Thursday, December 4, 2008

How To Write A Compelling Proposal by Seekerville Guest Susan May Warren

The Three Things every editor (and agent) wants to know:
How to write a compelling proposal

I went Christmas shopping on Black Friday, and of course, ended up in my happy place – the bookstore. I wandered up and down the aisles, the miles, it seemed of aisles, all holding amazing books that I’d love to read. In fact, I spent about an hour trying to decide on the perfect book to read on the ten hour trip home. (and about another hour trying to figure out what to get my children for their Christmas reads). The choices overwhelmed me…and for a moment I could imagine how suffocated an editor or agent must feel looking at the piles upon their desk in January, when everyone has fulfilled their 2008 New Year’s goal of sending in their Great American Novel.
Yeah, I know, I have my proposal all ready to send, too.
As I sat on the floor and deliberated my book choices, I had to decide upon a system to evaluate which books to choose. Editors and Agents do the same thing. They have things they look for, things that make a manuscript survive the one-armed office clean-up into the recycle bin. And, after polling a few agent friends and looking at my own proposals, I came up with the Top Three Things that make a proposal strong.

Here they are: What. Why. How.

Here at My Book Therapy, I’m all about asking probing questions to help an author get to the heart of their character and story. So, feel free to recline on the sofa and let’s take a look at how probing deep into the heart of your proposal can help it become healthy enough to survive the Great Editor Sweep.
1. What? What is your story about? What’s at stake? What’s ironic about it? The key is knowing how to summarize your story in a simple compelling sentence.
What if a vampire and a human fell in love, but her greatest danger was himself? (Twilight)
What if the world’s worst dog became the best thing that ever happened to you? (Marley and Me)
What if someone took over your life, and you discovered that in losing it, you became everything you hoped to be? (Eagle Eye).
You don’t have to phrase it in a question.
When a vampire and a human fall in love, it will cost them everything – maybe even her soul.
A newspaper man and his wife adopt a puppy and discover that the dog from hell is really an angel in fur.
Jerry Shaw isn’t a terrorist, but no one but he knows it, and it’ll take surrendering his innocence to become the hero he was meant to be.
Boil your hook down to one strong, concise sentence. What?
2. Why? Why should someone pick up your book and spend the next few hours reading it? What makes it unique and why are YOU the one to tell it?
Are you a cop, telling stories about protecting the homeland?
Are you a nurse, writing the next ER series?
Are you an archeologist, discovering the secrets of time?
Are you a former CIA agent, unfolding the past?
More and more, agents and editors want someone who has a platform, something that gives resonance to their story. With non-fiction, this is a no-brainer, but with fiction it can be harder to find. After all, I’ve never been a bull-rider, so what could I possibly bring to a story like Taming Rafe? And, I’ve never been a Delta force operative undercover in Taiwan, trying to rescue a kidnapped girl, so what authority could I possibly give to Wiser than Serpents?
Well, let’s see. I lived in Taiwan, and in Russia, and I know people who have known people who have “disappeared” into the world of human trafficking. I knew friends who fought human trafficking, and I had experience with being held against my will. All things that I brought to the storyline of Wiser than Serpents.
For Taming Rafe, I tapped into my love of all things cowboy, as well as my experience as a fundraiser, and someone who worked with orphans overseas. I also spent time on a ranch, learning the ropes (pun intended. *g*)
Even if you don’t have a “platform,” you have a reason why you are uniquely created to write this story. Dee Henderson, one of my favorite authors, said to me years ago, “Find what you are good at, hone that, and create a niche for your writing.” I chose Russia and now about half my books are International Intrigue.
Know your topic, and bring to it your unique perspective. Why?
3. How? How are you telling the story…meaning…VOICE. Your voice is what will cause an editor to put down their cup of coffee and lean into the story. What will make that coffee eventually grow cold. Your voice is your creativity, your prose, your style. Once the agent or editor reads your story hook, and why it has authority and uniqueness , they’ll need to actually READ the book. Or at least the first three chapters. Your voice needs to follow at least some of the rules, but break the right ones, in the right ways, so that it’s fresh, and different.
C ’mon Susie, fresh, yet follow the rules?
Yep. Here’s how….
Every story has a structure. Three acts. The Hero’s Journey. Beats. Whatever you want to call them. This structure varies somewhat between genres, but generally speaking, all stories have the same elements, including the black moment, the epiphany, and especially the first chapter hook. These are the rules.
The freshness comes in how you tell it. Let’s say that you got in a fender bender on the way home and you had to tell your husband/wife/family. You still have to tell them the Whats and Hows, but will you start at the beginning, or will you tell the end first? What words will you use, how vividly do you draw it? Do you use humor, or foreshadowing? How do you describe the other players – the teenager who backed into you, or the cop who pulled up to the scene? How you tell that story is your voice.
How do you find your voice? That’s another article, but here’s a few hints:
What books do you like to read and who are your favorite authors? Often, their voice will mimic your own.
What turns of phrases do you like to use, and what kind of dialogue draws you? Keep a journal of vivid scenes and compelling dialogue you read or hear to help you get a feel for the kind of cadence and flow you like.
Try it out on the page. (You can always delete!) Experiment with voice. Do you like it? Why? Why not? Figure out what kind of writing you enjoy…and keep doing it.
Tell it your way, and it’ll be unlike any other. How?
What, Why, How. The three questions that make a proposal sparkle, that catch the eye of an editor. That wasn’t so painful was it? Now, get off the sofa and go write.

For more storytelling tips, go to!

More information on Susan May Warren:
Former Russian Missionary Susan May Warren is the best-selling author of more than 20 novels and novellas with Tyndale, Barbour and Steeple Hill. A three time Christy award finalist, a RITA award finalists and three time winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice contest, Susan currently has over 500,000 books in print. A seasoned women’s events speaker and writing teacher, she is the founder of an online community for writers, and runs a fiction editing service teaching writers how to tell a great story. Visit her online at:

What's Up Next?

It's not fair to say that trouble happens every time PJ Sugar is around, but it feels that way when she returns to her hometown, looking for a fresh start. Within a week, her former teacher is murdered and her best friend's husband is arrested as the number-one suspect. Although the police detective investigating the murder--who also happens to be PJ's former flame--is convinced it's an open-and-shut case, PJ's not so sure. She begins digging for clues in an effort to clear her friend's husband and ends up reigniting old passions, uncovering an international conspiracy, and solving a murder along the way. She also discovers that maybe God can use a woman who never seems to get it right.
Nothing But Trouble hits the stands just in time for a summer beach read! Go to: for sneak peeks and to sign up for free stuff and updates!


  1. Susan,

    Thanks so much for sharing this great information.

    Would you be able to explain a little more about how you are able to use Russia so many times? I think I've got my focus/theme but sometimes it's hard to make the stories different from one another. Could you give a few one-line "blurbs" on how you've done this?



  2. Good morning, Susan.

    It is snowing lightly in Denver so we have baked cinnamon rolls and hot cocoa with marshmallows.

    Welcome to Seekerville! Thank you for this insightful post.

  3. What if you have insight and want to have a specific disability be part of your theme? Would you have different characters have this disability?

  4. Great post. Thank you for the suggestions.

    Cinnamon rolls sound GREAT, Tina, even out here in the warm desert (it's already 54 here, going to be 73.)


  5. Hi, Susan! I'm always telling people that In Sheep's Clothing is one of my all-time favorite books! Wow, I loved Viktor--still love Viktor! I also loved your historical series set in Russia, too, The Heirs of Anton. I lived in Ukraine for a year. I have a friend who was a missionary in Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Almaty, and she was pregnant there and even had a baby in Kazakhstan, and she LOVES your Josey series! Especially the second one where Josey is pregnant in Russia. She could so relate to the doctors with chef hats, and the weird stethoscope, etc. She even read parts of it to her husband, and they both were laughing.

    Sorry, everybody, for writing a fan letter to Susie! I couldn't help myself!

  6. Hey, Susie! Thanks so much for joining us in Seekerville!

    I loved this post! Such great info. I really need to work more on that "What". That's the hardest part for me--to come up with something different and exciting.

    Hey, I loved your PJ Sugar web page!! That's so cool!! Do you do your own websites? Or do you have someone who designs them for you?

    The book/series sounds so fun!!

  7. Hi Susan! Hope you're staying warm up there. It's nice here in New Mexico--not even as cold as it was at Glorieta. I have found myself wishing idly for another writers' conference since I had such a great time meeting you and the others who were there. In my perfect world, we'd all spend at least one week a month at inspirational writing conferences.

    Your tips are *so* helpful and encouraging. Thanks for using your gift to help other writers.

  8. Great post, Susan. You are an excellent teacher.

    Thanks for spending the day with us in Seekerville!

    We're honored.


  9. Good morning, Susie! Welcome to Seekerville! I love, love, love everything you write, so I guess, I have a thing for your voice, LOL!

    The hardest part for me to accept is that people are interested in the experience and lifestyle I so often take for granted. I jumped around to all sorts of sub-genres in an effort to write my best work and finally realized, I did my best work in contests when I wrote what I know.

    The stuff you know best, Susie, keeps me waiting for your books to hit the shelves : )

    Thanks for joining us on this snowy day (in Denver)!

  10. Hi Susie, Welcome to Seekerville! Thanks for your insightful post.

    I enjoyed meeting you at the ACFW conference this year. You've had an interesting life--perfect for a novelist. Not sure what I draw on with my historicals. :-)


  11. Hey Susan,

    Welcome to Seekerville -- we are honored to have you here! And great post -- I especially enjoyed the one-sentence premises for some amazing books.

    I just finished Reclaiming Nick and really enjoyed it, so Taming Rafe is next on my wish list. Keep writing!

  12. I've never read one of your books, but Taming Rafe made me so badly want to buy him. ahem. It.
    This is a really helpful post. I'll have to check out your website.

  13. I really like the PJ Sugar site too. Very hip.

  14. Sorry guys, but I've been busy at work all day!

    Susan, just wanted you to know that my 15 yo son just finished Wiser than Serpents....the copy I bought for dh!

    Thanks for being here!

  15. Hi Susie,
    I'm stopping by late! Loved your post. Always good to get info from such an accomplished writer and teacher! Thanks for the tips.

  16. It was great to have such an informative post by Susan May Warren.

    Thanks very much for sharing your time and insights with us.

    Hopefully Susan will be able to stop by later and answer some of your questions.

  17. Hey all! Sorry for the quiet yesterday..I live in the woods and sometimes my internet is sketchy. So, I'm going to try and answer all your questions in one big blurb!

    Cynthia @ Russia - I have a contemporary Russian series (thrillers) with Steeple Hill, a funny first person series about a missionary who goes to Russia (again with Steeple Hill). I have a 4 part historical suspense series about a Russian family (Barbour), My FIRST book was a novella about a missionary in Russia (Measure of a Man with Tyndale), and another about a home-service missionary who lived in Russia (a barbour novella), I have Russian or Eastern European characters or locations in Flee the Night (a Team Hope book), Waiting for Dawn (a novella) and in Nothing but Trouble (coming out in May). Out of my 26 novels and novellas, 15 have a Russian connection. The rest have a Minnesota or Montana connection. Many also have a “missionary” theme. (since that was something unique I brought to the table, also)

    Anonymous @ disability – If your character’s disability is a part of the plot, then I’d probably have just one character have this….until you want to build a series around it. I had a character who had down syndrome as a part of the plot, and recently, another who had ms. Their challenges were both a bit part of the books.

    Missy@ webpage – I use Dineen Miller @ Designer Girl Graphics for my Sugar page, and some of My Book Therapy artwork. She does amazing work!

    Thank you, thank you to all for your sweet warm welcome!! I wish we were all sitting around with a cup of warm cocoa (it’s 8 degrees here today! Arrgh!)

    If you’re interested, I just opened a My Book Therapy store – I’m selling CD’s of two of my popular classes (dialogue and hooks) and I’m in the middle of writing a Comprehensive How-To book called “Inside-Out, Discover, Create and Publish the Novel in you.” It’ll be out in a couple weeks, I hope.

    Again, thanks for having me!!! Blessings on your writing day!