The final part of your fiction book proposal is your sample pages. This is really what will make or break your proposal, so make sure they shine!
To recap, a great fiction book proposal essentially breaks down into five elements:
- About Your Book and the Target Market (What can you do for us?).
- Your “Comparables” (What’s your niche?).
- Your Biography (Who are you and why should we care?).
- Marketing and Publicity (How can you help me to help you?)
- Sample Pages
Today, we’re going to talk about the sample manuscript pages that you’ll include with your fiction book proposal.
Your Sample Pages
Although the marketing section is the meat-and-potatoes of your proposal, what will ultimately make or break your chances with an agent is the quality of the writing itself.
If your query letter bought you requests to read partials from your book, or even the full manuscript, but then all you receive back is deafening silence—or a form rejection—then there’s a good chance that the problem isn’t your query letter. Your book probably needs work.
If one agent rejects after a read, that means little. Agents sign very few writers, and the nature of their job requires them to be selective. Two agents? Same thing. Three? Probably still means nothing.
But if you’ve submitted to a lot of agents and gotten them to read your book, or read chapters and a synopsis—say seven to ten agents, or more—and you’re only receiving form rejections, with no commentary at all on why the book wasn’t right, then you need to take a hard look at your book.
I know that’s an unpopular suggestion. But some writers have been rejected two or three hundred times, yet they still query with the same manuscript, never suspecting that the book itself might be the problem.
If multiple agents reject the book and do give a reason—the same reason—then you probably need to take another look at that particular aspect of your book. For example, if two or three agents mention that the book is too long for today’s market, consider cutting. If two or three agents say that the plot was interesting but the characters weren’t engaging, or well-drawn, or something in that vein, go back and take a long hard look at your characters.
It’s Not Fair
Most agents and editors know within two minutes of picking up your manuscript whether or not they’re going to reject it.
But Mike! My awesome villain isn’t even introduced until page ten?! That’s not fair!
Nope. Not fair. But true. Why? Because:
- This is their job, and they are (presumably) good at it or they wouldn’t be getting paid; and
- The competition (sorry, “comparables”) is so stiff, their manuscripts so numerous, that an agent has only a few nanoseconds in his day for your special never-before-seen snowflake.
That’s why every writing teacher should be hammering this into your head, ad nauseum: Your editor is your first reader.
Five Things to Consider About Your Manuscript
Anything that comes before a story or chapter finally, really, begins is just “throat-clearing.” Usually a page or two of scene setting and background. Get on with the story. Get your main character introduced; establish and then upset some status quo; plunge the hero into terrible trouble that reveals the engine of your story. Is it a quest, a journey, a challenge, what?
There’s plenty of time later to work in all those details that seemed so important while you were throat-clearing. For now, your job is to start with a bang.
Too many characters too quickly
I’m usually wary of generalizations or hard and fast rules, but almost any time I see more than three characters within the first few pages, my eyes start to swim. If I feel like I need a program to keep track of the players, I quickly lose interest.
Your reader is trying to comprehend the story, and if you ask him to start cataloguing a cast of characters right away, you risk losing him. Keep things simple till the story has taken shape.
Point of View violations
Maintain a single Point of View (POV) for every scene. Violate that cardinal rule and you expose yourself as an amateur right out of the gate. Beginners often defend themselves against this criticism by citing classics by famous authors (Virginia Woolf, prime example) or citing J.K. Rowling, the exception who proves the rule.
Times change. Readers’ tastes evolve. This is the rule for today, and it’s true of what sells.
And note that I said “for every scene.” You can (occasionally) change POV between one scene and another. Even so, there should be a predominant POV throughout the majority of the book.
Not just hackneyed words and phrases, but also whole clichéd situations, like starting your story with the main character waking to an alarm clock, a character describing herself while looking in a full-length mirror, future love interests literally bumping into each other upon first meeting, etc.
Avoid, too, beginning with an evocative, dramatic scene, and surprise, surprise, the main character wakes up to discover it’s all been a dream. There’s nothing wrong with dreams, but having them come as surprises has been used to death and takes all the air out of your story.
It’s also a cliché to have your main character feel his heart pound, race, thud, or hammer; and then he gasps, sucks wind, his breath comes short… If you describe the scene properly, your reader should experience all that and you shouldn’t have to say your character did. Put your character into a rough enough situation, and the reader will know what he’s feeling without having to be told—and hopefully share his distress.
Simply bad writing
Hollywood screenwriters coined this term for prose that exactly mirrors real life but fails to advance your plot. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves, except that they could be summarized to save the reader’s time and patience. A perfect example is replacing all the hi’s and hello’s and how are you’s that precede meaningful dialogue with something like: “After trading pleasantries, Barney asked Wilma if she’d heard about what had happened to Betty. ‘No, what?’”
Avoid state-of-being verbs. Change sentences like “There was a man standing…” to “A man stood…”
The most famous rule in the bible of writing hints, The Elements of Style, is “Omit Needless Words,” which follows its own advice. This should be the hallmark of every writer.
Keep Your Promises
This is really what your writing sample comes down to: keeping the promise you made in your query letter and the body of your book proposal. Every proposal contains an inherent promise, and convincing the agent that you’re just the Jack what can keep that promise, this is the essence of preparing your sample chapters.
And that’s about it for fiction book proposals. I’ll have a few last words on the subject next week, but until then: write on!