Thursday, January 21, 2010

Proposals—basic structure

Camy here! I know that lots of you did NaNoWriMo in November, and as all of us start to prepare for writer’s conferences this year, I wanted to talk about putting together a fiction proposal for your manuscript.

Not all proposals are set up the same way, but I’m going to go through the structure of a typical one.

Cover page

(It can be single or double-spaced, your choice)

Your name and contact info in the top left corner (mailing address, phone number, email address)

The manuscript’s genre and word count in the top right corner

In the center of the page, center justification:
Title of Your Novel
Your Name

(optional) your agent’s name and contact information in the bottom right corner

After the cover page, all the other pages of the proposal should have a header just like a manuscript, with the title, your name, and the page number of the proposal.

Story blurb (optional)

Start this on a fresh page after your cover page, and single space it.

The story blurb is just a paragraph—two to four sentences—about the story. Similar to back cover copy. This is basically the same as the story blurb you included in your query letter.

Your story blurb will either hook the editor or not. Here are some pointers.

1) Try to write it in the tone or voice of the novel. If your manuscript is a romantic comedy, make the blurb sound fun and flirty. If your novel is a dark thriller, make the blurb sound sinister and exciting.

2) It should name the main protagonists. The villain can also be named if he/she is a major protagonist.

3) The main protagonists' external goals should be clear.

4) There should be some hint of the major obstacle(s) in the protagonists' way.

5) A nice touch is to add a little info on the main protagonists' internal or spiritual conflicts.

6) Unlike a synopsis, you do not need to give away the ending, but you may if you prefer.

Here’s an example of a story blurb as it would appear at the top of a fresh page in my proposal:

Story Blurb:

Risa Takayama would rather eat rotten tofu than listen to her aunts’ tweaking her about her weight and lack of a Significant Other. She’s the Elephant Man next to her Barbie-doll cousins, so she throws herself into her wedding accessories shop in the mall. She’s becoming so savvy and self-sufficient, she hasn’t needed to bother God for any help in a while.

Three weeks before the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service, her non-Christian brother makes a crazy deal—he’ll go to church with the family if she finds a date for the service. Risa can’t ask family friend Ben Higashi—the entire church knows rice would stop sticking before he’d be interested in her, so they’d assume she couldn’t find anyone else. Ben suggests the mall-sponsored Speed Dating, but when she uncovers a mall shoplifter mystery, can she discover both Mr. Right and the crook as her twelve dates turn into the Twelve Nightmares before Christmas?


You can either start this on a fresh page or put it on the same page under the story blurb, separated by the word “Synopsis” on a separate line in between the blurb and the start of the synopsis. (Personally, I would put it on the same page as the story blurb, if I had one for the proposal, but it’s personal preference.)

The synopsis should be about one to two pages long, single-spaced. You can either indent paragraphs or separate them with an extra carriage return (like website pages).

DO reveal the ending. This is the entire story laid out.

I could write BOOKS on how to write a synopsis … well, okay, maybe I’m exaggerating, but I have written two articles on it, so I won’t go into it here:

Quick tip for how to write a synopsis

Another quick tip for how to write a synopsis

NOTE: The next 8 things I mention below will all be listed one after another on the same page and successive pages, each section separated by just the label of what it is: Bio, Hook, Genre, Word Count, etc.

Your Bio

Start this on a fresh page, and again, single-spaced. It is also in third person past tense.

Your bio is your writing credits, any experience you have in the writing or publishing industry, and any social connections or life experiences that have any relevance to the story. Also, maybe a personal sentence about your family or yourself.

If you don't have many writing credits, don't point it out. If you have a lot, point only to the relevant ones. If you wrote an article on abuse in Woman's World and an article on stretching in Runner's World, include the Woman's World but not the Runner's World.

If you belong to a national writers organization like RWA, ACFW, SFWA, MWA, then include it. Also include if you’ve ever worked in a publishing house or for a magazine.

Don't ramble on for paragraphs and pages about your family and experiences—keep it to only those things that are pertinent for your story. If the main plot of your story is about hang-gliding and you've done that several times, then include it. But if your story is about the stock market, then don't include the hang-gliding experience.

Your social connections can also have pertinence. If your story is set in medieval Scotland and you belong to a local Scottish Heritage group, then mention that. However, if the main plot or characters of your story don’t have anything to do with your social groups, don’t include them.

Here’s an example of my bio in my very first proposal:


As a fourth generation Japanese American, Camy has close ties with the Asian American community in both Hawaii and the San Francisco Bay Area, where the story is set. She is a columnist for WordPraize multicultural e-zine, and she has had articles published in Nikkei Heritage, the journal for the National Japanese American Historical Society. She is a member of RWA, Faith, Hope and Love chapter, and American Christian Fiction Writers. The first chapter from another of her manuscripts won first place in its category in the 2005 ACFW Noble Theme contest.


This is just a short paragraph under your Bio, labeled with the word “Hook.”

You want to answer the editor’s questions: What makes this story unique? How is this story different from any other book that’s sitting on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? What kind of spiritual, emotional, or personal message will a reader glean from it?

Here’s an example from one of my proposals:


Set in the city of San Jose, California, known as Silicon Valley, THE YEAR OF THE DOG follows the trials of an Asian American woman on the shady side of 35 who wrestles with familial and cultural pressures about her single status, her age, and her “unorthodox” dog training business whereas most of her cousins are engineers, doctors, or lawyers. She clashes culturally with the hero, a Southern boy from Louisiana with a stagnant faith and a slavish devotion to his career. Through hilarious trials and turnarounds, the two lovers find their identities in Christ, resolutions to their difficult family situations, and the truth that opposites can attract. The novel immerses readers in the northern California Asian American culture, with colorful characters who could have been drawn from anyone’s extended family, no matter the background.


Make it easy for the editor/agent to know what the major genre is.

Length of manuscript

Round to the closest 100 or 1000 words.

Alternate titles (optional)

Expect your publisher to change your title. No, I’m serious. Do NOT be attached to your title. At all. It will save you much angst and heartache later.

Completion date

If it’s already completed, say so. It’s highly recommended for first-time novelists to wait until their manuscript is complete before submitting to agents and editors.


Don’t say “everyone.” Give a specific demographic, but not too specific—i.e., 16-year-old females living in Little Rock, AR, with two sisters, a cat and a dog.

Marketing plan

This doesn’t have to be extensive unless you want it to be.

Don’t list things like “willing to appear on Oprah”—well, duh. Plus so few authors actually make it on Oprah, period.

Be specific about what you personally can do. What groups do you belong to, and what can you realistically do to use your connections to promote your book?

For example: Do you work in a school and can you influence the librarian or other schools’ libraries to carry your book? Do you belong to any national organizations and can you give workshops on your book topic at your local chapter? Do you have an active blog or website and can you utilize that to spread the word on the internet? What are your statistics/number of readers/hits? Do you have a newsletter, and how many people subscribe to it?

Here’s an example of my marketing plan:

Marketing Plan:

Camy has ties to the local Asian community to publicize this novel, and will conduct workshops and book signings at libraries and bookstores in San Jose, around northern California and wherever travel opportunity arises. She will promote her books on romance readers’ websites and online discussion groups where she already participates regularly. She will conduct reader contests, produce a monthly newsletter and maintain an up-to-date author website and blog. She already generates traffic to her website with her monthly giveaway drawing of Christian fiction. She also draws hits to her blog with author interviews, book reviews and book giveaways. She will arrange a cyber-book tour to various blogs and websites. She will seek reviews and endorsements from review websites and book clubs. With her publisher’s support, Camy will enter her novels into contests such as the RITA, the Holt Medallion contest, and the Christy Award.

Competitive Analysis/Marketing Analysis (optional)

This is a page or two listing books similar to yours but different in some way. This is to show how your book would both fit in and stand out from the books already in print.

Make sure the books you list aren’t too old. List recent titles over older ones.

Show clearly how the books are similar, but also show clearly how yours differ. For example:

Comparative Analysis

Dixieland Sushi by Cara Lockwood, Downtown Press, 2005
This chick lit highlights the dating life of a single Asian women, but Dixieland Sushi is set in the South and delves more into the struggles of a biracial protagonist coming to terms with her cultures, while “The Year of the Dog” explores the influence of an extended Asian American family.

Start this on a fresh page with the words “Comparative Analysis” at the top of the page. This is also single-spaced, but add a carriage return between books for easier reading.

Chapter by chapter synopsis (optional)

Not all agents/editors will read this, but I usually include it just in case they want to see more detail about the way the plot and character arc unfolds. I wrote a short post on how to write one here.

First three chapters of the manuscript

Now for the juicy part! Start a fresh page and start your manuscript. Keep the same header. Don't worry about "labeling" it as your manuscript, the editor will figure it out.

If you are savvy enough in Word, start new page numbers. But if you don't know how to do that, don't worry, it's not that big a deal and it doesn't matter that the manuscript will start on page 15 or something like that.

Manuscript format should be traditional--1 inch or more margins on each side, double-spaced, 12 or 14 point font, Courier or Times New Roman or equivalent font. (If you're not familiar with traditional formatting, I have an article on it here.)

Whew! Is that enough information or what??? But hopefully this will give you a better idea of what a fiction proposal looks like—or rather, what MY fiction proposals look like. Hopefully my Seeker sisters will chime in on how theirs might have differed, what they included or didn’t include, etc. There’s no one way to write a proposal, but I wanted to cover all the basic stuff in this post.

Any questions, just leave them in the comments and either I or the other Seekers can answer them!

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novels Single Sashimi and Deadly Intent are out now. She runs the Story Sensei critique service, is a staff worker for her church youth group, and leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels and ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for giveaways!


  1. Hi Camy:

    Thanks. This is very helpful and just in time. I need to read all the articles you mentioned for a project I am working on this weekend.

    Do you have an ideal target goal for selecting the books for the competitive analysis? I assume you want to pick books that sold well. Also that you would want to select books that got good reviews? If the books did not sell well or got poor reviews, would it be best not to mention them at all?

    Do you think it would be the ‘kiss of death’ or at least detrimental to a sale to say that there has not been anything like your book on the market before?

    In short, what would be the ideal competitive analysis book?

    Thanks again,


  2. Morning Camy:

    Thanks for the sequential nuts-and-bolts guidelines. I'm printing it for my 'tips' notebook.


  3. You're welcome, Vince! For the competitive analysis, mostly pick books that either made it to a bestseller list or are very recently published. Even if they didn't make it on a list, there's no real way to know how well or not well they sold, so don't think too much about that. Also, reviews have very little impact on how well or not well a book did.

    I personally would not say there has never been a book like mine on the market. To me it seems a bit egotistical, but that might be just my personality.

    Helen--I'm glad this was helpful for you!

    Well, it's still 11 p.m. here on the West Coast, and it's a bit chilly and wet, so I put on a pot of Turin hot chocolate. :)


  4. YOur book sounds fun, Camy! Thanks for the rundown here. Very helpful.

  5. Hi Camy,

    Great article. I'll be printing it out for future reference.

    Proposals are quite so overwhelming when broken down into the individual sections.


  6. WOW, Camy, I had NO IDEA this much work went into a proposal!! I'm a query/synopsis girl myself, but I am SO gonna keep this post, just in case.

    And I echo LOUD AND CLEAR on the title change. I think Natasha told me that titles changed about 80% or 90% of the time, or something outrageous like that, so truly, do NOT get attached to your titles. Mine were all from theme Scripture titles that I wove INTO each book, but nope, that didn't matter a whit. All three of the Daughters of Boston book titles were changed. I think the only person I know of whose title didn't change is fellow Seeker, Cara Lynn James. Her original title of Love on a Dime stayed the same.


  7. Camy,

    Thanks for this invaluable information! Extremely helpful!

  8. Great breakdown, Camy. I always enjoy your articles. Thanks!

  9. Great information, Camy! Especially for writers meeting with editors and agents at conference.

    I've never kept a title. My advice--don't get attached to yours. :-)

    I brought fresh fruit and hard-boiled eggs this morning. The eggs are delicious with melted butter, salt and pepper. Dig in.


  10. Camy, what a great post. I love how you give examples. It makes it so clear. And synopses are my least favorite thing to write. They remind me of a book report at school. I usually wait until I finish the manuascript before I write mine. lol

    Thanks for all the tips on marketing plan. You are great at marketing so I'm sure the Seeker fans will learn much from that.

    Thanks for the hot chocolate. yum. but I'm heading for coffee next. I have plenty.

  11. Thanks, Camy, for this helpful overview! My question is this: How does a proposal fit into the agent process? If I'm starting to query to agents or planning to pitch to agents at a conference, should I have my proposal ready? Or is that something that comes together later when the agent is bringing the idea to editors?

  12. Oh Camy,
    Thanks for this!! Your articles are so helpful - (written while climbing from my stack of articles I printed from your website)
    This info is great, especially what to write for marketing.
    My agent gave me a template that helped a lot too.
    Thanks so much.

  13. Oh, and Sandra...
    Im' sorry you don't like writing a synopsis. That's one thing I REALLY enjoy. In some way it helps me feel closure when I know I still have SOOOO much to still write/edit on the novel :-)

  14. I hear people asking about proposals and synopsises..synopsi? whatever...a lot.

    We need to do something with this blog so people can find it and refer back to it.

    Great job, Camy.

  15. I love to write novels, love to edit and revise, but I hate writing proposals. Too bad. I still had to do it. :-)

    And Camy's right about not getting attached to your title. The Woodcutter's Daughter is now The Healer's Apprentice.

  16. Thanks for the info, Camy. Very helpful.

  17. Hey Pepper, I'll call on you next time I have to write a synopsis.

    Isn't it funny how there are aspects of writing we hate and aspects we love?

    I really love revising. Its like working a puzzle. So fun.

  18. Excellent post, Camy. I like how you gave clear instructions on each "piece" of the proposal and examples. And gread advice about the title issue.

    I do struggle with the hook and blurb being in the voice and tone of the book. I'm reminded that I need to work on that.

  19. Hi Sarah,

    I generally send the same proposal to agents as I do to editors. That way they have all the information for pitching to editors.

    Also they want to see how serious you are about your writing. The marketing plan is essential when selling yourself as an author.

  20. Amazing. This is an incredible resource, Camy.
    thank you!

  21. Thank you, Camy. There is some wonderful information here. I'm almost to the part where I need to be thinking about submissions.

    Mind if I print this blog post off and pin it to my wall?

  22. Rose--isn't that the truth? That's how I learned how to write a proposal--Marilynn Griffith broke it down into sections and I just followed her template!

    Julie--I remember that! I really wish they had kept the original title of A Passion Most Pure--wasn't it Chasing After the Wind or something like that?

    Edwina and Jill--you're welcome!

    Janet--I agree! I also found it helpful to pitch to an editor or agent if I had already done a proposal, because then I knew all this important information about the book when I sat down to talk to them.

    Thanks Sandra! I actually enjoy writing synopses--they're easy for me. I guess my brain just works that way!

    Kerri--you're welcome!

    Sarah--good question! Query or pitch to agents as normal, but I also have a proposal ready to send to the agent if they request my partial manuscript. It's always good to have it handy before you query or pitch.

    Pepper--I knew I liked you! Synopses are fun! ;)

    Thanks, Mary! I think I did a short post on a synopsis before but I can't find it now.

    Melanie--LOL it's always fun for me to see how titles change!

    Dianna--you're welcome!

    Carla--thanks! I'm glad this was helpful for you!

    Debra and Renee--you're welcome! Print away!


  23. Very helpful, Camy! I love seeing how you do this--and your examples.

  24. Camy, I need this for an agent I want to pursue. Thanks.

  25. What a detailed explanation, Camy! It looks very similar to the proposal outline my agent gave me to work with.

    The area that gives me the most headaches is the competition/comparative analysis. I try to read as much as I can in my target genre, but it's sometimes hard to come up with a good list of relatively recent titles. Not to mention write a coherent comparison!

  26. You're welcome, Missy!

    Walt, glad this was helpful for you! Sounds like good timing.

    Myra--I'm so glad you said that--I wondered how this would compare to other agents' proposal outlines.


  27. Thank you for the helpful information. My novel is not finished, so that is my first goal. Why does writing a proposal sound scarier than writing a book?

  28. Diane, I promise it's not very scary at all! Just take it one section at a time!

  29. Thanks Camy,

    I followed a template from another well known writer to do my proposal. She found every book and the cost in the comparative. I like the idea of giving a comparative with a blurb, but making sure that really defines a difference. Having been told by houses that they already have someone who writes that way, it's probably a wise idea to promote the difference no matter how subtle.

  30. Tina, yes that's what Marilynn Griffith said when I took her online course--point out both similarities and differences, to make sure the editor knows you're not trying to write exactly the same as somebody else!

  31. Hey Camy-cakes! Great step by step plan.

    I don't think the synopsis thing will ever get easy. Or the back cover blurb. I just have way too many words floating through my head. I can't write a short story to save my life, LOL!

  32. Great info, Camy! Love having the blurb and bio included, along with the marketing plan. Seems the Christian houses, other than Steeple Hill, want that type of info. Thanks for making it sound so easy...which I know it's not!!!

  33. God's timing is SO perfect.

    Wow Camy, you're an instrument of His Grace.

    This is just exactly EXACTLY what I need.

    Dittoes to all the other comments about examples. YES YES YES.

    Thanks - I needed that (uh, those!)

    Armed and ready, I'm ready to tackle it! :)

  34. Audra, I completely suck at back cover blurbs! LOL My attempts always sound lame.

    Debby--good point to bring up--Steeple Hill does not require more than the cover page, a synopsis, and the three chapters.

    KC--I'm so glad this was helpful for you! :)


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