Saturday, June 16, 2012

What Makes a Fiction Proposal Pop or Fizzle

Guest post by Stephenia McGee

I have been doing evaluations for a literary agent for the last sixteen months. It's my job to send the agent a short evaluation of the author's proposal and whether or not I think the book will catch a publisher's attention. During this time I've noticed a few things that make some proposals pop, and others fizzle. 
The first thing I look for should really go without saying. Did the author follow the agent's instructions on what he wants in the proposal? You'd be surprised how much this actually means. The agent wants specific things included for a reason. Following directions automatically puts you in a good light. 
Next, I look at the word count. Most publishers will toss out a proposal before they even read it if the word count isn't in their specified parameters.  If an author states the book is a novella and then shows me a 60,000 word count, I know they haven't done their homework. 
Genre is another snag a lot of authors hit. Really try to do some research into genres and make sure you have the correct one for your story. I once got a proposal where the author presented a romance, but then gave me a happily married couple in their mid-fifties starting up their own private eye firm. Knowing your genre means knowing your market, your audience and what agents and publishers are a fit for you. If you're sending a great book to the wrong agent, you're still going to get a rejection letter.   
The next portion of a proposal is usually a summary of the book. Don't be afraid to tell everything that happens, including the ending. While it is impossible to include every sub plot in a summary, the agent wants to see the major themes, plots and conflicts. This is not a reader pitch where you want them to be interested enough to read more. This a brief overview of the entire book that will show the agent if you have written a complete storyline with a satisfying ending. 
The last portion I evaluate is the author's sample chapters. First and foremost, have someone else proofread your sample chapters for typos and misused words. Too many mistakes are sloppy and unprofessional. 
When I am evaluating an author's sample chapters, I look for something that grabs my attention, has engaging characters and an interesting premise. I ask myself: Does the story flow, is there good dialogue and beats, and is there some kind of conflict occurring? Does the book fit the author's specified target audience and type of publisher they are seeking?
And finally, I look for what I call "clean" writing. Here are a few brief tips for common mistakes I see: 
  1. Show, don't tell. Let me see a conversation; don't tell me what the characters talked about. 
  2. Don't give a huge section of backstory. Avoid the urge to tell the reader the character's past and motivations all at once. Weaving these details throughout the story feels like a natural way to get to know the character and gives the reader a sense of mystery. 
  3. Don't head-hop. It is very frustrating to be reading a paragraph inside one character's point of view and thoughts, then jump inside another character's in the next paragraph. It is confusing to the reader and breaks the spell of bringing them inside the story.   
  4. Choose your point of view carefully. First person works best with only one character, not several. Third person and deep third-person work well for multiple characters and for plot driven novels.
Don't stress so much over your proposal being perfect that you never send it in. I have seen several proposals where the story needed a little work, but the agent was willing to represent the author if they made the corrections. Having a great story that is well-presented and being open to suggestions will always makes your proposal pop and help you to land that perfect agent.

Stephenia McGee writes Christian fiction with a little bit of flair. She is a member of the Christian Writer's Guild, a lifetime member of the AQHA and a member of the Fort Rosalie chapter of the DAR. Stephenia serves as Chairman at Spirit Horse Ministries, and is married to her best friend and greatest blessing, Jason. They currently live in Mississippi with their two sons.

A Legacy of Lies is Stephenia's new novel from Desert Breeze Publishing.
Sarah Sanders is so stressed-out at college that she’s having fainting spells. She’s behind on the rent and facing eviction. Dropping out of school feels inevitable. Needing a break, she accepts her boyfriend’s invitation to visit his parents’ ranch out west. But she finds much more in Montana than fresh air and mountain trails.
Ranch hand Jim Anderson has suffered from night terrors for over a year. But despite this secret struggle, his life at the ranch had been a welcomed escape from his past. Until those terrifying dark shadows started coming for him in the middle of the afternoon.
Brought together by an unseen hand, Sarah and Jim must travel across the country to unravel a web of deceit and uncover Jim’s long history of lies before the evidence is sealed away forever.
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