Wicked Wednesday – Proposals and Contracts

Continuing our March theme of Wednesdays on the craft of being an author, let’s talk proposals and contracts.

Some of us Wickeds write more than one series. Some have proposals pending. Some have ideas for new series. I (Edith) think our readers here will be interested in the process. Let’s dish, Wickeds, on how we get new series into the publishing pipeline and how we plan ahead. We’ve had a few group posts on the process: first three chapters, character sketches, comps and marketing plans, and writing the synopsis. But what’s the overview of a proposal? What are all the parts?

Edith: My agent (all of the Wickeds’ agent, as it turns out) guided me through writing my first proposal back in 2011. 1. Series description. 2. Synopsis of books one through First pagethree. 3. Market analysis – in the case of my Local Foods Mysteries, how popular and widespread interest was in local organic foods. 4. Comparable series – showing other popular series with a related theme but not identical. 5. My credentials to write the proposed books: prior fiction publication credits, knowledge of the subject matter, professional memberships. 6. The first three chapters. If you have the entire first book written, so much the better.

Barb: Interesting, Edith. I wrote mine for the same agent in the same time frame, but it was slightly different. 1) Overview–description of the premise, 2) Cast of Characters–descriptions of recurring series characters, 3) The Books–three paragraphs or so about each of the first three books, 4) Sample Recipes–since mine was a culinary mystery, 5) Author Biography and 6) The First Three Chapters.

Liz: When I wrote my first proposal in the same timeframe as you two, I did 1) Overview – my main characters and their background which led to the start of the book; 2) Additional series characters; 3) Synopsis of book one and shorter synopses of the next two books; 4) Series tips/recipes; 5) The market – a snapshot of why homemade pet food would attract readers; 6) Bio; 7) First three chapters. In 2014, when I wrote the proposal for my new series, I used the same format.

Sherry:  I had a great advantage since you three had all turned your proposals in about a year before I did. So you all sent yours to me and I used them as a template. So I started with a series overview, cast of characters, the books (a paragraph on each of the three ALL MURDERS FINAL  mech.inddbooks) — and it’s interesting how different the titles of book two and three ended up being. I called book two Marred Sale Madness (at some point I realized it was impossible to enunciate so it morphed to Deal or Die — Barb’s suggestion and then my editor changed to The Longest Yard Sale and book three was originally Murder As Is — it became All Murders Final! But back to the proposal: comparable titles, audience and marketing opportunities, author bio and the first three chapters. I think having all of yours as a guideline helped when John Talbot said he wanted the proposal fast. I wrote it all in four days.

Jessie: I include all the same components in a proposal as everyone else so I thought I would talk about the process of getting them ready. I have a true north I follow when I work on a project. I’ve invariably  found that for something to be successful I have to follow the fun. When I am having fun everything flows. Often that fun starts with a place and a time. Soon the characters start in whispering about their lives, loves and loathes. Then, with luck, plots niggle and twitch and build. Not long after, I feel an itch to get going on the first three chapters.

Julie: I love that we are talking about this, because fifteen years ago when I started on this journey, I had no idea about any of this. I love Jessie’s addition, and can’t say enough about enjoying the journey. While proposals are the business side of writing, and you may hate to think about marketing, your platform, comparables, etc. it is a good strategy. BTW, I was even luckier than Sherry–I had a lot of proposals to learn from.


Edith: As for how we plan ahead, I do the following. If I get an idea for a new series that I’m passionate about, I run it by my agent. If he thinks it would sell, I work up a proposal, and as Jessie says, feel that itch to get going on the first three chapters. In this publishing climate, it’s always good to have something in the pipeline.

Jessie: I’m not sure about everyone else but I don’t tend to run much past anyone before working up a proposal. I do use fun, which for me equals passion, as a guide. I’ve only run one of the contracts I’ve sold past anyone before I wrote it. For the other three, I’ve followed the fun. [Edith: Have revised preceding paragraph!]

Readers: What kind of proposals have you written in your life? What do you do when you get an idea you love and want to work on it?

31 Thoughts

  1. I have to write at least three chapters first or I don’t know enough about the characters to write a proposal. Even then, my proposal is going to be somewhat vague. For the last series I sold, the Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries, I just went ahead and wrote the whole book on spec and then figured out how to pitch it.

  2. My first contract was for a for-hire series, so the publisher handed me the synopsis and set-up for the first book (the description of the second was all of two words). I pitched my own Orchard series while that first one was in the works, in 2007, and I had to go back to my files and hunt for what the publisher wanted. Yup, the usual: synopsis, outline, first three chapters, recipe.

    But since then I’ve been very lucky, and haven’t had to jump through the hoops for the publisher. I am truly grateful that they trusted me to deliver (no, I don’t pretend that it was because I was a brilliant writer, but I certainly have proven dependable).

    Until now. Various upheavals among publishers has created some uncertainties in what will be renewed–or not–and I find myself putting together a new proposal for my agent to shop around. So it’s back to basics, if I can remember how to write a synopsis. (And the draft is still too long!)

    1. At least you have a draft! I’ll be interested to see what you come up with for a new series, Sheila. It’s a crazy world out there.

  3. I sold my first book, Sand Castle Summer, (middle grade) with a synopsis and one chapter–way back in 1988! That was followed by eight more novels for the same age group–each one with a synopsis and one sample chapter. Did two biographies on assignment for the same publisher. These were all distributed through School Book Fairs. The travel book, Florida Gulf Coast Travel Smart for John Muir, later Avalon Travel was on
    assignment. Then came the mysteries! I don’t have an agent. Have always sold direct to publishers. I sent a cover letter, synopsis and three chapters to Kensington for Caught Dead Handed–originally titled Nightshades, proposing a series. I didn’t have ideas for the rest of the series at that time but I guess they took my word for it that I could deliver them! Working now on Book 5 in the Witch City Mystery series. By the way my original titles hardly ever pass muster with the publisher! Sand Castle Summer and Murder Go Round are the only ones so far with my first choice for titles!

    1. Congrats on all your successes, Carol! It is so interesting to hear about other writer’s journeys and what is the same and what is different.

      1. It was great to learn how the Wickeds do a proposal. Because of the lack of an agent, I guess I never did have the “proper” approach! I’ve printed out today’s info to share with others. I realize how downright lucky I’ve been!

  4. I’ve never written a proposal … all of this is fascinating and a keeper. I’m scheduled to give a presentation to a writers’ group in Alabama and I’m sure “someone” will ask me a question about this, and I’ll be able to answer. Another Guppy sez: Thanks for sharing your processes. Marilyn (aka cj)

  5. I’m working on two proposals that our agent, John Talbot, isn’t very enthused about. But what he said was interesting. He wanted me to write a couple of chapters so he could hear (see?) the voice. That voice was everything.

  6. I can swear by the Wickeds’ advice – I used this proposal template to land my upcoming series. It is a crazy publishing world out there and I am so glad and grateful that Sherry shared this proposal magic with me last year. The agent also really liked membership in SINC and the Guppies, so if you are not a member of these wonderful groups, consider joining. You will learn so much and the support is wonderful.

  7. As a reader, I certainly found this interesting. I know proposals are important, so it’s interesting to see what goes into them.

    It is a scary publishing world out there, for readers as well as writers. I’m glad to hear you are all thinking ahead. Good luck to you all.

  8. Collecting data here. As a writer, my first series was self-published – no proposal needed. My second series was sold to a small press on the strength of the first book, and the premise for the second and third books arose from discussions with my editor. A very different process. I’m grateful for the education, and am printing this blog for future reference! Thanks Wickeds.

  9. When I was agent shopping, I had a full manuscript, which is an advantage for a first-timer. When i got the call from John Talbot that he was interested in the manuscript, he told me how to put together a proposal. This was good, since I didn’t know any of the Wickeds at that point! Mine consisted of a Series Overview (which included a couple of sentences where I compared myself to other mystery writers, which was kind of a laugh), my bio (which only had professional memberships to recommend me–no actual writing credentials), 4 recipes (I chose them so as to make a Greek-themed full meal), 3 page synopses for books 1, 2, and 3, and the 1st 50 pages, which John helped me tweak to make them “foodier” and cement the hook of the series. I put everything together, including writing and testing recipes, over a weekend, then sent the whole thing off in a panic to a couple of mentors at my writers’ group, CTRWA, my local chapter of RWA and where I hung my writing hat most of the time. They made a few suggestions to make the synopses more professional and I sent everything off to John. Less than two weeks after I first spoke to John, we had a 3 book deal. That is the power of a good agent.

    For my second proposal, I just used the same template. I already knew (from our agent) that Kensington was looking for a knitting mystery (not work for hire). I had about 50 pages already written from a mystery that I couldn’t sell (ironically, because it was about maple syrup manufacturing, and Jessie Crockett had beaten me to it, LOL!). So I took the basic premise, city girl comes back to help her injured great-uncle, and rewrote the initial chapters to include a yarn shop. I didn’t have patterns prepared, so I just promised to include them. That one took about 6 weeks to sell, and we only shopped it to Kensington.

    I love to write proposals–so much lovely potential. I have two in process now. Just need to finish up a couple of other things first.

      1. I find 3 double-spaced pages to be the sweet spot for me. Enough for me to understand the story and be able to use it as a jumping off point, but not get bogged down in the details. One page is harder!

  10. Interesting to see how different agents see the opportunities and strategies over time. My agent (who is not John Talbot, although I think he’s a great guy) is pushing to get the hook up front, if a new publisher (i.e., someone who is not Berkley) is going to be looking at it. I struggle with that, since I’d like to know who the protagonist is and why anybody would want to kill the victim before the deed occurs, and why the protagonist is a likely suspect. Apparently some editors want blood on page one.

    On a slightly different note, I learned today from my agent (who is not representing this writer) that a deal that was announced today had been in the works at Berkley (and we know what they’ve been going through) since January 2015. Festina lente!

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