5 Ways to Break Up a Writing Iceberg: The Book Proposal


I remember the day well.

After four years, hours and hours of writing, time away from my kids, countless books read on craft, writing classes Spring TX, and two professional edits, I finally finished my 260 page memoir.

“Success is a finished book, a stack of pages each of which is filled with words. If you reach that point, you have won a victory over yourself no less impressive than sailing single-handed around the world.”- Tom Clancy

Mr. Clancy’s quote, once my eyes stumbled upon it, coaxed a satisfied sigh from my gut. I closed my eyes, imagining myself at the helm of a ship, arms stretched out like Rose and Jack from The Titanic.


But seriously, like the next day, my excitement and feelings of great accomplishment hit an iceberg when I forced myself to pay attention to two words that had floated around my mind throughout the project:


If my manuscript is the Titanic, then the book proposal is the iceberg.

A book proposal is a thorough description of a manuscript, the market it would serve, and a sample of the story, usually the first two or three chapters.

And something I had no idea about until my manuscript was nearly completed.

Once my manuscript was finished, I assumed I could change the sail on my writing ship, pound out a quick proposal, and venture into new waters of querying agents.

Not so.

I had no idea about the painstaking amount of work a thorough, well-written, well-representing book proposal entailed. It took time and several confusing revisions to write an acceptable book proposal.

So here’s some advice, sailor to sailor:

1) Discern the genre. Book proposals, and when to submit them, are different depending on fiction or non-fiction. Fiction and memoir manuscripts should be completed before the proposal is submitted to an agent or a publisher. Non-fiction books can and do sell on proposal with a couple of chapters to provide the flavor and quality of the writing.

2) Work on your proposal while you are writing your manuscript. I should have started researching book proposals right away. Writing the proposal while working on the manuscript would have provided needed focus. A proposal can be a great map of where you are in your project, and where you need to go.

3) Write well. Your book proposal is probably the first writing sample a prospective agent or editor will see from you. Don’t rush. Let the voice rendered in your manuscript seep onto the proposal page. Agents and editors see many proposals. Take the time and attention required to make your proposal flawless and flavorful.

4) Stick to the basic elements of a proposal. Some include a cover page, an overview of the story, the hook, a biography of the author, marketing strategies, chapter summaries, and sample chapters.

I purchased a template from a famous author. It was a great way to get me started, but once an agent was landed, she preferred I use her agency’s template. Though similar, it wasn’t quite the same. Realize that an agent or editor will probably want you to tweak your proposal.

5) A successful book proposal requires research. Learn from the best. Check out:

Terry Whalin’s Book Proposals That Sell: 21 SECRETS TO SPEED YOUR SUCCESS

Have you written a book proposal? Are you in the process of writing a book proposal? Any advice? What’s been the most challenging part of the process? Please share with your fellow sojourners.

9 Replies to “5 Ways to Break Up a Writing Iceberg: The Book Proposal”

  1. Brilliant analogy. So right–working on it as you go (even if you don’t have the complete synopsis figured out yet–pantsers!) can lighten much of the burden. But the best help I ever got was having another fiction author’s proposal to look at. And this only happened once I was agented. I wish there were more online sites with posted proposals that WORKED–and not just proposals from multi-published authors. Stellar debut authors’ proposals would be so helpful for clueless newbie authors like I was.

  2. Great advice, Gillian. A solid book proposal helped me sign with WordServe Literary Group, and enabled them to sell my non-fiction book to a publisher. Learning how to write a good proposal changed my life, and I hope many others experience the same blessing.

  3. Loved this post and completely agree with the importance of ‘discerning the genre.’ It makes marketing much easier when one’s work is identifiable and therefore able to be stumbled upon by an ideal target audience. Thank you, Gillian!

  4. Great post, wish I would have read this before I finished my novel. My next step is working on a proposal. It scares me a bit, but this post has helped ease some of my fears. Thanks.

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