Monday, September 19, 2011

Proposals vs. Manuscripts

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

A friend of mine asked me the other day about how and when published authors use proposals to sell their work as opposed to having to write another complete manuscript. I said that authors under contract typically do a proposal for their next book and that often their publisher has an option (or first right of refusal) on any other project they may be working on, so authors will probably submit a proposal for this too. I have to admit though I have only my own, limited experience, to go on, so I thought I would throw the question out to my fellow killzoners and find out what they have to say.

Although I do know a fellow mystery writer who managed to sell a new cozy series based only on a two page concept, I have heard of others who supply a synopsis plus the first few chapters as their form of proposal. An editor I spoke to in the romance genre said it was typical for a published author to do this rather than having to provide a completed manuscript (the reasoning being that they have proven their ability to complete a book already) but my own agent seemed to suggest that when venturing outside one's genre a writer might have to finish the book first before it could be 'sold' to a publisher.

So fellow killzoners, what has your experience been?
  • Since your first publication (which almost always is sold on the basis of a completed manuscript) have you typically submitted proposals or completed works for future projects?
  • If you use proposals, are these only to your own publisher or to other publishers too?
  • What format do these proposals take? A short synopsis plus chapters, or a more detailed chapter outline, or something else?
  • A friend of mine has a great proposal template that includes subtitles such as 'backdrop', 'hook', 'set up' and 'character snapshots' - do you use similar elements or just a short summary?
  • If you were advising a newly published author in this regard, what would you tell them to bear in mind regarding proposals?
  • How many books did you have published before you could typically get away with using a proposal rather than writing the entire thing?
And for our blog readers, do you have any questions regarding the use of proposals to sell novels? If there are any agents or editors out there, how do you view proposals and in what circumstances are they (or aren't they) the way to go.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. Clare, with the exception of our first novel--THE GRAIL CONSPIRACY--co-written with Lynn Sholes, our next 4 were sold on 2 or 3-page proposals that included a story synopsis along with sections detailing the premise, theme, plot, story question, and character profile. I guess you could call it a template. My advice to new authors regarding proposals: tell all. Don’t keep anything a secret. The agent/editor must know how the story resolves

  2. Good point, Joe, a proposal shouldn't be a teaser, it should let the agent or publisher know exactly what to expect.

  3. Since I'm not published I don't have first hand experience. I'm wondering how seat of the pants writers pull it together enough to put together a proposal for a new novel.

    BK Jackson

  4. I once asked the prolific Stuart Woods what he does. He says he does up a two page synopsis and after the publisher accepts it he tosses it out and writes from scratch. Of course, he's reached a level where he can do that.

    BK, David Morrell has an approach that may help a pantser. It's in his book on writing. It's his concept of an ongoing, free from letter. See if you can track that down.

    I use Scrivener, and it has various functions that could serve a pantser, too.

  5. After number one, under contract, I have usually sold books on a verbal pitch. That is no longer the case, but it was great while it lasted.

  6. After an offer was made on my first novel, my agent asked if I had an idea for a second one and I literally drafted a brief synopsis overnight. It was four single-spaced pages long and it led to a two-book contract. The completed second book only vaguely resembled that initial synopsis. I sold a third based on a six-page synopsis and almost sold a fourth the same way before my publisher did some internal shuffling and I ended up unexpectedly homeless. When trying to pitch #4 to other houses, they were unwilling to offer based on the synopsis alone. They wanted a finished ms. This was back in the nineties.

    I never wrote book #4. Instead I wrote book #1 in a new series I had in mind, a mystery as opposed to the thrillers I'd been doing. And while writing it, my agent retired. I knew I'd have to have a complete ms done to attract a new agent or publisher. It took me a year to write the book and six years to sell it, but eventually I did as part of a three book contract. I had a 4-page synopsis of the second book ready to go, but hadn't written any of it.

    Fast forward three books later: when it came time for book #4 in the series, a did a six-page synopsis and the first few chapters for it and this got me a contract for two more.

    I then pitched a new series (to the same publisher) using a 10-page synopsis and the first 35 pages of book #1. That resulted in a new three book contract.

    My synopses are present tense summaries of the characters, plot, and story, told in a relatively linear fashion. For my second and third thriller novels I did do an introductory paragraph or two explaining the science that was elemental to the story and then followed that with a synopsis. With the current books, all of which are mysteries, I simply do a linear telling of the story. I always have subplots and I tend to include those at the end, though there was one instance when I incorporated it into the main synopsis.

    Best advice I have for writing a synopsis is to give it the flavor the book will have in terms of tone, voice, and overall story.

  7. I have recently been wondering about that proposal thing. While I have not had my print books picked up, I have had the same books picked up by for audio format. I don't imagine that counts for the sake of print publishers though. So even though I have a contract for three audiobooks and I have the synopsis for my next two novels (would the plural of synopsis be synopsises or synopsi?) I assume I will need full manuscripts in order to sell to print.

    So, up to this point I have had no success with the idea of proposals. That is of course not counting the proposal I made the day after Thanksgiving 1987 when I proposed a life of peace, love, and eternal bliss to a particular Korean hottie. That proposal, like the literary kind, also involved numerous rejections and rewrites over a year long period before she accepted it for publication and the contract was sealed with kisses and reestablished by kids three times over.

    win a Kindle and/or a free audiobook, go to for details

  8. I think the plural of Synopsis is synopsisuses Basil.

  9. Thanks for the feedback - my experience has only been under contract. I wonder if in the current economic climate publishers are leery of proposals outside those for their under contract authors. My friend sold a two book deal after a verbal pitch to an editor so she only needed to have a two page summary which gave the flavor but not the whole plot (which means she didn't need to have an outline per se). The personal contact was obviously critical there as was the verbal pitch. I have never been that lucky!

  10. And Beth, thanks for your background. I think that helps people get an idea how proposal vs. Ms selling works over the lifecycle of an author:)

  11. Since I've sold to a brick-mortar publisher, I get my stories accepted by proposals/synopis. I love that perk!