Writing Professionally chapter two: The Proposal

About a month ago, I wrote about how to get started writing professionally. I wrote about finding the subject that matters to you, and championing it effectively. In response, many of you asked questions about the technical and business specifics: how to write a proposal, how to get an agent, how to get a publisher, and how it all works.

In the last installment, I explained pretty much everything you need to know to get up to the proposal stage. Now, I’ll tell you how a proposal works. After this, I’ll tell you about finding agents and publishers, and how that all happens.

First off, please understand that we are speaking about non-fiction, here. Novels don’t have proposals. You just write one – and the manuscript itself serves as your proposal. Fiction is generally written on spec, unless you’re famous. REALLY famous. I’ll say something about novel-writing in future blogs.

For now, what we’re interested in is getting you to the proposal stage in a non-fiction work. (And that non-fiction work better be about the subject you decided you were passionate about, and that you were interested enough by to become the world’s expert in it.)

There’s a few approaches to writing a proposal, but one that has generally worked for me follows this format:

1 – Introduction. Much like what will be the introduction to the book itself, you explain what it is you’re going to write about, why your point of view is unique, and why people are going to be interested in – or need to be interested in – your explanation.

2- The chapters. I like to write a few paragraphs about each chapter. This shows the reader that you’ve developed a logical arc for your subject matter – and that there is enough breadth to sustain an entire book.

3- The audience/the need. Who will read this book? Why? Show that all sorts of groups and types of people need to get ahold of the information in this book, or need your rallying cry in order to unleash the massive energy already in the culture. While it’s good to show some breadth, here, it’s also important to show that there is an easy and obvious ‘target market’ for your work.

4- The competition. What else has been written about this subject? How well did it do? How is your book going to be different, better? How will your work ‘position’ itself in the field?

5- Biography. Why are you the only human being on the face of the planet who could possibly write this book? Are you an expert in the field? How did you develop your unique perspective? Why are you so uniquely articulate? Who is your already existing audience, and why will they read what you have to say? What have you done?

6- Sample chapter. Not mandatory if your introduction and chapter sections are strong (say, 20-30 pages all told) but nice to do, especially if it’s your first book. They want to see that you will have the stamina to write an entire book.

7- Clips. Don’t just throw all that front-of-the-book stuff you did as a stringer while in college, but include both your best stuff on other areas, and everything significant on this area. Don’t be afraid to include interviews that others have done with you on the topic.

As for the tone and texture of the proposal, here are a few pointers:

– Don’t use ‘would’. In other words, don’t say ‘this book would this’ or ‘this book would that’ – it casts the whole project into doubt. The book will happen, whether or not a particular publisher or agent decides to back it. Use ‘will’ – or even the present tense.

– Write well! This is your shot, so write as well as you know how. Don’t go crazy with form and style, unless the book is going to be that way. You want to connote the feeling of the book in the way you write about it. Yes, you can write ‘above’ the voice of the book – especially if it’s a humorous book or some kind of novelty book you’re going to do. For example, if you’re going to write a satirical coffee table book on, say, excrement, then you need to prove through your writing that you are funny – but you also need to prove that you aren’t insane! So, in a case like that, use your introduction to demonstrate you are sane, and your chapter descriptions to demonstrate how you can be crazy.

-Your introduction is the place where you sell your idea. You have to ‘wow’ them right there, or they won’t read the rest. Make sure they can understand what this book is by the end of the first paragraph. If they can’t then it’s not ‘high concept’ enough for them to pitch at a meeting. Do their work for them, and give them – at the beginning and end of the introduction – a very simple paragraph that can be used to described what this book is, and what it will do.

-Prove that you will be a diligent worker, and fun and easy to get along with. Agents and editors don’t like yechy people. Editors, in particular, don’t make much money off their own books, so they have little motivation to work with someone who comes off as mean. The big old mean scholars who already have big contracts are actually handed off to junior editors! So make sure you sound like a nice person, open to critique.

Ideally, you should time your proposal to be sent out around the same time that you have a MAJOR piece come out on the subject. This isn’t easy, of course, but it’s not impossible. If you know you’re going to have a major piece – the biggee – come out, then you should find an agent and get on your proposal simultaneously. The big piece will serve as your cover letter; and you may be surprised that people call YOU when it comes out.

Next time: getting the agent.

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