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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Avoiding Pitfalls in Your Proposal, Part 1

Part of the game of writing fiction is getting published. And part of the game of getting published is creating proposals that will be read (and loved, we hope) by agents and acquisitions editors.

After thirteen years of selling proposals (as an author) and evaluating proposals (as an acquisitions editor) I've learned a few things that can either help or hurt your chances.

At my main Web page I have written a 4-part series on how to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that can doom your proposal. Parts 1-2 discuss mistakes to avoid in your proposal's front matter (cover letter, synopsis, etc.), and parts 3-4 cover mistakes to avoid in your sample chapters.

The following is part 3 of that series. (On my Web page it's Tip #35.) Since the sample chapters you'll send with your proposal are the first 40 pages of your fiction manuscript, these tips are actually talking about how to start your novel out well.

One housekeeping note: throughout this article I refer to other Tips in my Fiction Writing Tip of the Week column, from which this excerpt is drawn. You'll have to come to the site to read those other tips.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #1: Weak First Line

As an acquisitions editor I give a lot of attention to first lines. They are, to me, a very quick indicator of an author's skill level.

I can't tell you how many novels I've read that begin with someone pulling up in a car (usually in front of a house) or with a weather report. Yawn. Often they begin with telling: Jim had always been a shy boy...

Or else the first line will be trying to do too much at once: "Jim's long beard dripped with gravy from the state dinner with the Russian ambassador as he punched in the code to defuse the bomb planted there by the female Ukranian terrorist who was so beautiful it broke Jim's already trampled heart."


Let your first line be three things: simple, engaging, and appropriate to set the tone for the rest of the book. You get only one first line. It has the most impact of any sentence in your entire book. Don't fritter it away.

My best first lines:

Once he decided to kill himself, the rest was easy. (From Virtually Eliminated.)


Today I'm going to kill a man in cold blood. (From Operation: Firebrand.)

Do they pass the simple, engaging, and appropriate test? Yes. (It doesn't hurt to make your first line be about life and death, btw.)

Sample Chapters Pitfall #2: Lack of an Engaging Hook (a.k.a. Not Starting with Action)

This is similar to the previous pitfall but extends beyond the first line. You've got to hook me with your first line, true, but you've got to set the hook and then reel me in with the scene that follows.

When I say "start with action" I don't mean you have to blow something up. It doesn't have to be an action sequence, per se. It just needs to be something interesting to the reader. Engaging.

It should involve someone doing something. Making a decision or executing a plan or having a realization or committing a crime. The opening scene is a great time to establish your villain and the stakes of your story, and to get the ticking time-bomb going (see Tip #20).

Sample Chapters Pitfall #3: Telling Instead of Showing

Show vs. Tell is a basic element of good craftsmanship. Getting it wrong is a good way to get your proposal rejected lickedy split. Read Tip #29.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #4: POV Errors

Mastery of point of view (POV) is another foundational element of good fiction writing that, if absent, will get you rejected in a hurry. Read Tip #30.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #5: Shallow Characters

Shallow, unrealistic, undifferentiated characters will get your novel rejected post haste.

Read Tip #32 and go here to see one means of getting the character help you may need.

Sample Chapters Pitfall #6: Lack of Good Beats

Beats are one of those areas in which you very quickly reveal your level of mastery in fiction, whether you know it or not. This is something subtle but powerful. Often the author's facility with beats is that ineffible something that causes editors to conclude that he or she is actually a craftsman worth acquiring.

Read Tip #31 to learn about beats.


Next time I'll continue to look at how to hurdle the obstacles in your opening chapters that can otherwise block your chances at getting the best response your proposal can generate.



Blogger Gina said...

Great tips! I can't wait to read the whole series.

One question about beats. Why is it that so many of the new releases I'm reading still use SAID when a beat would have worked better?

Is it lazy writing or editing?

12:30 PM  
Blogger Lynette Sowell said...

Great post. I'm definitely going to refer to this when preparing my conference pitch this year! ~ Lynette

7:02 PM  

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