If you’re working on a book proposal to entice an agent to represent your nonfiction book (or to attract a publisher) then you know all about writing the overview, the competitive analysis, the chapter summaries, and all of the rest of the parts. But there are a few less obvious points to consider.
1. Write the proposal in the same voice you’ll use to write the book. If the book is funny, the proposal should at least show some sense of humor. Yes, the proposal is a business document but part of what it’s selling is your ability to deliver on what you promise. Don’t just tell readers of your proposal that your book will be funny—show them!
2. Make each part sell your book and you as the author. Don’t add a link to your LinkedIn profile and think that’s good enough for the about the author material. It should show why you should write this book, because of your particular experience, training, credentials.
3. Don’t be afraid of using coauthors, experts, and sources. You may be the guru of your subject matter, but a broader perspective can often help sell your book and convince editors and agents that there’s an audience out there.
4. The book proposal isn’t the book. It’s a sales tool. You’re asking the agent and the publisher to be a partner in the business of making your book a reality. Don’t forget. It’s not about you, it’s about what they are looking for.
5. Keep it simple. It’s a proposal for a book, not a pitch for a movie or for $25 million in funding to build a new law library on campus. It doesn’t need to be a multimedia product. If you want to link to a podcast, feel free. But don’t think a podcast is a proposal.
The next session of my Write Your Book Proposal Class starts May 4! For more information and to sign up, click here.
If you have a book project (fiction or nonfiction) that you’re struggling to make progress on, please join me for an online Finish Your Book Bootcamp! It starts May 18th and ends June 14th–and it’s free.
What is Finish Your Book Bootcamp? It’s basically an accountability partnership. You set your overall goal for the month. Then each Monday you say what you’ll accomplish that week. There’s a midweek check-in and a Friday check-in. I’m the point person you share your goals with and I’ll send along a couple of emails each week with some thoughts on motivation. With those midweek check-ins I try to help brainstorm solutions to problems people are having.
The bootcamp includes a Facebook group page where everyone who wants to can post their goals and help each other figure out stumbling blocks. Sometimes just having the accountability can make a difference. Last year I made amazing progress on a personal project and so did several students. If it sounds like you’d want to join, just let me know! There’s no charge for the bootcamp. Just email me at email@example.com. But do let me know ASAP. I can only take a limited number of participants.
Q. I’m sending queries to agents regarding my memoir. I’ve noticed a lot of writers talking about the importance of platform, basically saying you can’t get a book deal without one. I don’t have a huge platform, but should I mention what I do have in my query?
A. Platform is certainly an important piece of the publishing puzzle, but it’s not a simple A = B calculation. Plenty of people with huge platforms see little success with their books while others with smaller platforms or no platforms at all go on to sell tons of books. No one knows why some books sell and others don’t. Why is one well-written book passed over by readers in favor of one that’s not nearly as well done? No one knows. If anyone knew, publishing would be a very different world. (Everyone who writes erotica was astonished by the whole 50 Shades thing. Not that there were readers for BDSM, but that so many people would read such bad BDSM when there is a ton of much much better erotica available.)
Platform is more important in regular nonfiction publishing (by which I mean things like self-help and how-to) than in creative nonfiction (memoir) and fiction because there is a clearer A = B connection there. That is to say, people with a platform writing in the subject for which they have the platform (Oprah and living your best life stuff) tend to do better than people without.
Remember also that publishing is a business. An acquisitions editor (AE) can point to X number of Twitter followers and Y number of people who watch your television show as evidence that there will be an audience for your book; it makes her decision to publish your book defensible. If you have no platform and the book fails, the publisher fires the AE for placing a bet on someone without a platform (and that’s assuming the AE could get such a project past the editorial committee in the first place, which is a great big if). If you have a big platform and the book fails, the publisher and the AE drown their sorrows at the bar together. “What could we have done differently?” they’ll cry. “She has a great platform!”
I call this my CYA theory of acquisitions.
The platform is important to some degree but it isn’t the most important thing in memoir, nor is it the thing that will make or break your chances for publication. Does having a huge platform improve your chances of publication? Yes. Does lack of one mean you’re doomed? No.
As far as the query is concerned, you’re just trying to get the agent/editor to request the proposal or sample chapters. You’re not (yet) trying to make an argument for publication. So, the bulk of the query is necessarily designed to pique the agent/editor’s interest so she requests that additional material.
All of that said, a brief sentence at the close of the query (when you’re saying a few words about yourself) that shows your new online project has a pretty large readership is not a bad idea. Can’t hurt, might help. But I would not spend a lot of time on that aspect of the query.
Giving Your Novel its Best Start—and its Best Shot
Few readers will go beyond ten or fifteen pages if a novel doesn’t engage them. Agents and editors—even if interested in the manuscript—almost never go beyond thirty or forty pages before finding a reason to reject a novel.
Most agents and editors, when asking for material, will request a “partial” before they ask to see a full manuscript. A partial is usually considered 3 chapters (although the agent may request a specific page count, like 50 or 100 pages). It’s crucial for these pages to be in top shape. Unfortunately, many times a novel starts in a promising way but falls apart after the first few pages, often for reasons of technique that can be identified and fixed. Here are some tips for making sure your first three chapters get, and keep, the reader’s attention.
- Begin at the beginning. Sometimes you need to write the whole novel, or at least a good chunk of it, to know where the beginning is. Sometimes the beginning is clear from, well, the beginning. In any case, you have to start where your story begins, and often that is not on page 1. And one other thing: Ditch the prologue. Yes, I mean it.
- Start as you mean to continue. Your first chapter starts off with a swashbuckling adventure. Your second chapter continues the story as a homey romance. Gnashing of teeth (by your readers) will ensue. If you’re promising your readers a humorous romp through Victorian England, turning the story into a horror about Jack the Ripper isn’t the way to instill a little tension into the narrative.
- Deliver on genre conventions—or know why you’re not. Connected to the idea of starting as you mean to continue is the idea that you need to understand, respect, and deliver on genre conventions. A romance ends with a happily ever after. A novel may be about two characters falling in love, and one of them can die at the end, but you can’t call that novel a romance. That would be a love story, which is a different creature. If you’re really talented, you can of course turn genre conventions on their head, break genre rules and essentially thumb your nose at readers’ expectations, but you do so at your own peril (just ask any reader why she threw that book against the wall and almost invariably it will have to do with thwarted genre conventions.)
- Keep abreast of changing tastes. You may, as most writers do, write for yourself, or write the novels that interest you, but if you want to have commercial success (or at least get published), then you need to care about what your readers want, and you have to understand that readers’ tastes change. Most readers (including editors and agents) happen, at this moment in time, to prefer third person limited (and to some degree, first person) point of view. Omniscient narrators are not as appreciated as they once were. Head-hopping, which no one cared about twenty years ago, is a disastrous no-no now. Lengthy discourses on the state of society were tolerated, even appreciated, forty years ago, but no more.
- Give your reader something to do. Some of the most convoluted, uninteresting writing comes from writers who are trying to tell their readers exactly what they should be thinking and picturing at every moment. Story-telling isn’t cinematography, though, and much of the joy of reading comes from filling in the blanks—imagining, in your own head, what the writer is describing. You have to find the balance between dumping too much into your story and not enough. This is especially tricky to do at the beginning of your book, when you’re trying to establish your characters, their conflict, the world they live in and their backstory. But it can be accomplished!
- Establish your voice. The first three chapters are where you assure your readers that they’re in good hands. Having a convincing voice from the beginning goes a long way toward assuring your readers that they haven’t made a mistake by investing some time with your book.
- Explain, or at least imply, why your characters do what they do. Because character motivations so often exist in their backstory, writers often put off showing motivation until the backstory is revealed. But that can lead to unfortunate situations where your characters comes across as jackasses, instead of sympathetic people, or as illogical and untrustworthy. If that’s your intention, fine, but too often it isn’t, and there’s a divergence between how the reader experiences the character and how the writer intended the character to be experienced.
- Make war, not peace. Conflict is the core of all fiction, but very often writers “save” the conflict for the denouement. Which means that readers yawn their way through the first 70,000 words. Tension and conflict can, and should, be built from the first page. Your characters have to want something. (A great way to have conflict is to have characters who want something in direct opposition to each other.) Characters grow and change or resist growth and change. They respond to motivation and conflict in ways that are in keeping with their characters. (The Pope and a Hell’s Angel will respond to a verbal taunt in different ways. One assumes, anyway.)
Problems with these elements commonly crop up in novels. Fixing them before your work reaches your readers is key to your success.
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I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.
Hope you find these helpful!
Q. Meredith says, “I often find B characters in novels more interesting than the leads, yet they’re never fully developed (hence the B aspect). I wonder if using another novelist’s B characters as a jumping off point for a new character or story would ever produce any ideas worth exploring.”
A. As writers, we can find inspiration all around us, and other people’s fictional worlds and characters are a good example. The key point here is how (as Meredith specifies) you need to create a new character. Of course, you can’t use another writer’s characters or worlds, as that is copyright infringement, unless the novel is out of copyright protection (which is why we have all those Jane Austen mashups). Authors keep the right to produce derivative works (that is, other stories based on their characters and worlds) and although fan fiction is a popular sport, for someone seriously pursuing a writing career, you have to create your own characters and worlds unless you want to end up on the wrong end of a subpoena.
But you can certainly be inspired by other people’s stories and characters! In fact, for Jenny Jacobs’ The Winter Promise, the whole book was sparked by seeing Faramir in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is a minor character–a B character–but there was something about his situation that struck me as having a lot of potential for a story. The character I ended up writing, Lord Robert, has almost nothing in common with Faramir, but the novel wouldn’t even exist if I hadn’t seen Faramir and thought, “Hmm.”
The key is to make the character/story your own, even if the spark comes from another character. What about the character intrigues you? How can you make the story your own? Dig deep and you might be surprised what you can come up with!
Some advice for writers
Almost all of my private coaching clients are established nonfiction writers who are honing their fiction skills. So you can imagine their most common questions have to do with making this leap.
Fiction and nonfiction writing have a lot of similarities, but it’s the differences that can be most nettlesome. Here are my thoughts on things to consider about making such a transition:
- Your past experience doesn’t matter much to agents and editors except as evidence that you are a professional (which is good but in itself isn’t sufficient to interest them in your work). Focus on getting the fiction chops you need to succeed.
- You have to be all in. Nonfiction writers often sell based on queries and proposals, but novelists (especially for the first few books) have to write the complete manuscript and polish it to perfection before they can generate interest. (Obviously I’m talking about traditional publishing here, but even if you’re self-publishing, to succeed you have to be committed to the project in a wholehearted way.)
- You have to read and respect the genre you’re writing in. There’s a misconception among non-novelists that you can make a lot of money as a romance writer (or an erotica writer or a fill-in-the-blank). Sure, some people have lots of success in these genres, but you can’t pick a genre just because you think you could make some money. You have to read the genre, understand what it’s about it, and like it in order to successfully write it.
- You have to keep an open mind. Just because you’re an established professional in one field doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot to learn in another. Educate yourself, read, be an empty vessel instead of a know-it-all.
- Your colleagues are still your best go-to group. Even if your nonfiction buddies don’t write fiction, they may be willing to act as first readers, or be able to connect you with someone who can help.
- You have skills and tools that someone else just starting out doesn’t have. You’re a media professional. You know how to use words. You aren’t going to burst into noisy tears at the first sign of criticism. You know how to research (and how to stop so you can write the darned thing). You know how to focus. You have discipline. All of these elements are crucial to writing fiction, too.
Freelance writer Karen Kroll comments, “There’s much more to it than you realize at first, even if you’re an experienced nonfiction writer. The other thing that’s so different is the lack of certainty. Not that freelance nonfiction writing is certain, but if you stick with it and develop your skills, most freelancers can steadily build a client base; the ability to diversify (i.e, some magazine, some trade, some corporate, etc.) really helps.”
This is a great point: there are many different types of opportunities for a nonfiction writer that simply don’t exist for a novelist. One approach that works for several of my clients is to combine the two.
If any of you have made this transition, I’d love to hear about your experiences.
I’ve always said that if you ask me to write a story about a woman in a red dress sitting at a bar, I can do that without batting an eye, but ask me to write a story about whatever I want, and I can feel the panic setting in.
So, here are a few of my favorite ways to generate ideas:
1. Consider what you’re reacting to. If you have an opinion, maybe you have a story idea. When someone posts an update on Facebook that makes my eyes roll, I often find that there’s a story there (I’m a contrary person, so a lot of times my ideas have to do with “what is the opposite of what everyone else is writing about these days?”)
2. Be mindful of your ideas. Ideas flit into your mind all the time. They just flit out again if you don’t pay attention. So, start paying attention.
3. Think about markets. It’s easier for me to think of an idea for a personal finance story to pitch an editor I know at Bankrate.com than it is for me to think of an idea.
4. Respect the idea. If an idea comes to you, pin that sucker down. I was sitting at a beachside diner last summer, chatting with my daughter and waiting for a storm to pass when I had an idea. I grabbed a pen and some napkins and caught that idea before it went away (see illustration).
5. Listen and watch people. I do a lot of work in coffee shops and not just because I get tired of my living room. People spark ideas all the time.
6. Keep a journal. I have vivid dreams about all kinds of things, and I’ve written several books based on themes or feelings that arose when I was dreaming. I wrote those ideas down before I forgot them.
7. Think about what you know. For years what I knew about was martial arts. I tried to find ways to talk about martial arts that not everyone was already doing.
8. Research. Sometimes we think that ideas should just come to us out of the blue, but they don’t. They have context. So, if you have an area of interest, try reading the newest studies about it. Take a class. Talk to a teacher. Go to the library.
9. Develop a habit. Look for ideas. Look for them everywhere. Write them down. Pretty soon your problem won’t be not enough ideas but too many ideas to ever be able to write about in this lifetime. That’s a good kind of problem to have.
What are some methods you use to generate ideas?
Multiple streams of income. You’ve probably heard that as a writer you should have them—but how? And why?
Simply put, having multiple streams of income means you earn money from various sources. A staff reporter has one source of income, her employer; a freelance writer may have ten or more, depending on how many clients she’s juggling at any given time.
Beyond that, though, and what I think is most important for freelancers, is the concept of having a variety of types of income. This makes intuitive sense to most people. If you have one spigot, and it gets turned off, you’re going to go thirsty. If you have ten, and one gets turned off, well, you still have nine to draw water from.
That’s the key to surviving the often-turbulent waters of freelancing. For many years, writers who wrote exclusively for consumer magazines did very well for themselves—and then the economy tanked, and print media was devastated, and those writers were left scrambling to regroup when assignments stopped coming. Going from 80 to 0 in a couple of months is like slamming into a brick wall. It takes a while to shake it off. Writers who weren’t so heavily invested in writing for consumer magazines had an easier time of navigating the new waters.
The problem—which I’m sure you can immediately see—is that you can get too scattered chasing all kinds of opportunities and end up with nothing much to show for your efforts. Everyone has a limited amount of resources (time, attention, energy, knowledge). If I’m trying to break into magazine writing, should I also be trying to break into book publishing and corporate writing at the same time?
Probably not. Although I now have many sources of income—book advances, book royalties, magazine writing, teaching, editing, coaching—I certainly didn’t start that way. I didn’t pursue all of the possibilities at the same time.
I started with books, mostly because I’d always wanted to write them. I focused on martial arts related topics (a subject matter I knew pretty well). Then I started to write for magazines: first, I wrote for magazines that published martial arts content, then I wrote articles with a martial arts slant for general consumer magazines. Then an opportunity arose for me to edit a martial arts magazine, so I branched into that. In the meantime, because I had become familiar with book publishing, and I had some editing skills and deep intimacy with the Chicago Manual of Style (from grad school days), I started doing copyediting and developmental editing for book publishers. Then came chances to teach writing and editing skills at various universities (as well as online courses I develop myself).
What’s effective about this approach is that I got pretty good at one skill (say, writing books). Then I branched out and got pretty good at another skill (say, writing magazine articles). Then I spent time mastering yet another skill (editing magazines). Each time, I was getting paid for mastering the skill, and I didn’t try to take on too many new skills at one time.
In practice, how does this work? Each year, I look at my income, creative, and personal goals. I look at the mix of work I have, consider what I would like to be doing, and make adjustments. If I have too much of one kind of work, I will tend to solicit another kind. For example, a few years ago I felt I was relying too heavily on magazine income, so I started doing more teaching. If one area is dead (nonfiction books is an area I’m not spending much time in now), then I concentrate my efforts elsewhere (right now I’m doing more editing).
How do you get started creating multiple streams of income? First, look at where the opportunities are. I recently got a question from a reader who wanted to know how to make a living writing short stories and poetry. If I had that secret, I would sell it for ten million dollars and go to the islands. There just aren’t many opportunities to make money selling short stories and poetry. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing, but that work needs to be filed in the “personally fulfilling” category and not the “how I’m gonna pay this month’s rent” category.
The opportunities are going to be a little bit different for everyone, depending on what your skills are, what network of freelancers you’re linked into (they’re going to be one of your best sources of leads to new opportunities), and what you find interesting to do. In other words, you need to make logical connections. If you write articles about a certain subject matter, could you write a book? Could you give classes? Could you edit other people’s writing on the subject?
One of the best ways to get started is to expand your horizons with your current clients so you can get the skills, experience, and portfolio you need to work in another field. So, for example, if you write for a website, and you’d like to do more photography, it’s a fairly simple proposition to propose a photo-heavy piece to your editor. Now you have a solid credential to show to potential clients.
I know one writer who has turned his photography skills into a steady stream of business shooting other writers for book jackets and promotional material. He happened to make the connection between the facts that 1) he had good photography skills and 2) he knew lots of writers who needed photos for various PR-related purposes. It didn’t take him a huge investment of time, money, or effort to let these people know that he could help them solve a problem (how to get a flattering photo from someone who understood their needs).
What skills and relationships do you have that you can make connections between? For example, I’m a member of a nonfiction writers’ group that includes people wanting to write books. After I’d been a member of a while, it became clear that I knew more than most of the members about how to write book proposals because I’d written so many of them. I realized that many of the writers would happily sign up for a class on how to write a book proposal. So I connected with the group’s moderator/owner, got her blessing to develop the class, and have been offering it periodically for several years. It is one of my most lucrative streams of income, and I don’t have to do that much work to promote it. In fact, many members of the group actually promote the class for me. It fills a need, so I don’t have to do any arm-twisting to get people to see the value in it.
The key to developing multiple streams of income is to make those kinds of connections in your own career and life. What do your clients wish they had that they don’t? Who is the connector in your life—the person who knows everyone and what they’re up to? Does that person know that you’re looking for connections? Be open to new possibilities, but also let things evolve. I took my first stab at teaching an editing class about ten years ago, but it didn’t work out as I’d hoped and I ended up only teaching one class. A few years later, an opportunity to teach copyediting came around and I took it. Some years after that, an opportunity to teach developmental editing opened up and I had great success with it.
The lesson? Plant the seeds, cultivate them, make adjustments as you go along. We’re looking for a flower garden here, not a field of corn, so your seeds shouldn’t all look the same.