Tuesday, January 26, 2016

novel proposal

My agent has asked me to write a proposal for my new novel. Since he wrote the proposal for my last (and only other) novel before submitting it over a year ago, I am genuinely terrified I'm going to mess this up. This novel is in a genre he normally doesn't rep, so I guess I'm the best qualified to write this.

Is this something literary agents expect their clients to know how to do (and do often)? I've bought a couple books and have googled a ton to make sure I get this right, but I can't get my agent to even answer my (few and far between) emails to ask him (I know... I know... that's a whole other problem). Thanks in advance for your advice. 


I'm a tad perplexed here since  I've never asked anyone to write a proposal for a novel. Generally my clients write either
1. a novel or
2. several chapters and an outline.

Which is not to say I haven't sold books based on notes on a cocktail napkin but that's not a proposal either.

Maybe several chapters and an outline is what your agent means.

The best thing to do though is ask him to show you what he wrote for your first novel proposal.  In fact, why is it that you haven't seen it?


You've also not mentioned if the first book sold. If it did, what the publisher needs in order to decide on acquiring the second book (or option book) is spelled out in the contract. It should say "full manuscript" or "synopsis" or "three chapters" or something very similar. It should be clear what's expected.

If your book did NOT sell, you've pointed out a problem with communication with your agent. You might think about addressing that before moving ahead on the next project.

Communication only improves when both parties are aware of the problem and working to fix it.

58 comments:

Adib Khorram said...

Glad you're feeling better, Janet. Welcome back!

Apparently I am up way too early this morning.

I was under the impression proposals were for non-fiction, not fiction. I hope the original poster returns to clarify...

Kitty said...

Hope you're feeling better, Janet. I suppose if you had to be sick, better that it happened during the blizzard instead of a breezy blue-sky day. Anyway, welcome back!

Allison Newchurch said...

Nice to see you have returned, Janet. I hope you're over the dreaded lurgy that has plagued you in recent days.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Hmmm. I am also at a loss as to what a proposal for a novel would be. Maybe a cross between an outline and a synopsis?

That said, I did once pitch a detailed story idea to my editor. (I proposed an idea to her?) She said, "That sounds great!" Then I had to write the sucker.

If your agent tends to rep non-fic, maybe they meant a detailed outline of your proposed novel and sample chapters.

But yeah. My sympathies if you're in a difficult communication situation.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Welcome back, Janet. *co-workers stare at me as I do my happy dance*

I have never heard of a proposal for a novel. Synopsis, yes, but proposal - I thought that was a non- fiction thing. Like Adib, a bit confused by this.

And I also rather thought finished novels were industry standard for new authors to publish? Was 1st novel complete prior to acquiring said agent? How did first book get sold? Did it get sold to a traditional publisher?

I need coffee. Curious how all this transpires as I can't get an agent to pull the trigger for me until I finish my latest R&R. They want a close to perfectly edited manuscript. At least all the agents I have dealt with so far. Which is not that many.

AJ Blythe said...

From what you've said, OP, it would seem the novel is written, so the only thing I wonder is whether the agent means a synopsis?. Really, like everyone else, I have no clue as to what the agent is asking for!

Glad you're back on your fins, Janet.

Lennon Faris said...

This sounds confusing and daunting (maybe because we don't have all the info but still). I hope the majority of agents are more communicative. Sorry I don't have any words of wisdom but just sympathy for you, OP.

And, glad you are back Janet, and hopefully feeling better. The writing day felt just a little off without this blog's words of wisdom!

Megan V said...

Glad to see your post Janet. Welcome Back and I hope that you're over most, if not all of the crud.

As to the OP-the few times I've seen agency website request a proposal for a novel, it said to include the query or cover letter, a synopsis and/or outline, and a partial or complete manuscript, a bio, and anything else the editor has requested.

Colin Smith said...

Yay! Welcome back, Janet. Not that it hasn't been fun hanging with the other woodland creatures here, but it's always more fun when the Shark's around. :)

Adib: I am aware that querying rules have changed over the years. Even as recently as 1999, Stephen King was advising writers to query agents with a letter detailing their published works, and outlining the novel they are working on. That's the one part of ON WRITING that needs SERIOUS updating, but I suppose it's possible some agents still operate that way. I haven't heard of any, though.

Of course, the big difference here is we're talking SECOND novel, so it makes sense to my non-agent, unpublished brain (mmm... do I want my brain to be published? Hardly enough there for flash fiction!) that an author who has already published and, therefore, has an established relationship with a publisher would not need to submit the finish ms before getting that publisher's buy-in. They would just need to be sold on the premise of the new novel, since the writer has already proved themselves.

What strikes me, as it seems to strike QOTKU, is the REAL problem here: Opie's relationship with his/her agent. Why isn't the agent communicating with Opie? Why isn't the agent falling over themselves to help in whatever way they can? This isn't like one of us non-clients asking Janet to read one of our stories, which she is not obliged to do. This is like Gary Corby asking Janet to read an article he has written for Australia Day prior to submitting for publication. Not only would Janet want to read it (who wouldn't? It's Gary Corby!), she would feel somewhat obliged since he's her client.

So, Opie, I would suggest you make sure the lines of communication are working between you and your agent. Sounds like something's a bit skewiffy there. :)

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

That sounds like a terribly uncomfortable situation. As always, OP, heeding Janet's advice sounds grand.

Ever wonder if other agents get miffed that Janet's here and available for us woodland creatures with all this clean, solid advice? Then again, perhaps agents who get miffed about it are the sort who get written about. There are many options, it's all a matter of perspective.

DLM said...

Jennifer, whether they know people take Janet's advice or not, I'd think agents have more to thank her for than to resent!

Colin Smith said...

Let me just add one other thing, to bang on another classic Janet Reid drum:

Opie, you are NOT a beggar at the publishing banquet. You have agreed to sign over 15% of all your publishing income to your agent. Your agent, therefore, should be willing to answer your emails, return your calls, and help you with whatever writing/publishing problems it is within their power to help with. Don't feel bad about calling your agent and saying, "Hey, why aren't you talking to me?" You can be nicer than that, but still, understand your position here. Your agent benefits from your success. So your agent should be 100% invested in your career.

Of course, what do I know--I don't have an agent. I'm just telling you what Janet has said on these here pages over the years, so don't take it from me... :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Along with all the other Reiders, I'm also puzzled by the request for a proposal for a novel. Is that typical for a writer putting out a second novel?

But Opie also mentions that this novel is a genre their agent doesn't normally rep. Does that mean Opie, that you are branching out and writing in a different genre from your first novel?

And it's good to have the Shark back among us. I missed her pithy and acerbic wit. Like Lennon Faris mentioned, my days have felt just a bit off since she's been ill. It's wonderful to have you back online, Janet.

Ellen said...

This question confuses me, too. My agent uses the term "proposal" for novels, but it refers to the sample chapters and outline I submit. I cannot imagine an agent writing this for the author.

So I suspect the writer here is referring to a pitch letter. If that's the case, he or she should work closely with their agent on crafting these paragraphs, because the agent is the one who understands how to entice an editor.

wordwacker.me said...

So glad to see you back, Janet!
Like you, I'm puzzled by this post. I wrote a proposal for a nonfiction book, but I've never heard of doing that for a novel. The key is for the original poster to find out what it is the agent is actually asking for, and why. As usual, you've given just the right advice, proving that you're back up to full shark-strength!

Donnaeve said...

Welcome back from the land of the living dead, otherwise known as Crudville!!! I agree with Kitty, at least it happened during the Blizzard of 16 versus a beautiful spring day.

There are proposals for fiction books - like Ms. Janet said, it's usually the option book clause which can be included in a contract for a book that sold. This is the way my contract is set up for THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE, it has an option clause. I would write the first three sample chapters and a "reasonable" outline for the rest of the new "Work," and my agent sends this off to my current publisher, Kensington, for consideration before sending it out to any other publishers.

The big difference here with this question is just what QOTKU points out. Did the other book sell? And did OP see the first proposal? And then there's that pesky problem of radio silence from the agent. When did the agent ask for this proposal? A week ago? A month? Six months? This seems to be a strangely, bizarrely different way for this agent (agency) to conduct business - 99.9% of agent/writer relationships stand on finished books first, not proposals. Something smells kind a fishy - to me.

nightsmusic said...

YAY!!! You're back!

*cue music from Jaws* Duh duh, duh duh, duh duh duh duh duh duh Dwadada....

I have to agree with Janet and Colin in their comments about the communication you're having with your agent. If he's not communicating with you, not answering your questions, and we don't know whether the first book sold or not, I would have to reassess my relationship with him. It would make me wonder, if he's not communicating, just how serious he is to see me published. Because your publication will put money in his pocket so it's not like he's doing this all for free.

Sherry Howard said...

Welcome back, QOTKU. Hope your sharkiness is swimming with the fishes--in a good way.

I'm puzzled about this relationship the OP paints. When I was a young, naive person I'd have worried my way through this, wasting my energy. Now, I'd clarify this with the agent before spending a minute puzzling over it. If said agent was completely unresponsive: no agent is better than a bad agent.

Dena Pawling said...


I read this as OP and agent have a working relationship based on non-fiction, altho agent also reps a limited amount of fiction. OP wrote one novel [fiction] a year ago, and agent wrote a proposal because he reps that genre and the editors he knows want proposals even for fiction. Now OP wrote a second novel, in a genre this agent doesn't rep, and wants OP to write the proposal because, again, the editors he knows want proposals but he doesn't rep this genre.

Which leads me to what everyone including OP have identified as the main problem –
>>I can't get my agent to even answer my (few and far between) emails to ask him (I know... I know... that's a whole other problem).

We all know Janet is a wonderful person [sshhhhhhhhh, don't tell anyone, don't want to ruin her sharkly reputation], but it seems really strange and more than a little telling, that OP has to ask Janet a question like this because OP's own agent won't answer it?????

I can envision OP's next email to agent – “Please call me [or I'll call you]. I'm confused as to what you want me to do, and I can't get you to respond to my emails so I've resorted to asking another agent what you mean and even she doesn't know, altho she had the decency to at least respond and try to help me.”

LynnRodz said...

There are more questions here than answers and probably we'll repeat what everyone has said before us, but the important question is, why is your agent not answering your emails? I would imagine if you had sold your first novel and it sold quite well, you wouldn't be having these communication problems.

If, however, that's not the case and your agent wasn't able to sell it or the sales were less than spectacular, then my question is why would you write a novel in a genre that your agent doesn't represent? Sorry, OP, but this does not bode well. Then again, what do I know? I hope you can clarify some of our questions here.

Great to see you back, Janet.

Lucie Witt said...

Dena took the words out of my mouth - it troubles me that OP is turning to Janet for info she should be getting from her agent.

Theresa said...

Glad to see you back, Janet. Hope you're feeling tons better.

There are lots of yikes in OP's situation. The lack of communication is troubling. Very troubling.

And I think it is important to know if that first novel sold.

Karen McCoy said...

Welcome back, Janet! Hope the crud is gone, and that the snow will be soon too.

This rings true to other, similar situations I've seen authors have with agents. It's been discussed before--whether agents are overworked, or whether it's some other hidden aspect that remains to be seen.

A conversation with the agent is definitely in order--and I hope that some good comes of it. Janet's advice is sound, and another reason why contract language is so key.

Good luck, Opie.

Colin Smith said...

Yah know, I have to say, you astute people have hit on a very good point that any writer with an agent should consider before sending a question to Janet: Why am I not asking my own agent? Possible good reasons:

1) Because my agent doesn't know and suggested I ask Janet. Perhaps my agent is relatively new and knows I frequent Janet's blog. Of course, a new agent should be part of an agency and, therefore, should be dipping into the experience there before going to "outside" agents. Unless newbie agent works for FinePrint, in which case she's Penny Moore, and Janet will just say, "Hey, I taught her all she knows. If she doesn't know, I don't!" :)

2) Because my question has to do with something I know is part of Janet's experience (maybe part of Janet's pre-agenting career), and not something my agent would know anything about. I confirmed this to be true in a quick text to my agent, which they responded to within an hour.

2) Because my agent IS Janet, and she wanted to post one of my questions on her blog because I missed one of her deadlines and this is her idea of punishment.

The worst reasons:

1) Because my agent won't tell me.
2) Because my agent isn't responding to my calls/emails/Tweets/chocolate.
3) Because my agent doesn't know and told me to Google the answer.
4) Because the local correctional facility only lets my agent have one five-minute phone call a week.

In short, if you have an agent, and you're turning to Janet for answers first, maybe that's where your real issue is...?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Yee haw, Janet's here, life is back to normal. Well sort of, until the next election anyway.
Novel...proposal...duh.
I thought you were supposed to finish the meal first. Then tell everyone what was in it and how tasty it was.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Welcome back Janet. I hope the crud in the reef is washed away, or frozen under all that snow.

I'm curious to know if this is one of those questions a writer should ask during the first agent connection, known as the call.

What do you expect, dear agent, when I present a new project? A full novel written on my iPhone, cocktail napkins or three chapters and an outline. "This should be spelled out in a contract."

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: or trash the leftovers. :)

DLM said...

Colin, as to "2) Because my agent isn't responding to my calls/emails/Tweets/chocolate" - we know how to manage this one.

BOURBON for heaven's sake.


But as to our OP ... for those of us pre-agented/sold woodland creatures, it's hard sometimes to feel truly sorry for those who have passed through the magical gateway of Being Agented. But in this case, I really do feel for our OP. It's clear they're trying to support their work in good faith, and though it seems to US less clear that the agent is, I hope there will be a resolution. I mean, that'd be good for the OP's agent.

May you have the best case outcome here! Keep us posted in the comments if you break the logjam.

Colin Smith said...

You're absolutely right, Diane. And if the agent doesn't respond to Bourbon, then something is SERIOUSLY awry. Summon medical help. :)

BJ Muntain said...

Welcome back, Janet!

I, too, was wondering what a novel proposal would be. I did a quick Google - it seems to be simply the query letter, chapters, and synopsis - which is normal querying material.

OP: I wouldn't worry so much, really. Write what you think it should be. It's up to your agent to tell you if it's what it needs to be, or if you need to make changes. Or to change it himself.

I can't think of many reasons he'd ask you to write it, if he'd written your previous one, unless it's:

a) he's a lot busier now, so needs your help with these things, or
b) he really can't get a handle on your story on his own.

If it's b), maybe he even asked you to write it, so you could get it clear in your head? Or he doesn't know where the story actually is?

In any case, there are any number of resources to help you write a query letter (including Query Shark) and a synopsis. If your agent has something specific in mind, ask him for an example.

But I would really think it's up to your agent to make whatever proposal you write perfect enough to send to publishers.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Colin, it's bourbon. As Willy Wonka sagely advised "Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker". And if bourbon doesn't work, it's time to get a new agent. It just is.

Or not.

kaitlyn sage said...

I, obviously, agree that the REAL question is not the question being asked, but the question of Opie's communication with their agent, which has been addressed.

That said, the idea of selling a book spec with initial chapters TERRIFIES me. I've always had to re-write the first chapters of my novels. Invariably, the first few chapters of my novels are like the first few beers out of a keg -- foamy and horrifyingly awful.

How does one write a decent (and salable) beginning without writing the whole damn thing and then tearing your hair out for a few weeks about how to make it better?

Colin Smith said...

OK, I talk too much I know... at least online. Socially... that's a different matter. :)

Anyway, I was thinking: a novel proposal...


Dear Fiancee,

Jack thought he knew Jill, but it turns out all he knew was Jack. He loved Jill, and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, so he scoured the town for the perfect ring. But would Jill accept his proposal? Is Jack's future full of bells and bridesmaids, or bourbon and bartenders?

WILL YOU MARRY ME? is a 4-word novel with sequel potential.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


How's that? :D

Joyce Tremel said...

Welcome back, Janet. I hope you're feeling much better.

My Brewing Trouble mystery series was sold on a proposal. An editor read a previous manuscript that didn't quite fit their line, so she asked my agent if I'd be interested in writing a cozy. I wrote a synopsis and three chapters, plus ideas for the next two books. I also included info on why this series would fit their line, comparing it to some of their published books. Maybe this is different than a proposal for a single novel, but I know several mystery authors who have proposed series this way.

BJ Muntain said...

Colin: 1999 isn't 'recent'. That's before most publishing folks accepted e-mail queries. When queries were on paper, things were done a lot differently then (as I'm sure you remember).

Heck, at the time Mr. King was getting his start, computers were not common household necessities. Finishing a novel on a computer is a heck of a lot different from finishing one on a typewriter. And without e-mail, it got pretty durn expensive trying to send anything by post, let alone including chapters.

Business - of any kind - has changed a lot in the last 15 years.

Colin Smith said...

BJ: I would beg to differ. I was pretty much exclusively writing in Word and doing as much correspondence by email as I could in 1999. Granted, I worked in IT, but most homes I knew of back then had a computer. Maybe not more than one, but it was quickly becoming an accepted part of every home. (I was even telecommuting some back in 1999.)

What you say about publishing is true, however. So King's comments reflect the speed (or lack thereof) with which publishing kept up with the times. In IT terms, yes, 15 years is a long time. Maybe I'm just old, but in historical terms, 1999 is still relatively recent.

DLM said...

Colin, even within the past eight years or so, NOT all agents would take email queries, though. Even just within the past *five* years, many who *had* shifted to email operations still had explanations on their site to justify this new and different method: "In order to stay green, we prefer queries via email" and so on. Those disclaimers were a pointer to change.

Now, electronic querying is virtually standard operating procedure, and even the transitional explanations are no longer really necessary. There are a very few who still won't take email queries, but the shift has been made by the majority. I would imagine that hard copy slush piles generally must have been reduced by (well?) over 90% just since 2010. It's a fundamental change in the historical blink of an eye, but the eye *has* blinked.

Now pushing 50 and still not having completed a sellable novel, I'd like to agree with you that 1999 isn't all that long ago, but if you look at the date, some part of that year is now SEVENTEEN years ago. People who had not been born are driving, those who were toddling at the millennium are now graduating college and having babies.

History ain't what it used to be, hon. It's compressed!

Colin Smith said...

Diane: Yup, as I said, publishing has been slow to move to electronic communication as standard. No argument there. And given I have three kids born pre-1999, and three born post-1999, I feel my age. :)

Lilac Shoshani said...

Great to have you back, Janet! I would do a somersault for you, but I usually bump into things and end up hurting myself. ;-)

OP: so sorry that communication is not working well with your agent. Crossing my fingers that everything will improve for you ASAP.


Claire said...

Plus, I bet the last time Stephen King actually had to write a query letter to an agent was pre-Carrie. Which was published in 1974. No wonder he's a bit out of touch. That section of On Writing stuck out like a sore thumb for me as well, in an otherwise excellent book.

Great to see you back, Janet! Keep well.

Craig said...

Colin, 1999 was in the last century.

Maybe someone is interested in structuring a contract for your first book. Publishers don't really like one hit wonders so they asked what else do you have. It might be a really good thing dealing with exercising an option clause, like Donna said.

There is only one way to find out. Call your agent and ask. It is a good thing to do when in doubt.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I know, off topic.
Speaking of typewriters vs. computers, we were weren’t we? At least BJ and Colin were.

Anyway, do you young’uns have an idea how hard it was to write and edit using a typewriter? Just think of how often you rework your first sentence, first five pages, first three chapters, yadda, yadda, yadda. Change one word and we had to retype the entire page. Insert a sentence or take one out and the ALL the pages (numbers and white-space) got messed up. We had a choice, make it better or leave it alone because you had already retyped the bastard a bazillion times. There was another choice, get it right the first time. Yeah right. Better yet, yeah write.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Well did you find my extra word? I would have had redo the whole thing and pray, dear Lord, no more errors. God bless our computers, copy and paste.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

I'm glad you're feeling better, Janet!

Side note:It's now my goal in life to write a novel with a premise so killer that my agent can sell it using notes on a cocktail napkin.

And Carolynnwith2Ns, I actually did write a short story on a type writer - it was the first thing I ever wrote! :) Granted, it was a two-sentence story where a 'grul' saves the 'wold', but to this day my mother declares that it was the best thing I ever wrote.

Kae Ridwyn said...

Whoa! You sold a book "based on notes on a cocktail napkin"? I'd love to hear the story behind *that* one!

And welcome back!!! (Yes, I know. Three exclamation marks. Just: happiness!) Keep on getting better! :D

Janice Grinyer said...

Great. Now I'm even being haunted by book proposals here on the Shark's blog, what I thought was a safe writer's haven...

Sounds like a communication issue. If you have an Agent, they should be the one you should be talking to clarify what they want.

Meanwhile, I want an Agent. But that means I need to work on a certain non-fiction book proposal: one that if I keep on editing the way I am, will begin to fight back. Oh wait...it has...

Glad you are feeling better and less snowed in, Janet!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Bethany, moms are smart and moms always recognize real talent when they see it. A lifetime ago my mom claimed I was a brilliant writer, she was right. I was thirty-eight. She never claimed I was humble though.

DLM said...

Craig: century? Hell, it was last millennium!

I must apologize for not saying welcome back to Janet, but I did sent Gossamer up there with a leopard blanket to take care of her. He may have kept the blanket for himself, but I tried.

Lance said...

We are overjoyed that you are back. I have had "such tremblings, such flutterings all over me such spasms in my side, and pains in my head, and such beatings at heart, that I can get no rest by night nor by day." Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 5, Vol. III (Chapter 47).

Trust you are well enough to go through all this.

Lennon Faris said...

Carolynnwith2N's - I've thought about the typewriter thing many times. It makes me shudder. Sadly, I don't edit ten times but more like a thousand times that. I would have personally caused global warming from all the trees I would have wasted on a typewriter!

Panda in Chief said...

Welcome back to the land of the living, Janet.
And as to the question at hand, um... what everyone else said.
Thanks to everyone who came by and visited while we were running loose in cyberspace.
Back to work, now!

LynnRodz said...

Jeez, 2 Ns, did you have to remind those of us who lived through those dark ages? When the electric typewriter came out and you could automatically redo the last 5 letters you typed without using white out, we thought that was extraordinary. Well, I did.

Joyce, I know an author who also sold a novel based on a synopsis and 3 chapters. The editor didn't care for her first novel, but liked her writing. Btw, I clicked on your name and to my surprise you're from my hometown. I'm going down to the B&N at the Waterfront tomorrow to get your book. I'll read it on the plane back to Paris, or maybe before.

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Kaitlin Sage asks:

How does one write a decent (and salable) beginning without writing the whole damn thing and then tearing your hair out for a few weeks about how to make it better?

Practice.

Part of the mastery of the craft is learning how you write a novel. Every author develops their own method. The more novels you write, the better you get at it.

For apprentice authors, it's trial and error and several drafts as you throw the bits'n'pieces of your first or second novel together. Eventually you develop enough instinct to know what works for you. The process of novel writing gets easier... or at least more streamlined. By the eighth or ninth you should have a good enough idea on how to put a novel together without needing a global rewrite.

It's easier to conceive the outline of a novel and then write the first three chapters if you're a plotter. If you're a pantser, it may very well be you must write the whole novel before you know with confidence what your first three chapters should be.

Off the top of my head, I know several multi-published authors who are plotters (to varying degrees). If there are multi-published authors who are purely pantsers, I do not know who they are. I would like to know their methodology.

John Frain said...

Count me among those who want to hear the rest of this story:

"Which is not to say I haven't sold books based on notes on a cocktail napkin..."

Sounds like a full night at The White Horse Tavern.

Janet, welcome home. Missed ya.

Stephen G Parks said...

Well, since it looks like no one else has done it, I guess it falls to me. Janet, this one's for you...

- what would ever lead ya back here where we need ya?

Sam Hawke said...

I got asked to do a proposal for a novel along with a full request. Actually, by your agency Janet! Peter evidently likes them. It caused some angst because I'd never even heard of them being required in a fiction context...

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Hey S Parks, loved the link. Wonderful way to start my day (memories) and a great opening salvo for Janet.

Joyce Tremel said...

LynnRodz, thanks! And yay, a fellow Yinzer! I hope you like the book.