Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Modest Proposal

proposal--a presentation for a book-length project; a first chapter, outline, story map, and marketing materials for fiction projects; a thesis or operating statement plus table of contents, one or more developed chapters plus a marketing guide for works of non-fiction.

A cynical-but-practical approach for book-length works of fiction is the straightforward one in which "The completed manuscript is the best proposal." This is so because, should the writer find a publisher willing to contract a work from an outline or proposal, the publisher is most likely to insist on the finished product being closely allied to the proposal. This means that any changes or developments that occur to the writer after the project has been formalized will be regarded as something other than what was agreed upon in the first place.

The fiction proposal introduces in actual text one or more lead characters who forge a bond of appeal for a targeted audience. The character or characters then become involved in a situation involving accelerated vulnerability or a looming deadline with dire consequences for failure (which the author now proposes to resolve with dramatic flair).

In addition to actual text pages, the fiction proposal contains as detailed an outline as possible to show the story arc. Even though the outlines for the individual episodes of the TV series, The Wire, were not intended to serve as an outline for a book, they do convey the tone and theme of the overall design and serve as a guideline for the writers of individual episodes.

The purpose of the proposal is to show interested literary agents and publishers that the writer is capable of telling a story, has a viable one at hand and some sense of how it will play out. Unspoken in the transaction is the need to overcome the publisher's suspicion that the writer will not be able to complete the work, a suspicion allayed by presentation of the completed manuscript.

Writers who have produced one or more previous works may be granted greater leniency in presenting a proposal for a work of fiction. A larger number of nonfiction books reach contract stage on the basis of a proposal than those submitted as a completed manuscript.

An ideal fiction proposal would have at least one completed chapter, preferably the first, in which one or more of the major characters is introduced. This would be followed by a list of characters with a brief description of their roles. Then either a chapter-by-chapter gloss or a detailed enough outline to define the main plot points. This would be followed by the author's estimate of the demographics of potential readers followed by a brief statement comparing the instant work with one or more published works. Although thematic material will likely shine through, an accompanying statement about the writer's attitude and intent toward some relevant social, ethical, or political issue is a useful adjunct. Such books as Cliff's Notes, Monkey Notes, and Spark Notes provide useful approaches to the plot outline.

Successful proposals rarely if ever cite best-seller lists or predict sales figures.

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