Article of the Month
Ten Tips to a Powerful Proposal
c. 2005 by Alicia Rasley
Editors usually request a proposal as the first submission, rather than the entire manuscript. So think of the proposal as your sales tool, and make it as powerful as you can.
Proposal = First Three Chapters, Synopsis, Cover Letter
First Three Chapters
1. Rewrite your opening. You probably wrote it months ago, before you really understood your plot and theme and characters. So read over the draft after Chapter Three, and absorb who, what, and why. Then go back to the opening scenes and read them with a fresh eye. Be willing to discard them entirely if that's what's needed. You want to make sure that the opening scenes' tone is consistent with the rest of the book (that is, don't start with comedy unless you stick with it). And you want the opening to present the story question that the plot goes to answer.
Analyze each scene. What is your purpose in the opening scene? What impression do you want the reader to have of the character? What do you want the reader to understand about the world and the issues of the book? You might have to rewrite the opening altogether to accomplish these purposes– but that's good. This is your only chance with the editor. She won't give you the benefit of the doubt.
2. Start in the right place. This opening act should show the world and the protagonist on the brink of significant change. Make sure the characters have reason to take on the plot, whether that motivation comes from the immediate goal ("I want to go to the homecoming dance with Brad") or is forced by the initial plot events ("I want to survive this kidnapping!").
Remember to invent events: Scenes are units of action based around actual events. Don't wimp out with a flashback or a long scene of musing. Center the opening scenes on the characters' experiences and actions. Anchor the event in the setting. As Kate Moore puts it, "We're somewhere, and something is happening." And make the event relevant to the plot! If the heroine trips and falls and makes a fool of herself in the first scene, use that not just to show that she's clumsy but to motivate her to take up Tae Kwon Do or ballet– or when she's lying there on the ground, she sees the package left by the villain.
Generally you either want to start shortly before the main conflict starts, or maybe (in a fast-paced story) right when it starts. The reader needs a glimpse of the story world and the central character before the plot events (this is the starting point of the journey). The reader probably does not need to be introduced to lots of characters (confusing) or lots of backstory at this point. Editors often say they don't want a book to start with the protagonist in a plane or car going somewhere unless the trip is quickly interrupted by something more interesting, like a hijacking. If your protagonist just gets to the end of the trip, do you need that vehicular scene? Or is it just a vehicle for the protagonist to think about the backstory? Start the action going, and fill in the past as needed.
Beware of Backstory: Don't waste the first chapter on a retelling of all that has happened before. "Exposition is ammunition"-- reveal it when it needs to be revealed, when the reader is asking for it. That is, don't tell the reader the answer before she's had reason to ask the question.
3. The first few scenes should accomplish these tasks:
Discovering the Characters: What does the opening say about the main characters and what matters to them and how they might need to change? This is the first impression your reader will get, so present them in action, doing something that shows their values and issues. Do you give some sense of their central strength and how it affects their actions? Is it clear pretty quickly who your central characters are? If you start the book with secondary characters, consider why... and be aware that the reader might bond with them and be annoyed to find the book is actually about someone else.
Establishing Point of View: In revising, be analytical about how your choice of point of view affects the discovery of the characters and the portrayal of the world and their perceptions. Can you show the heroine's blind spot or let the reader know the hero has a secret (but not what it is)? Can you show that she is especially curious, or that he sees life as a series of battles? Try to stay in one point of view long enough so that the reader can truly experience the world from this character's perspective– this might mean the entire scene is in one viewpoint.
Revealing the Issues: You don't have to spell the conflict out– rather show the conflict in character action. What's the first scene where the booklength external conflict first arises? It should be early– chapter two or earlier– as that's when the story really gets engaged. But even before that you can show the issues involved with your glimpse of the "old world" and the "before-protagonist". How does the heroine respond to minor racism, before she's confronted with the major racism that is the external conflict? Remember to leave space for change here– if she responds with perfect heroism right away, she doesn't have a lot of growing room.
4. Show your voice. Read the whole manuscript and get acquainted with your own voice. You want that voice to show in the opening scenes. If you take a modern, sardonic attitude throughout the book, start with a clever observation. If your strength is establishing a richly textured setting, use that first few paragraphs to show the story world through the perspective of a major character. If you dazzle at dialogue, maybe start with a quick conversation that shows not only how witty you are, but who these characters are and how they communicate. What do you need to describe of this world and these people? And how do you– not Generic Author– use your own unique voice to introduce them?
The synopsis tells them you can plot... but these opening scenes tell them you can write.
But edit tightly. Shorter paragraphs are easier on the editorial eye, so look for opportunities to break long passages up. Aim for comprehensible sentences. It's fine to have complex constructions, if that's your voice, but simplify as much as possible so they are complex, not incoherent. While it's great to vary sentence openings, there's nothing wrong with the occasional simple declarative sentence. Focus on making the sentence meaning clear– for example, usually (not always) the main thought should be in the main clause, and it shouldn't be overshadowed by a much longer introductory clause. While she was making every bed in the whole house and airing out all the linens, he escaped works better as He escaped while she was making every bed in the whole house and airing out all the linens.
Revise to make your voice as unique and refined as possible.
5. Find a virgin reader: When you've got the first chapters done, ask for a read by a "virgin reader", one who knows nothing about the story. As she reads, she should tell you what she's experiencing, what questions she has, what emotions she feels, where she's confused, where she's intrigued. At the end of each chapter, have her tell you what she knows... and what she only suspects... and what she's asking. Does she know what you want her to know? Is she suspecting what you want her to suspect? (For example, "I don't think Brad's the hero, even though Sarah is in love with him.") Is she asking the questions you want her to ask? (For example, "Is Brad going to take advantage of her? Is Jake going to get mad at her?") A virgin reader can tell you if there are too many characters or if he's not sure where this is taking place. Better learn that from a friend than from an editor!
6. Use turning points as the basis of your synopsis. The synopsis is a narrative summary of the plot, from 3-20 pages. It tells the editor that you can develop and resolve conflict. So start with the major events of the plot, the turning points. A turning point is when the protagonist's trajectory changes. The list of turning points should form the skeleton– dress it up to make the synopsis.
1. (initiating event) Rare books dealer John Dryden learns that a lost play partly penned by Shakespeare might have ended up in a private library.
2. Jessica Seton's uncle forbids her the marriage that would have allowed her to retake control of her father's private library from its obsessive and secretive curator. She has two months to find another groom who will meet uncle's approval.
3. She asks John, as a rare books expert, to evaluate the work of Mr. Wiley, the library's curator, who is obsessed with the notion that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote Shakespeare's plays.
4. A suspicious Jessica forces John to confess his actual motive in helping her. Together they break into the library in the middle of the night and find the list of the vault's contents, confirming John's suspicions about the play.
5. (rising stakes) Wiley counters by using John's disreputable past and illegitimate birth to dissuade the uncle, and finally resorts to hiring thugs to assault John.
6. (reversal-point of no return) Jessica's uncle gives his consent for the marriage, but before John can persuade Jessica, Wiley has him shanghai'd onto a Navy ship bound for Russia.
7. The unknowing Jessica, thinking to make John acknowledge that he deserves her love, leaves London and goes into hiding until her birthday.
8. (dark moment) John manages to escape the ship, but returns to London and finds her gone. He despairs of tracking her down in time to marry before her inheritance is lost.
9. (climax) He finds a clue that leads him to his home village and Jessica, and they marry, just in time to foil Wiley's final attempt to destroy the play that proves Shakespeare really was Shakespeare.
10. (resolution) As a team they defeat the evil librarian and save the Shakespeare play.
7. For a romance, make a separate list of romantic turning points. Or for a book with a strong internal plot, list the internal turning points.
1. (initiating event) Jessica's uncle rejects her latest suitor and she vows to marry anyone her uncle wants, just to get her library.
2. (external plot begins) The "accidental" meeting with John Dryden seems like the answer to at least one of Jessica's prayers-- she hires him to keep watch on the librarian she doesn't trust.
3. (first moment of connection) Learning the truth about John's intentions, she insists they become allies in the search. He steals a kiss as they steal the vault list. She realizes this outlaw is the only man she can trust, the only man willing to regard her as an equal.
4. (internal conflict arises) Jessica defends John to her snocbish uncle, and privately asks about the rumors of his parentage. For the first time ever John voices aloud what he has known for many years-- that the working-class man who raised him was not his biological father.
5. John offers to pretend to be her fiance, hoping to force her snobbish uncle into accepting her previous suitor, a much more suitable fellow.
6. (subplot-- rising action from internal conflict) He goes home again to see Devlin, who insists that John acknowledge their real relationship, as half-brothers, sons of the former Lord Devlin. When John refuses, Devlin's wife tells him to stay out of their lives.
7. (reversal) When her uncle unexpectedly approves the betrothal, John refers to their marriage as making the best of a bad situation. (point of no return) Jessica realizes he doesn't trust her to love an outlaw and a bastard, and leaves town, hoping to force him into accepting his past and her love.
8. John's harrowing time in the brig of the navy ship(crisis), and his dark moment of imagining that Jessica eloped with another while he was gone, forces him into action to prove his love.
9. (climax) He tracks her to his home village, where she has been working in his foster father's apothecary. He reconciles with his half-brother Devlin, who with his wife hosts the impromptu wedding.
10. (resolution) They agree to be a team, running the library and raising a family and routing rare book swindlers.
8. Now bring each external turning point together with the corresponding romantic/internal turning point, linking the events by CAUSE AND EFFECT. Summarize the important supporting events. Aim at a paragraph per point-pair for a short synopsis, and a page for a long synopsis. (There might not be a perfect matchup-- look for ways to add transitions then.) Make sure you sneak EMOTION in wherever possible, using modifiers (like "hotly") and phrases (like "with her sympathy and openness").
Wiley counters by using John's disreputable past and illegitimate birth to dissuade the uncle from allowing John access to the library and to Jessica. Jessica rises hotly to the defense, reminding her uncle of John's expertise and royal connections. Wiley finally resorts to hiring thugs, and John must protect her on a journey through the dark alleys of London. Until the coast clears, he and Jessica hole up in Devlin's deserted London house. Jessica sees the portrait of Devlin's father, and unthinkingly remarks on the startling resemblance to John. He is angry, but she disarms him with her sympathy and openness. Obliquely, he alludes to his dilemma-- that acknowledging the late lord as his father and the current lord as his brother would be denying the man who ignored the evidence and raised him as a son. Jessica realizes he has never spoken of this to anyone, and feels honored by his trust.
9. Read over the synopsis and see what you need to add. I like to start the synopsis with a paragraph of backstory for the protagonist, because this is an efficient way to establish internal conflict: Village gossip taught John Dryden early that his real father wasn't the apothecary who raised him, but the lord in the castle on the hill above. As a youth, he befriended his lonely half-brother, though neither of them ever spoke of their secret connection. John grew up not knowing which world he belonged in, which father he should emulate– the nobleman or the shopkeeper. He ends up dealing art to the upper class, envying and scorning his rich clients.
Work on the transitions between paragraphs. What is the connection between this event and the next? Use the first sentence of the paragraph as the transition, using time, emotion, or cause and effect as the link.
When he finishes his tour of duty, Tom refuses to re-enlist and returns to his hometown. (time)
Furious at Tom's defiance, Lucy tells the police where to find him. (emotion)
Learning of Lucy's betrayal, he decides to turn the tables on her. (cause and effect)
The Cover Letter
10. The cover letter should introduce you and your story to the editor. But remember, you're less important than the story, so leave yourself to the last paragraph or so and only include what the editor will find relevant– your writing credentials and any "expert" credentials that give you more credibility. (That is, if you are an attorney and this is a legal thriller, be sure and mention that.)
The editor wants to know how long the book is (approximate word count), what sort of plot it is, and any line it's aimed at. To introduce the story, go with a "hot premise". This might say something about the opening situation, or state the theme, or say something dramatic about the character. Imagine that your book has been made into a big blockbuster movie. What would the tagline be on the full-page ad in Entertainment Weekly?
Then add in a short paragraph of summary that establishes the plot situation and hints at the internal conflict. Make sure it's not too redundant, that it doesn't just amplify the hot premise.
End with your credentials and a "call to action".
Thank you for considering my 75,000 word Regency for your Signet line. POETIC JUSTICE is a complete manuscript, set in London in 1818. I enclose three chapters and a synopsis.
A renegade rare-books dealer and a heiress-in-waiting must embark on a sham betrothal for the loftiest of literary aims– to prove that Shakespeare really was... Shakespeare.
John Dryden is on the trail of the greatest acquisition of his checkered career– a play manuscript written in Shakespeare's own hand. Between him and his prize is an obsessed librarian who wants to destroy it... and the heiress who can lead him to it – but only if he's willing to risk his independence, his life, and his loner's heart.
As a rare-books collector myself, I am familiar with John Dryden's trade and the ruthlessness of some of its aficionadoes. This manuscript won third prize in the Heartland Romance Contest, and an honorable mention in the Regency Chapter's Almacks Contest.
If you would like to see more, you can reach me during the day at (#), or by email at: (address).
Thank you for your consideration.
Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author.
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