Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Holly Lisle's Vision

The Good, the Bad, and the Icky

Proposals That Sell/Don't Sell Your Novel

By S. L. Viehl

© 2002, S. L. Viehl

Any writer will tell you finishing a novel isn't easy.  For every completed novel ever written, there are ten thousand partial manuscripts sitting in desk drawers, filing cabinets, or closets, gathering dust.  Completing that last page is a real achievement, but it's also the first part of a new journey.

Now What Do I Do With It?

We'll assume you didn't write your novel to make it into a six-and-a-half-pound doorstop, and that you want to submit it for consideration for publication.  You'll need to research which publishers are looking for novels like yours, and if they accept unagented submissions (or, if you have an agent, you make him/her do this).  Once you decide which publisher is right for you, then you put together your novel proposal.

Can't I Just Mail Them the Manuscript?

There are a very few publishers who still accept unsolicited, complete manuscripts, but they're becoming scarce.  In today's publishing world, editors simply don't have the time to read four hundred pages to decide if they want to buy your novel.  They may have time to read a query letter, and maybe a synopsis, and if you're really lucky, three sample chapters.  The publisher's guidelines will tell you exactly what you need to prepare for your novel proposal.

But I've Never Written A Novel Proposal

That's why we're here.  I'm going to give you a rundown on how to write a novel proposal, using real examples of what I've actually submitted, what sold – and didn't sell – and what probably made the editor keel over and roll on the floor, laughing.  Think of it as the good, the bad, and the icky.

Defining the Components of a Proposal

1.          Query Letter – this is a one- to two-page cover letter, in standard business format, introducing yourself and your novel idea to the editor. 

2.          Sample Chapters – depending on the publisher's guidelines, the first one to three complete chapters of your novel, in manuscript form.

3.          Chapter Summaries – depending on publisher guidelines, an outline of each chapter one paragraph to one page in length.

4.          Synopsis – depending on the genre, a two- to twenty-page detailed outline of the plot of the entire novel, including brief descriptions of characters and settings.

The Query Letter

This is the first thing the editor sees that represents your writing talent, so this is where you really want to shine.  The query letter introduces you to the editor and provides that “first impression” that we all want to make as favorable as possible.  To kick things off, let me show you the most successful query letter I've ever written:   


The Good Query

S.L. Viehl

P.O. Box 9295

Coral Springs, FL  33075

Phone: (123) 456-7890 FAX: (098)765-4321



February 1, 1999


Writer's Digest

1507 Dana Avenue

Cincinnati, OH  45207


Re:  Submission for Chronicle Article


Dear Editor: 

What could go wrong when an interested editor calls and asks you to send a manuscript overnight?  Everything! 

I've enclosed my article, "Nothing can Possibly Go Wrong Now" for your consideration.  It is 770 words in length, and takes a humorous look at what happens when a writer isn't prepared for that particular phone call. 

If you have any questions, please contact me at (123)456-7890 or at the e-mail address above.  Thanks for reading this and I look forward to hearing from you. 


S.L. Viehl



What's so great about this query letter?  It's short, sweet, and gets right to the point – in half a page.  If you can fit everything onto one page, do it.  The only thing I would change now about this letter is that I'd find out the name of the editor.  Now, for something a little longer: the actual letter that I wrote when submitting StarDoc, my first published novel.    

(Same author heading)

S.L. Viehl

P.O. Box 9295

Coral Springs, FL  33075

Phone: (123) 456-7890 FAX: (098)765-4321 



January 5, 1998


Daw Books, Inc.

375 Hudson Street 3rd Floor

New York, New York


Attention:  Mr. Peter Stampfel



Dear Mr. Stampfel: 

Have you ever thought about being a doctor?  Dreamed of traveling to other worlds?  What would it be like to do both?  You could try watching episodes of "Star Trek" and "E.R." simultaneously, or read my novel "StarDoc - Border FreeClinic." 

Dr. Cherijo Grey Veil leaves a future Earth for the distant colony of Kevarzangia Two on the border of unexplored space.  The daughter of a renown scientist, she must escape after discovering the secret of her Father's illegal experimentation on human DNA. 

With no experience treating alien life forms, Cherijo struggles as a trauma physician at the FreeClinic.  Her shifts are certainly never dull.  Whether delivering terrorist's babies at gunpoint, or preventing a suicidal patient from blowing up the facility, Cherijo confronts each challenge with humor and unyielding dedication.   

As she adjusts to her new life, Cherijo searches for a cure to prevent a mysterious contagion from becoming an epidemic.  While K-2 erupts into chaos, her Father attempts to forcibly return her to Earth.  Cherijo must stop the threat of disaster and face the truth that she herself is her Father's ultimate experiment. 

I have worked in both military and civilian trauma centers and have drawn on my personal medical experience to lend authenticity to the story.  My novel is approximately 107,000 words in length.  

I do not send out simultaneous submissions, consequently a prompt reply would be greatly appreciated.  Please use the SASE enclosed for your convenience.  A synopsis, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript can be forwarded immediately upon request. 

Thank you for your consideration. 



S.L. Viehl


Because Daw's guidelines asked for a query letter only, I used both an opening hook and details about the novel.  If you're submitting a synopsis and/or sample chapters, it's not necessary to put this much story detail into the query letter.  Also, Avon Eos editor Diana Gill brought up a valid point during her online conference at recently – some editors don't like hard-sell opening hook lines.  If you'd prefer to go with a subtler opening, you can start your query letter with, “I would like to submit my (genre) novel 'This is the Title' for your consideration.”  Then you can go directly into a new paragraph with the general description of the story.   

The Bad Query

Here's an example of what you don't want to do when you're writing a query letter:

Elizabeth Kelly

P.O. Box 9295

Coral Springs, FL  33075


May 15, 1995


New Directions Publishing Corp.

80 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY  10011


Attention:  Managing Editor


Dear Sir or Madam: 

An abused, neglected child was saved by the poetry of John Keats, a demon, and her own will to survive.  "The Apes of Eden", an experimental form of epic poetry, tells her story.  The manuscript is approximately 30,000 words in length.  This manuscript contains some controversial subject matter.  Child abuse, loss of faith, genetic identity, and mental illness are closely detailed.  Please use the SASE enclosed to respond, and thank you. 


Elizabeth Kelly



What's wrong with this query?  Well, just about everything.  First, I didn't give the editor any contact information except my address.  I didn't bother to find out the name of the editor – and since I didn't know the name, I had to use the “Sir or Madam” opener, which only dates back to what, the seventeenth century? 

The opening hook may sound interesting, but it was my poetic opinion of myself at the time, and had very little to do with the body of work I was trying to sell, namely an epic poem that was 4,000 lines long. (Don't ever ask me to read my poetry.  Civilization would collapse before I got to the end of one.)

The description is also extremely lame – I hinted at topics instead of telling the editor exactly what the poem was about.  A good query letter is direct, a bad query letter tiptoes around the subject matter.  Finally, I put everything into one paragraph.  Try not to write a single paragraph, but break it up into manageable, topical portions.

The Icky Query

From bad to worse – and yes, I actually wrote this letter and mailed it out to several dozen publishers:

Elizabeth Kelly

P.O. Box 9295

Coral Springs, FL  33075


September 19, 1989


Warner Books

1271 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY  10020


Attention:  Romance Editor 

Dear Ms. Editor: 

Did you ever meet a man so infuriating that you’d like to push him off the balcony of a high-rise building?  Maggie Dayton is tempted to, when she clashes and burns with J.R. Trask for the first time! 

Trask is in South Florida for a desperately-needed vacation with his little girl Lauren.  He doesn’t realize the alluring Maggie, who lives in the beach house next to his, is actually an environmental activist who writes for a newspaper he owns.  Maggie doesn’t know Trask plans to shut down her paper to sell off its assets.  Now the fun begins! 

Maggie Dayton is busy clashing with environmental felons, creating outrageous publicity stunts, and giving her editor an burning ulcer in the process.  She doesn’t have time for hot romance!       

J.R. Trask is a powerful media mogul who was burned by his tragic, bitter first marriage, and determined to re-establish a relationship with his estranged little girl.  The last thing he needs to interfere with his plans is a love clash with Maggie!   

So, of course, they fall in love! 

Why should you read this manuscript?  “Clash and Burn” is 60,000 words you won’t be able to put down!   


Elizabeth Kelly


Okay, if you're done snickering, let's dissect this disaster.  As with the bad query, I only had my address as contact information.  But first, and foremost, never address an editor as “Ms. Editor” or “Mr. Editor.”  It's their job, not their name – find out their name.  Do not end every paragraph with an exclamation point.  Ms. Editor is going to think you're on drugs.  Don't be trite or try to work in cutesy phrases that ram your book's title down the editor's throat (count how many times I used “clash” and “burn” and you'll see what I mean.) 

Also, don't ramble – I used too many references to Trask, Maggie, and Lauren as characters, and not enough about the novel plot.  This is writing below professional level.  And, although you may not recognize this one, I made a fatal mistake in not doing my homework about environmental issues and romance.  The majority of romance publishers do not want those issues in their books.  Finally, I ended with what I thought was a “hook” ending, but I neglected to thank the editor, or mention that I had enclosed an SASE, or use the standard closing line “I look forward to hearing from you.” 

(Lord, I can't believe I actually used the phrase “love clash” . . .)

What About Sample Chapters, Chapter Summaries, and Novel Synopses?

Again, you need to check the guidelines of the publisher to whom you intend to submit your proposal, but here are the industry standards: 

Sample Chapters:  These should be the actual chapters one, two, and three of your novel.  Do not send random chapters, every other chapter, the last three chapters, etc.  Do not excerpt; send the entire chapter.  Do not fold or staple the pages together.  Do not hole punch and/or place the chapters in any kind of binder (most editors appreciate having them arrive in a plain manila folder.)  Each chapter should be printed on plain white paper with dark ink (photocopies are okay, as long as they are as dark as the original printer copy), double spaced, in Courier 12 point font, with page numbers on the upper right hand corner of every page, and a footer with your last name in caps, followed by your novel title, centered at the bottom of every page, i.e.”


Following is an actual sample page from “BioRescue,” one of my latest submissions:

Of course he would.  Onkar noted everything.

He’s probably rehearsing how he’ll give orders already, I thought as we entered the field, then added a silent entreaty to our guardian stars.  *Duo, keep my tail in one piece.*

The Hsktskt are rather unimaginative when it comes to setting up displacer mines, so the best way to enter a field of them is from an angle.  Each of the proximity-sensitive mines had been programmed to randomly rotate positions, and carried enough charge to blast a nice-sized hole through any slow-moving hull.  A snap to get around -- if you were a native 'zangian.

Unfortunately, the League transport pilot wasn't.  I saw that as soon as I made visual contact, and watched his blundering set off three more mines.  “Oh, not good.”

"Mouth-breather,"  Burn muttered.

"Have a little sympathy for the handicapped, ensign."  I disengaged auto controls and powered up the boosters.  "Be slick now; here we go." 

Flying fast and straight was the only way to keep from triggering more mines.  Fast I could do; straight was the challenge.  While I avoided colliding with the mines in our immediate flight path, Burn began targeting the rows ahead of us and shooting out a corridor.


Chapter Summaries:  Very similar to the novel synopsis:  A break down of the novel by chapter, depending on publisher guidelines, with one paragraph to one page describing details of each chapter.

Synopses:  One more reminder – check your publisher's guidelines first to see what length synopsis they would like to see from you.  Industry standard varies between genres, so this is really important. 

The Good Synopsis

A good synopsis should be like a conversation with the editor, during which you tell him/her about your story.  You want to go into some detail about the plot, and to a lesser extent, the characters and setting, depending on length restrictions.  You also want to tell the entire story to the editor in your synopsis.  Don't hint, don't use teasers, just tell it straight out from start to finish. 

The best example is to use an actual submission that I sold, so here are the first two pages of the synopsis for “Eternity Row,” StarDoc book five:

Eternity Row

A StarDoc Novel

by S.L. Viehl


Novel Synopsis

     It’s been two years since Terran Dr. Cherijo Torin and her husband, Duncan Reever, have enjoyed real freedom.  After escaping the Hsktskt, the League, Cherijo’s creator, and her insane brother, they’ve reunited with their Jorenian allies on the star vessel Sunlace and are leaving League space.  They’re also getting to know their toddler daughter Marel, who was incubated in an embryonic chamber during their absence.  Everyone agrees the Terrans definitely deserve some downtime.

     However, Cherijo has some promises to keep:  first, to visit Oenrall and help her friend Dhreen’s dying people;  another to reunite the crossbreed Terran Hawk with his alien father; and the last to locate her former companion Maggie’s homeworld, and learn what the alien woman wants from Cherijo.  All three worlds are situated in the Liacos Quadrant, which is largely unexplored.  This delights the intrepid Jorenians, but Duncan and the Sunlace’s Omorr Senior Healer Squilyp, have some reservations.  Duncan doesn’t trust Maggie’s motives, while Squilyp doesn’t trust Dhreen.  Despite this, Cherijo feels obligated to go.  Besides, Dhreen’s people are merely sick, Hawk’s people are likely as peaceful as he is, and Maggie’s people are extinct.  How much trouble can they really get into?

     On the way to Liacos, Cherijo discovers life on board the Sunlace has changed since she once served as Senior Healer. Jorenian Captain Xonea has instituted mandatory combat training and drills for all crew members, including the children.  New, disturbingly powerful sonic cannons are kept at full readiness.  There are double buffers on each level, and the stardrive, helm, and weapons control have been additionally safeguarded.  This all seems justified when a Hsktskt ship unexpectedly attacks and is efficiently destroyed, but Cherijo still worries about the future.

     Both Cherijo and Duncan soon find parenthood isn’t a walk in the park.  Marel is extremely clever and adventurous, and has an uncanny ability to get into anything, including restricted areas on the ship.  Squilyp suggests they test the child to gauge her potential, but Cherijo and Duncan have an understandable aversion to the idea and veto it.  Marel isn’t walking through walls, she’s just curious.


The Bad/Icky Synopsis

Take your pick, this is about the worst synopsis I've ever written.  At the time, I (again) had not done my homework, and merely assumed a synopsis was supposed to be one page in length (wrong); that I had to put character names and places in caps (unless specified in the guidelines, not necessary); I single-spaced and justified it (everything should be left-flush with standard indentations) and again my writing was not at a professional level – but you read it and be the judge:

Clash & Burn

by Elizabeth Kelly

Length:  90,000 words

Series:  Trouble in Paradise



     Media Mogul JOHN RILEY TRASK and estranged daughter LAUREN travel to So. Fla. for summer vacation.  LAUREN befriends next-door neighbor and environmental activist MAGGIE DAYTON.  TRASK believes MAGGIE to be real estate tycoon BEAU DAYTON'S mistress and orders her to stay away from LAUREN. 

     At a reception MAGGIE reveals to TRASK that BEAU is her Father, and that she writes as D. DAY for GREEN LINK magazine, owned by TRASK.  TRASK makes an unexpected offer to syndicate MAGGIE'S work.  MAGGIE turns him down.  TRASK and MAGGIE discover their mutual attraction. MAGGIE investigates TRASK'S mysterious intentions regarding GREEN LINK.  A stalker begins threatening MAGGIE.

     MAGGIE befriends LAUREN, and interviews TRASK about GREEN LINK, discovers nothing, agrees to dinner with TRASK.  During the date, MAGGIE stages publicity event at a company in which TRASK has stock in.  TRASK prevents her arrest.  TRASK meets MAGGIE'S friends LILLY and MADELAINE, argues with MAGGIE about LAUREN'S behavior.

     MAGGIE discovers TRASK'S plan to shut down and sell GREEN LINK.  TRASK coerces MAGGIE into taking a weekend trip to Sanibel Island with him and LAUREN.  There TRASK and MAGGIE learn TRASK's deceased ex-wife SARAH had secretly abused LAUREN.  TRASK and MAGGIE become lovers.  SARAH'S sister LISA arrives.  TRASK sends MAGGIE back home with LAUREN, remains behind with LISA.  MAGGIE believes LISA and TRASK are lovers.  TRASK confronts LISA about SARAH'S abuse and discovers she covered it up.

     Upon TRASK'S return, MAGGIE tries to warn TRASK about her plans for saving GREEN LINK.  TRASK refuses to discuss it.  MAGGIE moves for employee buy-out of GREEN LINK.  The stalker attacks MAGGIE, TRASK saves her life.  TRASK makes erroneous assumption that MAGGIE risked LAUREN'S life by not telling him about the stalker, and rejects her.  MAGGIE escapes to Atlanta.  BEAU convinces MAGGIE to return.  TRASK and MAGGIE reunite and marry.



Okay, I Think I'll Make It Into a Doorstop

Preparing your novel proposal is important, and it's very much a part of the professional writer's job.  Even after selling fifteen novels, I still have to write at least a synopsis for every book I pitch.  Yet believe it or not, it does get easier with each proposal you prepare.

Don't rush, and do your homework.  Read the publisher's guidelines, prepare your submission according to exactly what that publisher wants to see, and polish it carefully.  If you're serious about getting your novel published, then you want to send out the best possible proposal you can put together.  Your novel, and all the hard work you put into writing it, deserves nothing less.