Saturday, November 20, 2010

Top Five Mistakes Authors Make in Proposals

I did this as a guest blog and am reposting here, so if you think you've read it before, well, you might have. :)


Let me start off with a dirty little secret: When you submit a proposal to editors or agents, you can't assume they'll read past the first page. I know, I know. It's not fair, etc. But let’s get real. They're really busy, and they have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of submissions a year. And their primary task in sorting through that slushpile is to reject most of the submissions so that they can go back to their real work (with the manuscripts they've already accepted).

Your job in submitting the proposal is to keep from giving them a reason to reject you quickly. You want the editor or agent to read through the whole proposal and ask for more, right? (Proposal for fiction is usually: Cover letter, short synopsis, first three chapters, but it's actually whatever they ask for in their guidelines.)

So here are the Top Five Mistakes that you might want to avoid:

  1. Typos, especially in the query letter, and mechanical errors in the first page of the synopsis and chapters. I can hear you groaning. You KNOW this, right? You don't need to be told, right? Then why, I ask you, do I see so many submissions and contest entries with the sort of errors that make me cringe? I know, I know, those careless clueless submitters are not you. Agreed. But we don't know what we don't know, so if you're getting very quick rejections, you might go over your proposal word by word to make sure that you haven't got "Big Name Publishing Comporation" in the address heading of your coverpage, or "Napolean" seventeen times in your Napoleonic-era spy story. Typos jump right out and attack the eyes of editors and agents, and you don't want to cause that kind of anguish.

Typos aren't the only mechanical errors that make an editor or agent send a quick no. I've started keeping a list of what we call "the marks of the amateur," which clue us in quickly to the "not ready for primetimeness" of this submitter. That's mean, isn't it? But it's reality. So if you don't want to be typed as an amateur, it might help to find out what makes an editor brand a submission as from a newbie. For me, it's dialogue punctuation. I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning.

For a friend of mine who has served her time as an agent's assistant (facing hundreds of manuscripts, 99.9% of which she was supposed to divert – read "reject"-- before they got to the agent), the primary "mark of an amateur" comes when the author uses the character name in every sentence. "There's a reason they invented pronouns!" she points out. Her boss is famous for her sensitive "ear" for the melody and rhythm of prose, and nothing is as discordant as a constant repetition of a name.

Probably all editors and agents have their own "marks", whether they share them or not. How do you find out what they are? Well, first I'd suggest asking the editor or agent. They all have blogs these days. Send a question (anonymous if you think best) which says, "What mechanical error in a submission clues you in that this isn't an accomplished stylist?"

A few typos, even a couple grammar errors, will probably get by. But don't count on it. Just remember that an editor especially has to look forward to editing this book, and if there's a recurrent error in the first few pages, she's got to consider how much time it will take to fix every single dialogue passage, or switch out 90% of the hero's name checks with "he and him and his." You don't want the editor's dominant impression upon reading your proposal to be, "Life is too short."

  1. The second mistake to avoid is coming across as crazy or obsessed, especially in the cover letter but also in the synopsis. While not every writer is crazy, I suspect just about every crazy person wants to be a writer, and their submissions slush up slushpiles. Most will get dinged because of mistake #1, but if they happen to be a very controlled obsessive, they might do everything right mechanically. Still the obsession will generally leak through in the cover letter, and if you're not crazy, you don't want to have the editor taking your impassioned and yet well-reasoned defense of the metric system as a signal that you are a crank.

Just remember that your cover letter is about your story, and your story is about the characters and what happens to them. Whatever obsession you have might have fueled the writing, and that's good. But keep the focus on the story, not your pet project.

For example, I've had several submissions where the cover letter goes into depth about the author's religious faith. If I worked at an inspirational or Christian publisher, this might be okay (I don't know). But it's beyond irrelevant to me in my job at a sexy romance house. I know that it's hard to know what's relevant or not to another person, but most aspects of your life are, take it from me, irrelevant. If the story is good, I don't need to know who your personal savior is. Of course, if the story is good, I suppose I should get beyond that fear of getting trapped in a relationship with someone who wants to save me, or sell me on the merits of metric. But an editor likely to have a heightened sensitivity to any "proselytizing" in the synopsis or chapters.

This is about the story. This isn't about your life or your passion or your obsession. Of course, what has made you you will come out in your voice, story choice, and characters, but let those do the talking for you.

  1. A confusing and/or boring synopsis. Well, first, let me say that you don't know whether the editor or agent will read your synopsis first or your chapters first. There isn't any rule. I tend to scan the synopsis quickly, just to make sure it's the sort of book my publisher will publish. If it's not, I'll send a quick rejection saying just that.

(Don't bother to send it if it's not the sort of thing this publisher publishes. I don't care if it's the second coming of Harry Potter—if we don't publish children's books, we're not likely to change our whole business and marketing plan for your book. Or maybe we will, but trust me, I'm not the one you need to talk to if you want that. WAY above my paygrade. Go over my head and right to the publisher—that's an actual position at most, uh, publishers. :)

Anyway, usually if I don't think much of the synopsis itself, I still will read the chapters. Plenty of great book writers are bad synopsis writers. However, a bad synopsis could derail your proposal because the editor doesn't make it to your book. So don't assume that the editor or agent will set aside an incoherent synopsis and judge just on the chapters. Make the synopsis as good as you can, given the length requirements.

Oh, right, mistakes to avoid. Well, the mistake is thinking that the synopsis is a summary of the PLOT. It should in fact be a summary of the STORY. What's the difference? Well, what's the difference between this:

Sheet music for Ave Maria

and this:

Pavarotti singing Ave Maria

The story is more than what happens. It's the journey of the characters, the emotion they experience, the theme and voice. All that should show up in your synopsis in some way. If this is a funny story, the synopsis should have humor. If the characters go through psychological agony, the synopsis should explore a bit of that.

I am aware, having written many of these damned things, that a synopsis is hard to get right. But having read even more of these damned things, I can tell you this: You will NOT write a good synopsis if you start with plot. I can just about guarantee this. The simplest plot sounds convoluted and tedious when you tell event and then event and then event. And if you have a truly complex plot? Well, I am going to get lost once you decide your job here is to give me a detailed map of the labyrinth.

So you might be asking, what do you write about if not what happens? You write about the situation (the small southern town "invaded" by freedom-riders in 1963) and you write about the characters (the African-American girl who has to integrate the high school, the politely racist shopowner who finds himself throwing rocks at her the first day of school, the college student from the North who joined the freedom-ride because he wanted to impress a liberal girlfriend). You write about how things change, and yes, you'll probably talk some about the plot events because they show the changing. But if you start your writing with the plot events, you'll never get beyond that, and your synopsis will likely be as excruciating to read as it was to write. "This happened, then that happened"—that's the worst model for a synopsis, and yet most of them start there. Don't. Don't try to revise a bad synopsis. Start over, and this time, tell us about the characters and the situation and what is wrong and what changes and why.

  1. And then in the opening of the first chapter, the most common big mistake is a lack of focus that results in confusion. I've read a lot of first pages where I'm exhausted just from trying to keep track of the names of nine characters and make sense of the situation, the people, the setting, the action, and the thoughts.

Look, the purpose of the first paragraph isn't to tell everything needed to understand the book. It's just to get us to read the second paragraph. :) But we probably won't read on if the first paragraph reads like this:

Aaron Cathcart ran his hand through his sweaty hair, gazed up at the Porter mansion on the hill, where it sat foreboding and grim against a dark sky, and began trudging up the gravel driveway towards the marble front steps. Along the way he passed a jasmine bush, and the pungent smell assaulted his nose. On either side of the door were footmen in the blue and purple Porter livery, and as he approached, they moved in unison to open the great oak doors so he could enter the hall.

Reading that, I've learned exactly one important thing—a character's name. Sure, I know there's a mansion, and it apparently belongs to the Porters, and they're rich enough to afford footmen. But I don't care, because I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club.

Two things to remember about your opening: First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more. For example, the opening to Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" poses the question, "What is this lottery they're gathering for?"

So the opening to Aaron's story could pose the question, "What's he afraid he'll find here?" or "Why is he entering the house of his enemy?" But the question has to be relevant to the story. Think about what question you want the reader to ask, and see if you can set that question up with the first few paragraphs.

Second, focus the opening. You simply can't get everything in there, the setting, the characters, the situation, the backstory, and you end up leaving out important stuff like the conflict. Don't even try to be comprehensive here, or you'll just confuse. Think about one thing you want to introduce. But make it important. Think about starting with the character in some conflict.

Aaron Cathcart stared up at the Porter mansion on the hill. That was the last place he wanted to go, and the Porters were the last people he wanted to ask for help. And if it wasn't for the lady unconscious in his stalled car, he'd walk the two miles to the next town. But he had no choice, if he was going to save her life.


Or maybe you want to start with character:

Aaron Cathcart never asked for help. Nope, not now, not ever. He could take care of himself. That's what he had in place of religion, a stony self-sufficiency. And this afternoon, if he had any choice in the matter, he'd walk away, down the hill and away from his stalled car. But he didn't have any choice, because he didn't have the right to let the lady die for his principles.

Or you could start with setting:

The Porter mansion stood grim on a barren hill, the ugliest site in this pretty county. It had a sort of grotesque pride up there, surrounded by a gravel drive and a flat expanse of lawn, the gray tiles of the roof blank against the dark sky. No one could want to be there, and yet the Porter family had lived there for decades, when they could surely afford something else.

But focus on something. Don't try to get everything into the first paragraph. After all, the whole point is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, where presumably will be other important stuff happening.

5. Limping to a conclusion. Usually in a proposal you send the first three chapters of the book. Agents especially are known to vary this—they might ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. At any rate, too many submitters are sending in proposals where the very last sentence or word don’t do anything to inspire the agent to ask for more. You don’t want your proposal to limp to a conclusion!

Again, think about your purpose in submitting this proposal—it’s to get the agent or editor to ask to see the whole book. So that last bit they read is your last chance to make them want more. They probably won’t want more if you:

· End in the middle of a line just because that’s the end of the fifty pages.

· End on a boring note, like “She took a shower and went to bed.”

· End on a resolution, like “He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.”

First thing to recognize is—they might determine what "a proposal" is, but you’re the one who determines what that is FOR YOU. If she says she wants three chapters, you don’t actually have to stop exactly at the point before “Chapter Four.” You can manipulate a bit here. Let’s say that the first two chapters are long and action-packed, and the third is more clean-up and transition to the turning point in Chapter Four. Well, you can take those first two chapters and make them three! Just divide them differently. For most of us, chapter divisions are fairly arbitrary—a chapter might be three scenes, might be two—and you can divide them differently to make more or fewer chapters.

Second trick—if you’re given a page limit, you can make tiny changes to get more into that 50 pages (or fewer). If you generally use Courier 12, try Times New Roman 12, which is about 15% smaller but is still 12 point, don’t ask me why. So that will give you 3-4 more pages to work with. Yes, all the agents know this, but unless they specifically say “no TNR,” go for it.

Of course, that’s only useful if those 3-4 extra pages are going to be a nice come-on. That’s the third trick. Whatever you need to do to make this work, end the proposal on something intriguing, something that captures the reader’s attention. A cliffhanger works here for high-action books, but a quieter book might need a mere suggestion of conflict or irresolution, something that makes the editor look around for the next page, and, not finding it, send you a request for the complete manuscript. Often this requires another sentence or paragraph at the end of a seeming resolution. Like take that one above:

He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.

But as he was leaving the room, he looked back at Mary. Wait a minute. If he’d been the one to win, why was she the one laughing triumphantly?

So don’t limp to a conclusion of your proposal. Make sure the end of the chapters is an invitation to read on. A hint of conflict, an irresolution, will help encourage the editor or agent to ask for the rest.



ClothDragon said...

Husband was hiring a few months ago. He got several hundred applications and that was his goal too. He looked for anything to drop a person from the pile so he could look more deeply into a reasonable number of people and interviews would take less than a month. It makes me think I might suck as a boss or agent. I felt so bad for every application he set aside even knowing there was only one job.

Edittorrent said...

CD, you'd probably feel okay about not hiring me. :) I remember once doing a round of applications, and I put the cover letter for A company into the envelope of B company.

I'm sure the recipient scored me down on "detail management!"

Meg McNulty said...

I interview for fundraising jobs from time to time - the type of jobs that involve a lot of proposal writing. I'm always surprised at how few applications and CVs are well written and how few do a good selling job on the author. As the job is all about persuasive writing, that's an instant rejection for me. I don't feel too sorry for the applicant in those circumstances - there are so many resources out there to help them to do a good job on the application, there isn't much excuse to do a bad one. I'm guessing similar principles apply in publishing houses!

Edittorrent said...

Charity, and it's not all that arcane. Often just having the letter critiqued by a friend can reveal a lot.

But I think sometimes there are emotional issues that get in the way. I remember a friend of mine showed me his standard job application cover letter, and it just dripped with all the misery he was feeling, and his shame. (He'd been laid off a year earlier and couldn't find a job.) Since it really was from his heart, he just saw it as "honest." But I saw it as, um, unpersuasive.

"Please, please, hire/publish me! I am so unhappy!" isn't going to work, alas.