Why they went on the journey in the first place. And just like in your novel, the last line should be something poignant. Something that makes the agent think, “Wow. I’ve got to request this.”

Just to make things complicated, your synopsis is single-spaced. I know, I know.

For those of you young people who are actually at this stage, send me an e-mail and we can figure out a time for me to read over your synopsis and give you feedback. Which really shouldn’t be more than two pages. Three at the most, and only if it’s like a 100k book.

See y’all back here on Thursday.


  1. Well, you ARE a harsh synopsis critic--but in a fantastic way. =)

    And just a note--I've come across several editors in the past few years (one from Steeple Hill of Harlequin) who said 2-4 pages. It's still always a safe bet to make it 2, but my Summerside ones are always 3, which is what they ask for, though the novels are only 80K. So as with everything, be prepared to tailor it to what the specific pub/agent you're submitting to requests. =)

  2. Being flexible is what it's all about. Don't agents usually ask for 1-2 pages, or am I pulling that fact out of my butt?

  3. LOL. Yeah, usually 2 pages for agents, though mine also always wants a one paragraph and then something tailored to the target pub.

  4. When you talked about writing about a main character not like youself, it just sounded like so much fun to me, LOL. So, I've ditched my other novel for the time being, and am excited about this new one... it's about an 11 year old called Autumn Grace Stevens, with black hair and pink highlights.

    I've decided to write about an 11 year old because, once you start writing for teenagers, the situations just get bigger and harder. Probably more interesting, too, but I can't wait to keep writing:)

    I got your book for my birthday, Me, Just Different, and LOVED it. I can't wait to read number two {I'll email you as soon as mum gives me the PO box thing, because she doesn't really want me to give out our address:)}


  5. Totally understandable, Emii. It's wise to be cautious these days! And I'm so glad you enjoyed Me, Just Different! Now you'll actually know that you WANT to read book two :)

    Autumn Grace is such a beautiful name! And, actually, when I first wrote about Skylar, she was 13 rather than 17. Like you, I was kind of nervous about dealing with those big, hard situations since I'd never done it before. Once I got to know her, it was easier. Although "tween" books are way hot right now, so if you like her as an 11-year-old, it might work out great!