Wicked Wednesday – Proposal Writing, the First Three Chapters

By Sherry, who’s hoping it’s warmer today than when I set up the post!

This month we’ve decided to all chime in on the process of writing proposals for book series. Mystery series are often sold this way, in fact all of us have sold series in this manner, some of us more than once. The format for doing this is fairly standardized in the publishing industry and each Wednesday this month we will dive into one aspect of the process. This week we are talking about writing the first three chapters for your proposal. Wickeds, did you agonize or did the chapters pour out of you? Give us your best tip!

Tagged for Death mech.inddSherry: Some of you might know this story. When I had the opportunity to write the proposal for the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series my agent said: I want it as soon as possible. Four days later I sent him the proposal. Fortunately, I had Liz, Edith and Barb’s proposals to work off of. The whole thing just poured out of me — it’s never happened before or since. But my best tip is to end the third chapter on a suspenseful note that will want to make the editor read the rest.

A Tine To Live A Tine To Die PB COVEREdith: I had written a very early version of A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die eighteen years earlier in between farming seasons. For the proposal (and the book), I knew I had to rewrite the content, but I was able to keep the fictional world I had set up all those years ago. Protagonist Cam Flaherty, former software engineer. Small rural town. Antique saltbox farmhouse. And death by pitchfork in the hoop house. So I had a head start, and it wasn’t that hard for me to craft the first three chapters. The last chapter of the proposal ends right after my farmer discovers the body. So the tip about that might be: make sure you hook your reader, who you hope will be your publisher, with great storytelling and, if not a body, then something that will really grab them.

For my Country Store Mysteries proposal (Flipped for Murder out in November, under pen name Maddie Day!), I had to story-innset up the entire world, the protagonist, the supporting characters. But since the series is set in southern Indiana, a part of the universe I love, and because I had a vision for the near-Southern language and way of life, I had a lot of fun with those first chapters. Totally agree with Sherry, though – you have to start with a good hook, and make sure your last paragraph has one, too. The end of the proposal chapters shows a local police officer telling Robbie and her date about the murder of a local official Robbie had had conflict with – and that the victim had one of Robbie’s signature cheesey biscuits stuffed in her mouth.

Liz: Thanks to the counsel of Avery Aames/Daryl Wood Gerber, I had a good fouKneading to Diendation to use when putting my proposal together. And the idea for the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, which my agent and I both loved, was exciting to me – so the first three chapters were a lot of fun to write. The one thing I struggled with was how much set-up I needed to do versus just jumping right into the story of the murder. I wanted to set the stage for the town and characters enough that readers immediately felt familiar with them, but didn’t want to kill it with a lot of backstory. It ended up that my victim was found at the end of the second chapter, and when I ended the third it was setting up Stan’s situation of being a suspect.

THE MAINE CLAMBAKE MYSTERY SERIESBarb: Great timing on this question as someone recently asked to see my proposal so I read it again. I was surprised how closely the first three chapters in the proposal were to those that were eventually published in Clammed Up. I remember that I had a lot of fun with these chapters. My agent had emphasized that it was a spec proposal and though he thought clambakes were a subject that should interest publishers, it was by no means guaranteed. So my thought about the first three chapters was–have fun, don’t overthink, don’t get too attached. It’s a fun way to write. The set-up, a wedding, was intended to quell my panic about supplying recipes for a series. A clambake is the same meal over and over and over. I thought if the Snowden Family Clambake Company was the setting for special events, other kinds of food might be served. In the series, I’ve solved this problem in a completely different way, so the wedding was unnecessary, but I’m glad that’s where the series started. Eventually another publisher, who ultimately passed, asked me for three more chapters. Those didn’t end up in the book in the same spot.

Jessie: There’s a lot of business to accomplish in the first three chapters. Introduction of main and a few supporting characters, the inciting incident and the voice of the novel all need to be present and correct. It can be a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, the story is so fresh and the enthusiasm should be so high that it should be a pleasurable challenge. Which brings me to my best tip: if the first three chapters don’t have you chomping at the bit to tell the story then you should ask yourself if you are telling the right tale.  I don’t mean to say that the first draft of these pages should be the most perfect thing you have ever written. I do think, at this stage, your enthusiasm is a strong guidance system and if you don’t have it something is wrong and you should listen. Whether that means tweaking some details, weaving n new story threads or scrapping the whole thing and starting over, it would be wise to set off on a journey you really wish to take. Now is the very best time to do so.

Julie: My first three chapters story is a little different. A year and a half ago I was given the opportunity to audition to write this series. I was given an outline of the characters, and a fairly robust storyline. My job was to show my editor that I could write the series, but also that I could write the series that she had created. So I needed to figure out how to make the story mine, and hers, at the same time. I also needed to figure a way into the story. The series was sold, I just needed to sell my skills as a writer, and a storyteller. Ironically, and interestingly, those first three chapters got me the gig, but I didn’t end up using them in the final product. So my advice, make sure the first three chapters are written really well. If you want someone to give you a contract, they need to trust that you have the craft under control.

Edith again: I love the timing of this post. I am writing the first chapter of the second Country Store mystery this week. Today! And all these comments are helping me.

Readers: What do you want to see in the first three chapters of a mystery? If you’ve written your own first three, what were your joys and challenges doing so?

23 Thoughts

  1. Great post!

    My agent sold my series on proposal, too. She had submitted a previous full manuscript to an editor who rejected it. She loved my writing, but said the book wasn’t cozy enough, but if I wanted to write a cozy she’d read it. I already sort of had an idea at that point (I’d written a short blurb) so I got to work fleshing it out. My former Working Stiffs pal, Jenna Bennett/Jennie Bentley, was nice enough to send me a proposal she wrote, so I pretty much used her format. It didn’t take long to write a short synopsis and three chapters. I threw in a recipe at the end for good measure, too. And it sold! I’m still pinching myself that it did, lol.

  2. Wow, I’m the odd (Iwo)man out! I had to go back to 2007 to find the first and last proposal I remember writing, for the Orchard series. (It sold.) If I saw any models, I can’t remember whose. I wrote one chapter (and the first line survived!), and a five page synopsis, most of which actually showed up in the book. But since then Berkley Prime Crime has shown great faith in me, that I can put together an idea and make it into an ongoing series. I appreciate their trust! And I’ll admit I seldom know where a story is going to go when I start writing it, and I have no clue about a long-range arc for a series, since we never know how many books we’ll get.

    1. The thing about having to write a synopsis AND being a pantser (like me) — I just need to remember to revise the synopsis to reflect the actual book and get it back to my editor. It’s always been fine. So far!

    1. That is interesting, Margaret and figuring that out can be hard. I edited a book where I asked the author to move something that happened on page 80 to the first chapter. It makes all the difference!

  3. Never written a proposal. But as a reader, in those first three chapters I want a hook and characters I can relate to/root for. If either doesn’t grab me, I’m on to the next thing.

    1. Great point, Mary! You have to have one or the other and when it’s both — perfection. I remember reading Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. I didn’t care for the first three chapters but the characters were compelling so I kept reading.

  4. Sometimes, an author feels the need to give all kinds of back story and set up in those first three chapters. I can always tell because it slows things way down. I’m actually reading a book right now that used set up for the first few chapters, but had included a teaser of the murder in chapter one. It works, and I’m actually enjoying the story. Of course, that set up also introduced a sub-plot, so it worked well for that reason.

    My biggest thing as a reader is that something has to be happening. If you are doing nothing but introducing characters and setting, then I’ll be bored. I need some kind of conflict. I don’t need the dead body, but I need some idea who it might be (even if I’m wrong) and what motives might be for the suspects.

    And the biggest thing with back story? Give it to me slowly. I don’t need it dumped on me in the first chapter, or the tenth, or the hundredth. Some here and some there and I will be interested and enjoy how you developed the characters. A huge data dump just slows the story down.

    (No, I don’t have strong feelings on this at all, why do you ask?)

    1. LOL Mark. You make some great points. I often write too much back story in the first draft and have to take it out. But the longer I’ve been writing the less I do of that.

      1. Sometimes editors will let backstory slip by, but it can become ridiculous–each time a new character walks in, there are a couple of sentences describing his/her history with the protagonist. If the protagonist has lots of friends, as most of these small-town sleuths do, it gets old fast. I think you have to work in the necessary facts seamlessly. Although I have seen a couple of cases in which the writer used footnotes.

  5. Thank you all for this Wednesday series giving us multiple perspectives on the process. If this question has occurred to me, then it’s occurred to other readers.

    Old school wisdom on publishing used to advise us to finish the first book in a series, then pitch that book but be ready with story lines for subsequent books.

    Is the series proposal a replacement for selling that first book with ideas waiting in the wings?

    1. Hi Rhonda

      The answer is yes, and no. I went through the process both ways. With my first book, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, I completed the first book, and I was asked, as it made the rounds of publishers, for both ideas and sample chapters for subsequent books. It eventually sold to Five Star who usually only contract one book at a time, and only with a completed manuscript.

      Some publishers only buy completed manuscripts, particularly for first pubs and even first-in-series, others will buy from proposal. One tht told me only three years they couldn’t buy from a proposal has subsequently changed their policy.

      Series have always been big in mystery and I think they are bigger than ever. Publishers are looking for frequent releases so series stay front and center with fans, continuing to generate buzz and conversation. With ebooks, the backlist never goes “out of print” so a new release can generate lots of sales for the previous titles.

      So, instead of worrying “can she write a book?” publishers worry “can she sustain a series?” and “can this concept sustain a series?” The three-book proposal with sample chapters gives them a clearer view into this than one completed manuscript.

      As an author, I love knowing I have at least three books, and maybe more, to chew on a problem.

      All of the Wickeds had completed manuscripts for other books before we did our series proposals. About half those books were published, half not. An agent and editor want the reassurance an author can write a middle and end, as well as a beginning. And I would think the writer would want that assurance, too, before signing a contract!

      It’s a craps shoot all round when a publisher buys on proposal, which is why the advances are generally small. But if the series takes off, it can be a winner for all.

      1. Nothing teaches a person how to write a book like on-the-job training, especially when the stakes aren’t high from deadlines, money, and contracts. So, writing a novel on spec is valuable experience. I hear/see you guys scrambling to meet your deadlines. If you didn’t know you could finish a book, I’d suspect the lack of self-confidence could be a challenge. Besides, no one dreams of writing a book proposal. 🙂 😉 Anyway, thank you, Barb, for your explanation.

    2. I’m not sure how it works for other genres or thrillers and if they still require full manuscripts. Later in the month agent John Talbot will be with us to answer questions about the proposal writing process.

  6. The worst proposal experience of my life was for a term paper for a history of religious music course. I wanted to write about the evolution of Native American tribal music to present day intertribal powwow music. The (visiting) professor made me rewrite the proposal several times and on the last I approached her to ask why she kept rejecting my proposal. She said, “I don’t want it to be about jumping around the campfire.” She belittled my ability to write a proposal and wondered how I was able to pass any class at all. I dropped her class, because I could see a big fat F in my future. I’d never had a problem writing an academic proposal before and because of this experience I’ve been reluctant to write another. I haven’t had the pleasure of trying yet with my attempts at mystery writing… eeeeeeeeee!

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