Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Top Five Mistakes Authors Make in Proposals by Alicia Rasley

Let me start off with a dirty little secret: When you submit a proposal to editors or agents, you can't assume they'll read past the first page. I know, I know. It's not fair, etc. But let’s get real. They're really busy, and they have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of submissions a year. And their primary task in sorting through that slushpile is to reject most of the submissions so that they can go back to their real work (with the manuscripts they've already accepted).

Your job in submitting the proposal is to keep from giving them a reason to reject you quickly. You want the editor or agent to read through the whole proposal and ask for more, right? (Proposal for fiction is usually: Cover letter, short synopsis, first three chapters, but it's actually whatever they ask for in their guidelines.)

So here are the Top Five Mistakes that you might want to avoid:

1. Typos, especially in the query letter, and mechanical errors in the first page of the synopsis and chapters. I can hear you groaning. You KNOW this, right? You don't need to be told, right? Then why, I ask you, do I see so many submissions and contest entries with the sort of errors that make me cringe? I know, I know, those careless clueless submitters are not you. Agreed. But we don't know what we don't know, so if you're getting very quick rejections, you might go over your proposal word by word to make sure that you haven't got "Big Name Publishing Comporation" in the address heading of your coverpage, or "Napolean" seventeen times in your Napoleonic-era spy story. Typos jump right out and attack the eyes of editors and agents, and you don't want to cause that kind of anguish.

Typos aren't the only mechanical errors that make an editor or agent send a quick no. I've started keeping a list of what we call "the marks of the amateur," which clue us in quickly to the "not ready for primetimeness" of this submitter. That's mean, isn't it? But it's reality. So if you don't want to be typed as an amateur, it might help to find out what makes an editor brand a submission as from a newbie. For me, it's dialogue punctuation. I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning.

For a friend of mine who has served her time as an agent's assistant (facing hundreds of manuscripts, 99.9% of which she was supposed to divert – read "reject"-- before they got to the agent), the primary "mark of an amateur" comes when the author uses the character name in every sentence. "There's a reason they invented pronouns!" she points out. Her boss is famous for her sensitive "ear" for the melody and rhythm of prose, and nothing is as discordant as a constant repetition of a name.

Probably all editors and agents have their own "marks", whether they share them or not. How do you find out what they are? Well, first I'd suggest asking the editor or agent. They all have blogs these days. Send a question (anonymous if you think best) which says, "What mechanical error in a submission clues you in that this isn't an accomplished stylist?"

A few typos, even a couple grammar errors, will probably get by. But don't count on it. Just remember that an editor especially has to look forward to editing this book, and if there's a recurrent error in the first few pages, she's got to consider how much time it will take to fix every single dialogue passage, or switch out 90% of the hero's name checks with "he and him and his." You don't want the editor's dominant impression upon reading your proposal to be, "Life is too short."

2. The second mistake to avoid is coming across as crazy or obsessed, especially in the cover letter but also in the synopsis. While not every writer is crazy, I suspect just about every crazy person wants to be a writer, and their submissions slush up slushpiles. Most will get dinged because of mistake #1, but if they happen to be a very controlled obsessive, they might do everything right mechanically. Still the obsession will generally leak through in the cover letter, and if you're not crazy, you don't want to have the editor taking your impassioned and yet well-reasoned defense of the metric system as a signal that you are a crank.

Just remember that your cover letter is about your story, and your story is about the characters and what happens to them. Whatever obsession you have might have fueled the writing, and that's good. But keep the focus on the story, not your pet project.

This is about the story. This isn't about your life or your passion or your obsession. Of course, what has made you you will come out in your voice, story choice, and characters, but let those do the talking for you.

3. A confusing and/or boring synopsis. Well, first, let me say that you don't know whether the editor or agent will read your synopsis first or your chapters first. There isn't any rule. I tend to scan the synopsis quickly, just to make sure it's the sort of book my publisher will publish. If it's not, I'll send a quick rejection saying just that.

(Don't bother to send it if it's not the sort of thing this publisher publishes. I don't care if it's the second coming of Harry Potter—if we don't publish children's books, we're not likely to change our whole business and marketing plan for your book. Or maybe we will, but trust me, I'm not the one you need to talk to if you want that. WAY above my paygrade. Go over my head and right to the publisher—that's an actual position at most, uh, publishers. :)

Anyway, usually if I don't think much of the synopsis itself, I still will read the chapters. Plenty of great book writers are bad synopsis writers. However, a bad synopsis could derail your proposal because the editor doesn't make it to your book. So don't assume that the editor or agent will set aside an incoherent synopsis and judge just on the chapters. Make the synopsis as good as you can, given the length requirements.

Oh, right, mistakes to avoid. Well, the mistake is thinking that the synopsis is a summary of the PLOT. It should in fact be a summary of the STORY. What's the difference? Well, what's the difference between this:

Sheet music for Ave Maria

and this:

Pavarotti singing Ave Maria

The story is more than what happens. It's the journey of the characters, the emotion they experience, the theme and voice. All that should show up in your synopsis in some way. If this is a funny story, the synopsis should have humor. If the characters go through psychological agony, the synopsis should explore a bit of that.

I am aware, having written many of these damned things, that a synopsis is hard to get right. But having read even more of these damned things, I can tell you this: You will NOT write a good synopsis if you start with plot. I can just about guarantee this. The simplest plot sounds convoluted and tedious when you tell event and then event and then event. And if you have a truly complex plot? Well, I am going to get lost once you decide your job here is to give me a detailed map of the labyrinth.

So you might be asking, what do you write about if not what happens? You write about the situation (the small southern town "invaded" by freedom-riders in 1963) and you write about the characters (the African-American girl who has to integrate the high school, the politely racist shopowner who finds himself throwing rocks at her the first day of school, the college student from the North who joined the freedom-ride because he wanted to impress a liberal girlfriend).

You write about how things change, and yes, you'll probably talk some about the plot events because they show the changing. But if you start your writing with the plot events, you'll never get beyond that, and your synopsis will likely be as excruciating to read as it was to write. "This happened, then that happened"—that's the worst model for a synopsis, and yet most of them start there. Don't. Don't try to revise a bad synopsis. Start over, and this time, tell us about the characters and the situation and what is wrong and what changes and why.

4. And then in the opening of the first chapter, the most common big mistake is a lack of focus that results in confusion. I've read a lot of first pages where I'm exhausted just from trying to keep track of the names of nine characters and make sense of the situation, the people, the setting, the action, and the thoughts.

Look, the purpose of the first paragraph isn't too tell everything needed to understand the book. It's just to get us to read the second paragraph. :) But we probably won't read on if the first paragraph reads like this:

Aaron Cathcart ran his hand through his sweaty hair, gazed up at the Porter mansion on the hill, where it sat foreboding and grim against a dark sky, and began trudging up the gravel driveway towards the marble front steps. Along the way he passed a jasmine bush, and the pungent smell assaulted his nose. On either side of the door were footmen in the blue and purple Porter livery, and as he approached, they moved in unison to open the great oak doors so he could enter the hall.

Reading that, I've learned exactly one important thing—a character's name. Sure, I know there's a mansion, and it apparently belongs to the Porters, and they're rich enough to afford footmen. But I don't care, because I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club.

Two things to remember about your opening: First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more. For example, the opening to Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" poses the question, "What is this lottery they're gathering for?"

So the opening to Aaron's story could pose the question, "What's he afraid he'll find here?" or "Why is he entering the house of his enemy?"

But the question has to be relevant to the story. Think about what question you want the reader to ask, and see if you can set that question up with the first few paragraphs.

Second, focus the opening. You simply can't get everything in there, the setting, the characters, the situation, the backstory, and you end up leaving out important stuff like the conflict. Don't even try to be comprehensive here, or you'll just confuse. Think about one thing you want to introduce. But make it important. Think about starting with the character in some conflict.

Aaron Cathcart stared up at the Porter mansion on the hill. That was the last place he wanted to go, and the Porters were the last people he wanted to ask for help. And if it wasn't for the lady unconscious in his stalled car, he'd walk the two miles to the next town. But he had no choice, if he was going to save her life.


Or maybe you want to start with character:

Aaron Cathcart never asked for help. Nope, not now, not ever. He could take care of himself. That's what he had in place of religion, a stony self-sufficiency. And this afternoon, if he had any choice in the matter, he'd walk away, down the hill and away from his stalled car. But he didn't have any choice, because he didn't have the right to let the lady die for his principles.

Or you could start with setting:

The Porter mansion stood grim on a barren hill, the ugliest site in this pretty county. It had a sort of grotesque pride up there, surrounded by a gravel drive and a flat expanse of lawn, the gray tiles of the roof blank against the dark sky. No one could want to be there, and yet the Porter family had lived there for decades, when they could surely afford something else.

But focus on something. Don't try to get everything into the first paragraph. After all, the whole point is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, where presumably will be other important information happening.

5. Limping to a conclusion. Usually in a proposal you send the first three chapters of the book. Agents especially are known to vary this—they might ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. At any rate, too many submitters are sending in proposals where the very last sentence or word don’t do anything to inspire the agent to ask for more. You don’t want your proposal to limp to a conclusion!

Again, think about your purpose in submitting this proposal—it’s to get the agent or editor to ask to see the whole book. So that last bit they read is your last chance to make them want more. They probably won’t want more if you:

  • End in the middle of a line just because that’s the end of the fifty pages.

  • End on a boring note, like “She took a shower and went to bed.”

  • End on a resolution, like “He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.”

First thing to recognize is—they might determine what a proposal is, but you’re the one who determines what that is FOR YOU. If she says she wants three chapters, you don’t actually have to stop exactly at the point before “Chapter Four.” You can manipulate a bit here. Let’s say that the first two chapters are long and action-packed, and the third is more clean-up and transition to the turning point in Chapter Four. Well, you can take those two chapters and make them three! Just divide them differently. For most of us, chapter divisions are fairly arbitrary—a chapter might be three scenes, might be two—and you can divide them differently to make more or fewer chapters.
Second trick—if you’re given a page limit, you can make tiny changes to get more into that 50 pages (or fewer). If you generally use Courier 12, try Times New Roman 12, which is about 15% smaller but is still 12 point, don’t ask me why. So that will give you 3-4 more pages to work with. Yes, all the agents know this, but unless they specifically say “no TNR,” go for it.

Of course, that’s only useful if those 3-4 extra pages are going to be a nice come-on. That’s the third trick. Whatever you need to do to make this work, end the proposal on something intriguing, something that captures the reader’s attention. A cliffhanger works here for high-action books, but a quieter book might need a mere suggestion of conflict or irresolution, something that makes the editor look around for the next page, and, not finding it, send you a request for the complete manuscript. Often this requires another sentence or paragraph at the end of a seeming resolution.

Like take that one above:
He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won. But as he was leaving the room, he looked back at Mary. Wait a minute. If he’d been the one to win, why was she the one laughing triumphantly?

So don’t limp to a conclusion of your proposal. Make sure the end of the chapters is an invitation to read on. A hint of conflict, an irresolution, will help encourage the editor or agent to ask for the rest.

Alicia Rasley is an award-winning author, a nationally known writing teacher, and an acquiring editor for a small fiction press. She blogs about writing and editing at www.edittorrent.blogspot.com, and her many fiction articles are archived at www.rasley.com. Her book The Power of Point of View and her plotting guidebook The Story Within, are both available on her website. Her latest novel, The Year She Fell, is a new release from Bell Bridge Books.

The book trailer for The Year She Fell can be viewed here.

Alicia has generously offered to give away a copy of The Power Of Point of View: Make Your Story Come to Life.

The Power of Point of View explores the complex but essential subject of character Point of View in an interactive and non-judgmental fashion. It's for you if you want more than just "first-person/third person", and if you're tired of rules and are ready to make your own decisions about POV in your own story.

Winner announced in the Weekend Edition


  1. Come and G--E--T it. Coffee's on the counter.

    Reading this makes me cringe, wondering about every query letter or synopsis I've ever written. Did I do this? Did I do that?

    Good information---but kinda scary.


    Word verification is
    nonommen ?????

  2. Hi Alicia:

    It seems to me that the proposal has a life all its own and that one should create an ideal winning proposal first and only then write the book.

    The book and the proposal are two very different creative art forms.

    How would an editor react if the first three chapters of the proposal were quite different than the real first three chapters of the manuscript – if the manuscript was very good. The reasoning here is that the ideal 3 chapters for a proposal might not actually be the best three chapters for the novel as a whole.

    Enjoyed your post. The difference between plot and story is very interesting. Thanks.


  3. Thanks so much! Liked the way you described PLOT and STORY...very helpful.

    I'd like to enter for the Point of View book, if this is where that is done. Thanks! Sounds like a good one.

  4. Great information, Alicia! Thanks for sharing. I've got queries going out next week, so I'll get to work on getting the plot out of my synopsis! Thank you,
    CJ Snyder

  5. What a fantastic post! I really appreciated how Alicia laid it all on the line. The definition of plot and story sung to me!

    Thank you,

    carlagade [at] gmail [dot] com

  6. Thanks Alicia.

    Wow, going to review my work and see if I just had sheet music. I think so. Sigh.

    Appreciate your time and thoughtfulness to spell it out for us.

    may at maythek9spy dot com Yes, please enter me!

    Thanks for coffee, Helen. I'm ready! Vince, interesting question! Inquiring minds wanna know...

  7. This seems like a very helpful book with lots of information. Thanks for giving away a copy.

  8. Thanks for the tips, Alicia -- very helpful! I especially like how you draw the line between plot and story in the synopsis. I don't think I'll ever collect enough advice on writing a good synopsis, so your post will be a keeper.

    I'm working on pancakes to go with Helen's coffee. Blueberries, anyone?


  9. Good morning Seekerville.

    First I want to say that George Clooney will soon be arriving in a tux.

    Pancakes with blueberries. Thank you Leigh.

    Welcome to Alicia!

    We are delighted to have the plotting guru here with more writerly advice.

    Terrific post. THANK YOU.

    Now that you are also working as an editor..I wonder..what is the most unusual item you've received in a query letter package..or proposal package..besides the paper???

  10. Thanks for the extremely insightful post, Alicia!

    The information on how to write an intriguing synopsis was especially helpful. I find it's too easy to slip into plot where all I'm doing is a laundry list of what happened and not really showing my characters' journeys, which leaves even me bored by the time I’m finished. I need to go back and redo these with a new focus.

    I love the trailer for The Year She Fell. I’ve put the book on my TBR list.


  11. BTW I own Alicia's Story Within booklets and they are awesome.

    The Story Within

  12. Morning Alicia, Thank you for joining us here at Seekerville. Great post.

    I especially liked how you showed us the difference in the opening paragraph between plot, character or setting driven work. It helps when you "show don't tell". Sorry, couldn't help the pun.

    Tina, George Clooney with blueberry pancakes. Really???

  13. Alicia, I appreciate the tips for synopsis writing especially. Thanks!

  14. Thanks for this great info on proposals. I especially like the part about plot vs story.

    Besides the things you've already listed, what are some of the worst things you've seen in a proposal or the oddest things people have done to get your attention as an editor?

    I'd love to win a copy of your book. I have some of your earlier publications. fictionfan1[at] cox [dot] net

  15. FABULOUS post! Oh my goodness. What an info-packed post!
    Alicia, thanks so much for the examples and some of the common mistakes.
    I DO NOT want to appear like an amateur. Blah!
    I'm with Helen. I'm wondering about my proposals I've sent in too. Oh dear...
    How good are editors' memories?

  16. Alicia:

    I sent a partial out last week and was happy to see that nothing in your post made me want to pull my hair out, LOL! Love the examples of different openings/focus. Thanks!

  17. Thank you, Alicia for such an informative post. I especially appreciate the examples.

    I will add this to my "keeper" articles.


  18. Great post, Alicia!

    I think the last synopsis I sent in was more plot than story. But, I know what I need to do to fix it. Thanks!

    Abbi :-)

  19. mornin' everyone! didn't sleep too good last nightbut oh well..nothing planned for today that I know of..my dad's not feeling too good from his treatment..I really think he's depressed but neither of my parents will think about a psychologist. Also complains his back and hip hurt bad and no one cares and wonders if it's all worth it sometimes. I asked my mom about seeing a pain management doctor and she said they hadn't thought of that. My mom really has this fear of alcohol and medication being abused and gosh I remember taking a tylenol and she's worried about liver failure!

    anyways he was really down and tired the last treatment 3 weeks ago and Mama said he felt better after a few days.

    probably do some reading today.YUM blueberry pancakes cheered me up! also enjoyed my strawberry topped belgian waffle yesterday though I'm still not sure what 'belgian' means in the title but it was good! I have some Texas Twister coffee from Home Sweet Home, etc..my friend swears by this stuff..has a cinnamon flavor and something else but even the men who frown at frou frou coffee loved this stuff at work. Might be good for a mid-morning snack.

  20. oops sorry that's me with the twister coffee..keep forgetting this doesn't put my name automatically!

  21. Welcome to Seekerville, Alicia! Love having a fellow Hoosier here. Especially one who knows her stuff! I have and use your The Story Within Guidebook to create my stories. It's a wonderful resource for writers!

    Excellent recommendation to fiddle with proposals to hook an editor. I often did this when entering contests.

    Thanks for the coffee, Helen and the blueberry pancakes, Leigh!


  22. Oh my! I've been writing my synopses all wrong all this time! Yikes.

    Okay, when you said, "While not every writer is crazy, I suspect just about every crazy person wants to be a writer, and their submissions slush up slushpiles." I laughed so hard! That whole paragraph cracked me up because it's SO TRUE! Every crazy, obsessed weirdo Unibomber type person has written a book and believes every person who reads it will be bowled over by its brilliance.

    Not that I'm one of those people.

    Let's just say, there's a fine line between being crazy and being a writer. Mwahaha! And you have to keep it under control, never more so than when you're writing a query, cover letter, or proposal!

    Anyway, Zondervan let me in, so I guess I was successful. :-)

  23. And thank you, Alicia, for explaining how to write a synopsis. I think I actually understand it now. For the first time.

  24. Very helpful advice.

    I like to write a short synopsis at the beginning on writing a book, but I needed this for the "real" synopis and query.

    Enter my name in the contest.

    bcountryqueen6 at msn dot com

  25. Good morning!

    It's always great to get the inside scoop into the editor's world. Thanks for sharing, Alicia.

    Like everyone else, the part about the synopsis was very helpful. I'll have to go back and check all my previous ones.

    I'd love to be entered for this drawing and for the 5-page weekly critique draw.

    Have a wonderful day fixing up those proposals everyone!

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  26. Great article! Very informative. Thank you so much for sharing. I like the way you showed how to use change/turning points as a way of developing your storyline, rather than a blow-by-blow account of the narrative.

    Please enter me for the POV book!

  27. Alicia,

    Thanks for sharing such great information. I think most writer's struggle with the proposal/synopsis writing.

    RRossZediker at yahoo dot com

  28. Ok, fess up time. How many in the audience have sent out a proposal this year?

    Raise your hands and we will applaude!

    Vince, what are you saying? That the first three chapters for the proposal might not be the same three chapters of the actual novel?



    GREAT blog and LOVE your examples!! And, gosh, as an author, teacher AND editor, you are ONE valuable guest to have -- thank you again for coming!


  30. Wow, Alicia.

    Let me just say here that EVERYONE on Seekerville today needs to take this so utterly to heart. This is a GOLDEN collection of advice.

    I'll insert a personal story here about beginning a book.

    I remember Jim Peterson--acquiring editor for Heartsong Presents-- emailing me after I'd subbed something to him and saying, "Editing isn't my strong suit, but you've got a grammar error on the first page that I noticed. If I noticed it, you're in trouble because EVERYONE will notice and it jumps out at me."

  31. Oh, and my mistake?

    I used RODE when I meant ROAD.

    Such a small thing. But the attention to detail is huge. Don NOT give them an easy reason to reject you because that's their first job, thin the herd, work through the mountain.

    I heard someone say once that 80% of manuscripts are rejected for simple things like this, many with NOTHING TO DO WITH HOW WELL YOU WRITE.

    So you can jump your way to the top 20% just by being CAREFUL. Following simple to understand basics.

  32. Oh, this is EXCELLENT! SOOO need to fix up my synopsis. Story vs. plot is especially helpful.

    And I wanted to ask - if someone requested, say 50 pages, would you be slapped on the wrist (or worse!) if you found that the best place to end it was, say, at the bottom of page 47? or 48? Do you need to sent EXACTLY 50 pages? I know over is a nono - how about slightly under?

    And PLEASE enter me! joanne(at)joannesher(dot)com

  33. OMG, when I saw Alicia Rasley was posting, my hands began shaking with giddy delight.

    Alicia. Rasley.


    Her writer's corner is my #1 resource for writing help and lessons, which is why I recommend it on every contest entry I judge.

    I'd better shut up because I'm about to violate rule #2 (don't come across as crazy or obsessed).

  34. "I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club."

    LOL! I started a book last night that made me feel exactly that way. It went back to the TBR pile--because at some point, I have to plow through it for a review--and I picked another one.

    Thanks for the proposal advice, Alicia.

    BTW all, yes, Alicia blogs about writing and editting over at Edittorrent, but she does so much more than that. She teaches craft and engages her blog "students" in discussions that reveal more craft. Hers is definitely a blog to follow.

    Not obsessed or crazed. I'm just sayin'...

  35. I know full well I've done many of the no-nos in the past.

    The way Past.

    But I have since amended my horrible ways, I no longer add the;

    God gave me this story so you need to print it.

    Or the

    Ten page biography expounding on my writing prowess, since preschool and beyond...though I can attest to the fact of ownership of such.

    Nooo, I am now writing my synops and proposals within the tight parameters of pert near perfection.


    Informative post.


  36. Thanks for the tidbits of information... really need pieces of advice like this!!

  37. This is such a keeper.

    Total keeperage, start to finish. Alicia, thank you so much for being with us today, for this (yes, I'm going to say it) brilliant breakdown.

    Simple, concise, succinct, a perfect take-away for someone like me. Thank you so much.

    Hey, it's lunchtime and I've got grilled turkey melts, French fries, salad and chocolate raspberry cake for dessert.

    I'm refreshing the coffee service before I head back to work. Fresh creamer selection as well.

    I'm printing as I speak. Well. Type, actually.

  38. Once again Alicia you give me a lot to think about. Thanks for the tips. Please enter me in your draw!

    Janet Kerr

  39. I have sent George Clooney by special messenger to see if Alicia can break away from her crazy schedule to pop into Seekerville.

    OH, GEORGE!!

    Perhaps Buster Posey would be more appropriate today!

  40. Great reminders of things to do. Thanks Alicia!

  41. Helen, I know-- That's why I think it's good to meet the editor and agent somehow first and make a good impression. I think then they might give a bit more leeway. :)

    Vince, I used to write a proposal and then the book, and I ended up with 10 proposals and no book. I realized that if I write a synopsis, for me, "The book is done!" So I can't do that. However, that is what many well-published novelists do to get an already contracted book accepted and advance paid before they write it. Does the book have to match the proposal? No, but it probably better be a lot better if the author sold on the basis of this proposal!


  42. Yes, a little Pavarotti is always useful to explaining things. :)

    Tina, I mostly get electronic submissions, so they can't enclose pizza or anything! But I did once get a submission with a link to this person's dating site. Her email was something like CathyDoubleD@hotmail
    It made me think that it wouldn't hurt to have a professional email address that doesn't announce your cup size. :)

  43. Ruth, get lunch ready, George and I will be right over! I hope he's not overdressed. I specified a tux, just like at the Oscars.

    Kirsten, let me ask you-- if your book was in first-person, would you write the synopsis in first-person? I kind of think yes, but I bet it's really a no-no for many.

    Pepper, every submission is brand new for an editor, as long as you weren't obnoxious before, and I'm sure you weren't!

  44. Melanie, I used to work at the state attorney general's office, and he was always being sued by people in insane asylums. For some reason, there was one asylum in North Carolina (we were in Indiana) whose inmates constantly sued the Indiana AG.
    I wonder if that asylum also has a lot of aspiring novelists!
    But it should be easier to stand out as sane against that, right? :)

  45. Hi, Gina! Glad what I say is helpful. :)

    Mary, I keep a list of "Why spell-check isn't good enough," and "rode/road" is a good addition!

    Vickie, one odd thing I've seen is the submitters who supply illustrations (their own) of their characters for the cover. It's not terrible, but it sort of suggests they might be a bit optimistic, planning out the cover already. Not that they'll get to do the cover anyway. Also, I had a submitter who confided that the hero in her erotic novel was modeled on her son. That set off so many squitches, it was hard to read!

    Alas, though, no one does much to get my attention. I keep loudly averring that chocolate will work, or George Clooney, but Tina's got George tied up for Seekerville for a year. I mean, tied up in a contract, you dirty minded people!

  46. Melanie, I did have a submitter who went on and on about the metric system. It was weird, because my father went through a metric obsession in the late 60s. (He was a math education professor, so it wasn't so crazy for him.)

    But good books have been written about PI and longitude and other odd subjects. I remember one about the history of pencils. It's all in the execution. But there is a natural skepticism that the metric-system novelist might have to overcome. :)

  47. Janet, yes, I think this is important for contests too-- esp those that give points for the synopsis. A boring synopsis, however true to the events, isn't going to get a good score.


  48. KC, love your description "sheet music". What did you do to fix it?

    Sandra, someone on my own blog suggested that I write the NEXT paragraph for each of those openings. My head already hurts!

  49. Did Connealy just caution folks to be careful by telling them:

    "Don NOT give them an easy reason to reject you because that's their first job, thin the herd, work through the mountain."


    Oh my stars, this is somewhat embarrasing, just a tad, mind you, a wee bit, not too much, just like, oh, you know, our fingers tap-tap-tapping a little too fast, Chica????

    I will not, will not, will not elaborate all my mistakes which tend to come from my obsession for talking, not mechanics of writing.

    Learning to be quiet RIGHT NOW.

    Alicia, Tina warned us this was a totally to-the-point worthy post. And since I'd never met you, I might have been just the teensiest bit skeptical.

    No more.

    And GINA....

    Honey, we all KNOW you're two fries short of a Happy Meal and we don't hide anything from our guests, girl, you KNOW that.

    We told Alicia about you ahead of time, sweet thing. Forewarned is well armed.

  50. Wait.

    What did Vince say?

    Because I actually agree with him.

    Vince, I love you, man. That's a valid observation, if the proposal is kick-butt good, then the rest of the book should follow suit.

    But I think we all re-tweak those opening chapters (I know I do) when the book is done because the book's curves might need different lead-ins than what I originally thought.

    Tweaking. Pimping. Doll-ups.

    All good.

    Mr. Smarty Pants.

  51. so a typo earns the longest comment of the day from Ruthy?

    Well, the LONGEST comment of the day almost always comes from Ruthy, but for that?

    C'mon, girl. You can go on for a CHAPTER in the comments section for something bigger than THAT!!!!!!!!


  52. Alicia, you should teach this as a class at writer's conferences.

  53. I once read a really great romance novel centered around the invention of the carburetor.

    I still smile about it because the author just made that background story so fun, but of course the hero and heroine were busy falling in love while that carburetor got patented.

    So it's not that the subject is wrong it's the FOCUS on it... obsession ... to the detriment of the story or query letter or any part of the proposal.

  54. And yes, I just repeated what Alicia said, only in a much clunkier way. :)

  55. What a timely post for me! I just finished my first manuscript and am getting ready to write up my proposal. Your points are very helpful. Thank you for sharing with us, Alicia!

    Please count me in the drawing.


  56. Ruth, we should do a poll on what part of the proposal do we hate doing the most. :) I bet we'll mostly say the synopsis. But I also hate writing a query letter because there are only 200 words, and everyone has to be right.


  57. Okay, Linnette, you'll have to tell us what part of the proposal is most painful! Masochists R us. :)

  58. Oh, my that is a crack up on the dating site.

  59. Actually she really should teach this at RWA. It would be standing room only.


    Thanks so much, Alicia! I hope all our visitors to this post emblazon your words upon their hearts, bulletin boards, and computer screens.

    I can't speak from an editor's perspective, but I've certainly judged my share of contest entries. And one typo, one misplaced comma, one misused word and the writer has immediately lost credibility with me.

    As for synopses, I LOVE what you said about story versus plot. That makes so much sense! I really work hard to make my synopses engaging, emotional, and character-centered, not just a recitation of what happens next.

    Yes, definitely you need to be presenting this at a major writers conference! GREAT STUFF!!!!

  61. Oh, Alicia, where do I begin? LOL

    The cover letter. What do you put in it? The proposal cover page, One-page "sell" sheet, market and competitive analysis...I hate research. Ugh! I thought the synopsis would be difficult, but these may prove to be more of a nightmare.

    Any more tips would be grately appreciated!

  62. Very good advice Alicia. Thank you so much. Another sheet for my notebook.

    I would love to be entered to win a copy of The Power of Point of View. Thank you for the chance to win a copy.

    Cindy W.


  63. Alicia, I know how busy you are with all those hats you wear. Thank you so much for being with us today.

    This has been a total honor--like Gina I have stars in my eyes.

  64. Thanks, Alicia, for joining us in Seekerville today. Thanks too for the following great tip:

    " First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more."

    I'm posting it on my computer! Thanks bunches!

  65. Alicia, thank you for this great post!! And welcome! I've been so thrilled you'd be coming. I'm always touting The Story Within. I give it and you credit for helping me make my first sale! :)

    Thanks, too, for the laugh over crazy people wanting to be writers. LOL

  66. This is fantastic information that I will bookmark and go back to again. Please enter me in the giveaway.


  67. I got to this late after a long day. Now I 'm going to be up all night considering if my synopsis is a plot or story. That's something I've never considered.

    Thanks for the thoguht-provosking post.

  68. This post was so amazing. Thanks for sharing your expertise!
    Cheryl Wyatt

  69. Incredibly helpful today. Thank you! I'd been told (obviously erroneously) to give a plot summary for the synopsis. So glad to hear differently--and it makes so much sense.

    Look forward to reading THE POWER OF POINT OF VIEW. So sorry I missed it all these months. Kind of you, Alicia.

    Mary Kay

    Mary [at} MaryKayMoody [dot] com

  70. Myra, yes, I think judging contest entries give writers a glimpse of what editors experience. I remember judging one contest and thinking disgustedly that this was the third picnic scene in six entries! And then I realized that I had a picnic scene in my own book, and I thought, hmm. I wonder if I'm just settling for that like all the contest entrants had, and how amplified that must be for editors who get 100 submissions.

    Linnette, I don't like marketing info in a query, you know, my book would appeal to lawyers and grade school teachers, and will especially do well in zip codes beginning with 1. That is not something that a writer should be concerned with. Better spend the words on telling me about the book! (Now non-fiction proposals sometimes have a marketing page, but I wouldn't want it in a fiction proposal.)

    And put in only as much bio as supports the story, like relevant professional experience (you're a doctor and this is a medical thriller, say). A couple recent contest wins (or if they're not recent, don't say the year). No personal information like marriage and children. Focus on the story.

  71. Debby, " First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more."

    That's a toughie, of course, but again, it might be good to write or rewrite the opening after the draft is done. That way you might be able to have more sense of what the book "answers".

    Missy, here's hoping for that first sale soon!

    Walt, it is hard, but I've read so many synopses, and the only ones that made any positive impression had a bit of swing, some voice, some attitude. And that does come from a bit of experimentation, I think.

  72. >> I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning. <<

    I want a T-shirt that says this.
    Or maybe a tatoo.

  73. Very helpful post, Alicia. I just looked over my synopsis and thankful to say it reads like a story with a little of the plot included. I've been told by contest judges that my synopsis is very well written, but unfortunately the first few pages of the novel lack the same skill. Thank you for the advice on the opening paragraph. Please include me in the drawing for the book.


  74. The synopsis has always been a struggle for me. It's a book report that I have never enjoyed writing. But I'm pulling up my bootstraps and digging in. Thanks for all the tips. A very informative blog.

    Please sign me up for your giveaway and keep writing.

  75. I cannot believe this. Here I was, not two days ago, wishing for a contest that gave your POV book away! I kid you not.

    I'm doing the NaNoWriMo and have reached my personal goal for this three day period. I am rewarding myself with randomly perusing my favorite blogs.

    The absolutely worst part of writing is doing a query letter. A very close second is the synopsis.

    In my research for the two books I am currently trying to earn the attention of agents/or editors with, I have learned a few horrifying facts.

    One: fantasy is a very hard sell.
    Two: CJ Redwine has to be the cheapest query class on Earth that turns suck into rock on!
    Three: some agents want you to include who will buy your book, what your target market is and what percentage of your time/resources you are willing to committ to marketing/promoting your book.
    Four: I have no clue outside of adults who like to read this genre and my instinct is to jump up and down and say I will sell you my first born to have my book published but my second instinct is HUH?

    Anyway, I'm glad to hear you say that I should focus on the writing part in the query.

    PS I am networking, blogging, facebook, twitter, following spectacular and witty blogs (yes that was a brown nose for a special entry for the book?), and generally trying to build a presence on the web. It's the way the info is presented that has me looking at it skeptically.

  76. Alicia,
    I'm a little late, but great post! Lots of helpful insight.

  77. Great article. A lot of good information that is always a good reminder.

    Thanks for taking the time to share this with us.


  78. Oooh, ooh, I'd love to win this book!

  79. Well Leona!!! Welcome to Seekerville.

    Hi to Sandy and Lindi too.

  80. LOL, Ms. St. John you're pretty funny.

    Thanks for stopping by Pat and Gwen.

  81. Thanks for the great info in this post. I've written tons of queries and I really liked your ideas!