Monday, 20 April 2009

How to write a fiction synopsis

Many writers find writing a book proposal a daunting and painful process. However, the proposal is one of the most important documents a writer will ever produce and can be the difference between your book ending up in bookshops and sitting unread on your hard drive.

There is no one formula for a good proposal but an understanding of the process a book goes through before finally being commissioned, will help you understand just how important the proposal is to the publisher and agent.

Whether you are submitting to an agent or publisher the first person to read your book will probably not be the one that finally agrees to the commission. In most publishers editors will look at incoming submissions, pick the ones they think are worthy of pursuing and then present them to the rest of their team. It is only when all involved (marketing, sales and more senior editors) agree that your book will sell that it will get commissioned. The situation is similar for an agent who will ultimately have to present the book to a publisher.

The way your book is presented by the editor/agent is critical. The problem you face is that the editor/agent will use your proposal as the foundation for their pitch. This means that your proposal needs to contain key information if it is to have any chance of success.

So, bearing this in mind, what do you need in a proposal?

The proposal should consist of the following elements:
  • A bit about the book
  • A bit about you
  • Your market
  • An extract
  • A bit about your book
This is the opening section for your proposal and needs to be written as if it were to be used for marketing the book. In essence this is a summary of what the book is about, who will read it and why.

Paragraph 1: The Elevator pitch
The first paragraph of this section should be the elevator pitch. This is a concise and targeted summary of the book in just a couple of sentences. Try to capture the essence of the book.

You can't choose who you fall in love with and that's especially true with football teams.
(The Bromley Boys, Dave Roberts)

Belle de Jour is the nom de plume of a high-class call girl working in London. This is her story.
(Belle de Jour, The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl)

Grosvenor HouseDeep in the City something had been woken, something so old and so ordinary that people had been walking past it for centuries without giving it a second look...
(Stone Heart, Charlie Fletcher)

Paragraph 2: Story outline
This paragraph adds more detail to the story. Include a very brief outline of the plot (seven/eight sentences at most). Also add a brief suggestion of your target audience and why they might wish to buy your book.

Paragraph 3: Details
The next paragraph should provide some nitty-gritty details. Try to give as much depth as possible. 

You need to include the following:
  • Page count: Publishers are aware that this is only an estimate but it shows you have a clear vision for your book.
  • Word count: Again publishers will be aware this may change but it lets them know a little bit more about your book.
  • Completion date: A publisher needs to have some kind of timeline in mind for your book. If unwritten then they will need to know when to expect the manuscript. If written then tell them so.
  • Images & illustrations: If you need images to be included or illustrations drawn then it is important you include as much detail as possible. This will all add to the cost of the book’s production and will play a part in the decision making process.
  • Anything unusual: This is the time to include anything out of the ordinary you envisage for your book. If you want any unusual printing style or fold out pictures etc include details in this paragraph.
A bit about you

Paragraph 4: Biography
Whether you like it or not the final decision to publish a book may be as much to do with the writer as the book’s content. Publishers and agents are looking for a marketable package. They need a story beyond the book’s narrative that they can sell to their marketing department and ultimately external media. The best way to write this section is to imagine the publisher cutting and pasting it onto the back of the book.

Your biography can usually be done in one paragraph. I suggest that you try and give yourself a ‘story’. Are you a struggling housewife that writes in her spare time, a University professor who really wants to write chick-lit or a policeman putting his day-to-day experiences into a gritty crime novel? Also include any relevant writing experience. If you are a member of the Society of Authors then say so. If you have books already published then give details (including ISBN). Also don’t be frightened of adding a bit about what you do in your spare time. If you are sky-diving vicar then it all adds to your ‘story’.

Some tips that might help-

  • Don’t be too clever: The publisher/agent is looking for information about you, so stick to information. Don’t clog up the section with your thoughts, big ideas and plans - just the facts.
  • Don’t be strange: Try to keep your weird habits (we all have them) out of the text. If you collect used envelopes and the book isn’t about used envelopes resist the temptation to share.
  • Share relevant experience: If you have experience relevant tot the book then put it into the biography. Don’t include experience that is not relevant. If you worked in McDonalds when you were seventeen - great but a book synopsis is not the place to share (unless your book is about a burger restaurant - you get the idea).
  • Include all previous writing experience: ANY books and articles you have published should be included. It all helps...

Your Market
This section is about allowing the publisher to match your book with a sales strategy. If you have written a fiction book for children and the publisher sells adult non-fiction then there is no match. Your story is not right for them and they are not right for your story. In addition you are giving the editor/agent a kick start on their research into the potential sales figures for your book.

Paragraph 5: Readership
This paragraph is about your readership. You need to be as precise as possible, saying everyone who has read Harry Potter is your target audience is not helping anyone. You have a much clearer picture of your readership than any publisher at this stage. Painting a clear picture of your potential reader will help greatly. You need to explain why your book will appeal. There is no harm in talking about some lesser secondary markets but stay focussed.

Paragraph 6: Competition
This paragraph looks at the competition for your book. You need to pin point carefully the kind of books your potential readers are already buying and reading. This is not a negative, it will give the publisher a clear idea of where they will be marketing and selling your book. It also shows that you are committed and well informed. It helps if you are familiar with the competition titles and reading as many of them as possible is a good start. If your book fills a particular niche in the market or is strong were a best seller is weak, then include this kind of information. Try to include at least the title for the competition, though an ISBN helps for more obscure books.

This is going to be an extract of your work. You need to check the publisher/agent submission guidelines. As a rule of thumb it tends to be the first fifty pages (double spaced).

The final thing to say is that you get one chance with a pitch and trying to second guess exactly what a publisher is looking for will not work. Your best chance of success is to present a well researched, clear and serious proposal for your book.

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