Friday, March 9, 2007

Proposal Blues - The Overview

There's no right way to write a proposal, and each will vary depending on the author, the author's agent, the subject matter, sample chapters, biography, and more. Still, I'll try over the next few weeks to provide a basic template to work from, starting today with the Overview (a typical proposal consists of an Overview, Marketing, Competitive Titles, Publishing Specifications, Author Bio and Sample Chapters).

The overview can be anywhere from a page to ten pages, though I've seen longer when no sample chapters are going to be available. Basically, you want to summarize your work and the entire proposal in a fluid and captivating manner. You can save some of the detail for the other sections, but I personally feel you need to briefly address marketing, biography, competitive titles, etc.

Besides getting a sense of the overall scope of the project, editors also want to get a sense of your writing skills. If this is a humor book, the proposal needs to be humorous. I know this seems self-evident, but you wouldn't believe how many times I've gotten a proposal or query about an allegedly funny project, and then when I read it it's like swallowing those grinds at the bottom of your coffee cup. In the same vein, if it's a history, it needs to merge multiple elements into a single, cognizant storyline that convinces me that this is a previously unexamined subject or that you're coming at it from a different angle. Writers should remember that often times this is all agents and editors will initially read; if you don't hook 'em here there's little chance they'll continue reading.

It's important to know what's going on behind the scenes when your agent submits your proposal to Editors X, Y, and Z... and yes, nowadays your agent should be submitting to multiple editors, unless you have an option or there's special circumstances that just make Editor Y the perfect person for it.

Let's say Editor X likes it. She or he will typically share the work with colleagues (often called back-up reads). Sometimes these colleagues simply don't have the time to read the whole proposal, and so again its essential that the overview kills. This point extends further. Let's say Editor X has got the support of the editorial staff. At some of the bigger houses the marketing people then will weigh in on it. Again, its the overview that is often looked at, and nothing else.

The overview is typically both the most important and the hardest part of the proposal to write. If you find yourself stuck on it, it makes sense to tackle the other sections (such as the outline) to get a better idea of the content you wish to present.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Query Part Two

Well, I had planned to discuss more the ins-and-outs of the query, but recent comments on Miss Snark's blog about agents' lack of response to e-mail queries made me change my plans. I'm a huge fan of hers, but I truly do think she got this one wrong, probably because I'm one of those agents she was talking about.

From what I can gather, the perception is that not responding to e-mail queries is rude. I disagree. I give writers two options - mail or e-mail - but I warn beforehand that you won't get a guaranteed response unless you write by mail and include an SASE. What's complicated about that? And what's rude? I always thought rude was spitting in someone's soup, telling me I should try hair plugs, or only tipping ten percent (unless it's a cabbie, and then I think you should just round up the change).

I really prefer mail queries, but I will accept e-mail queries because it seems that it's the only way some authors communicate today. When you send a query by post and an agent passes with a form rejection that's usually the end of the conversation unless you want to spend another thirty-nine cents. In contrast, rejecting by e-mail creates a direct link for the writer to either chastise you for your decision or request a more detailed rejection, which robs the efficiency out of the form rejection process (i.e. less time for you to work with your clients). From previous experience I've learned that both can and do happen with frequency.

Well, delete these responses you say? Easier said than done. What if they are just writing back with a quick thank you? Well, that could be a nice thing. But how am I to know until I open it? And if a writer responds to a rejection with a request for more details, aren't they still going to think you're rude for not responding to their (second) e-mail? And let's say its not a request for more details, but instead someone wanting to tell me how stupid I am for passing on their work. Yes, this happens all the time. Now I'm pissed. Not raging Hulk pissed, but annoyed enough that I actually contemplate for a second writing this person back and telling them exactly why I passed on their wonderfully original mystery called The Michelangelo Cipher - the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, and a conspiracy within the Roman Catholic Church. I usually restrain myself, but again, this is time that I could be spending with my clients.

Simple, straightforward. I promise to look at both types of queries, but if you want a guaranteed response - send it by mail. If you send it by e-mail and haven't heard back within two weeks, you can safely assume I've passed. There's nothing arrogant about this at all; two options are presented and you're free to choose either.