Good, the Bad, and the Icky
That Sell/Don't Sell Your Novel
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
Can't I Just Mail Them the
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.
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.
the Components of a Proposal
– this is a one- to two-page cover letter, in standard business format,
introducing yourself and your novel idea to the editor.
– depending on the publisher's guidelines, the first one to three complete
chapters of your novel, in manuscript form.
– depending on publisher guidelines, an outline of each chapter one paragraph
to one page in length.
– 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.
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
Springs, FL 33075
(123) 456-7890 FAX: (098)765-4321
Submission for Chronicle Article
could go wrong when an interested editor calls and asks you to send a
manuscript overnight? Everything!
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.
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.
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)
Springs, FL 33075
(123) 456-7890 FAX: (098)765-4321
January 5, 1998
Daw Books, Inc.
375 Hudson Street 3rd Floor
New York, New York
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
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
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.
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 HollyLisle.com 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:
Springs, FL 33075
Directions Publishing Corp.
York, NY 10011
Sir or Madam:
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.
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?
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.)
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.
bad to worse – and yes, I actually wrote this letter and mailed it out to
several dozen publishers:
Springs, FL 33075
1271 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
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
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
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.)
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.”
I can't believe I actually used the phrase “love clash” . . .)
About Sample Chapters, Chapter Summaries, and Novel Synopses?
you need to check the guidelines of the publisher to whom you intend to submit
your proposal, but here are the industry standards:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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
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:
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
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.
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:
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.
I Think I'll Make It Into a Doorstop
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.
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