The Book Proposal as Guide: Pinpointing Purpose and Readership


Book proposals are usually submitted in lieu of an entire manuscript for non-fiction books rather than novels or memoirs. But they can also be used effectively in restructuring an original manuscript or directing a disorganized first attempt at a narrative.

In my last post, From Life Story to Memoir, I described the first steps of transforming a life story/autobiography into a focused memoir. These steps—preliminary to the book proposal— included: identification (and if necessary a complete rethinking) of the major themes of the narrative; identification of the bedrock scenes—in my client’s book, both medical and personal—that would carry the revised story; alternating those scenes/chapters to create tension between high points and low; and repeated tinkering with the table of contents (TOC) of the original manuscript. The final step at that point was to identify a new starting point, one that would show the main character in the middle of an important (but not the most important) event.

Now, what to do with the new starting point and the evolving TOC?  Our agent Claire was already moving towards the idea of doing the book proposal, but I still struggled (with little success) to wrest the original manuscript into a significantly different book. The new plan added two elements of the book proposal:

  • Do a knock-out sample chapter (preferably chapter one)  that shows the main character at a critical moment, revealing a major conflict or theme (in our case, this meant showing the doctor at the top of his game and confronting an adversary in the OR);
  • Create an overview of the book, snagging the editor with a description of a dramatic scene and summarizing the main events and themes.

One last last point Claire emphasized was to focus on the editor not the imagined reader. Make each sentence crystal clear. Use powerful language that reflects the book’s uniqueness and appeal (in our case, “high-stakes”; “groundbreaking”; “game changer”; “pioneering”) and which in turn signals the main theme(s).

That new starting point, coupled with a new Chapter 1, was an important breakthrough, because, again, throughout the early process it had been very difficult to break away from the original chronology and structure of the work. See below two different versions of the book’s TOC and opening chapter. Note how chapter one in the restructured version starts in the middle of an important event.

Binder Screen Shot 1
Original TOC in Scrivener, starting at the beginning in a straightforward chronological account of a life.


Binder Screen Shot 2
The revised TOC; the new first chapter opens with a dramatic moment near the height of the author/protagonist’s career.

The Book Proposal as Guide to a Rewrite

With those steps out of the way and a rough idea of the new direction, Claire now suggested we carry on with a formal book proposal that she could submit to publishers.

So that you understand how the book proposal can serve as an outline/guide for a rewrite, I should mention its important elements here. There are many sources for writing a book proposal. (I love the example at the back of Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. Or check out his Write the Perfect Book Proposal with Deborah Levine.) All of them include the following:

  • Title Page: Make that title sing.
  • Overview: Grab the editor’s attention with 3-4 succinct pages of your story/concept.
  • Author Bio: Why are you ideal to write this book?
  • Marketing Section: Who will buy this book?
  • Competition Section: Half a dozen titles of books similar to yours and why yours is unique.
  • Promotion Section: Which outlets/platforms will be appropriate to publicize this book?
  • Chapter Outline: The meat of the proposal, tentatively titled and clearly abstracted.
  • Sample Chapter(s): Yes, the editor will see that you can really write and tell a story.

The book proposal turned out to be the key to restructuring the book. It forced me to know— and hew to—the genre of the book much more strictly; to hone the message and theme of the book and carry them through the entire story;  and to identify and then write for a much more defined readership. Not that it all came together like clockwork. It was sometimes a scattershot process, moving back and forth between sections.

Whether you want to attempt a formal book proposal or not, working through the points below as you revise (or write) your book will help you know where you are going with it.

The First Chapter

The new first chapter set the process in motion. Following Claire’s advice to start with a major event, I tackled a scene over halfway through the original manuscript, one that had originally been a paragraph long. It was a surgery during which another surgeon walked out. The scene represented a major turning point for my client. I had interviewed the doctor extensively the first time around; now I interviewed him again. I interviewed the fellow (as in fellowship) who had assisted him. I researched the pioneering spinal surgery technique they had used and made sure I understood it. I delved into the details of the surgery and OR environment—my genre was now the medical memoir, mind you, and I needed to really beef up the specifics.

Just as importantly, I changed exposition to dialogue (a separate post coming on this! Hugely important.) This new chapter was significantly different in tone, style, and pace from the original manuscript. This chapter firmly belonged to a medical memoir. I began to see the enormity of my task.

The Overview

With a sample chapter under my belt and progress made on the TOC, I tackled the overview. This was not to be a straightforward task. My starting point was the event in the sample chapter I had written. When Claire decided the overview (and thus the book) should start with another surgery—the one that had catapulted my client to superstar status—I wrote out that chapter as well. At times Claire would like one aspect of the original manuscript and ask me to bring it forward. At other times, she would decide it was not very important and suggest I drop it. After three or four months, she deemed the overview still “a little dry.” We needed more drama. We needed “to build excitement.” The first two pages had to be “seamless” and “dramatic.” Through my exasperation, I came to realize that this was all part of the process. All part of a deep fashioning of the story through thinking and rethinking its most dramatic and meaningful themes, scenes, and total arc.

The Competition

All during this time I was working on other sections, among the most important the competition section. There is no way around knowing what other books like yours have been published. There is no way around reading some of them. I read five or six medical memoirs (taking note of how and to what extent the authors worked in their backstories). I read reviews of these books and others. Claire thought some of the books I had chosen to summarize were too old and had me research newer titles—it’s best to see what is current in your genre. For each title I had to determine what set it apart and more importantly how my client’s book was unique. By the time Claire gave me the thumbs up on it, I had a much stronger idea of the genre and the readership we were trying to attract.

The Chapter Outline

At last, the most daunting task of all. Above, I wrote about using Scrivener to begin the restructuring process. I had created tentative chapter folders for the new version based on the revised TOC.  I had two new chapters for the new beginning of the book—these formed the new “present” of the narrative, from which I could move the main narrative forward in time and flash back to earlier important scenes. I had an idea of the scenes I wanted to keep from the original manuscript and scenes I needed to build from existing anecdotes, and I began to populate my chapter folders with these scenes.

Screen Shot 2016-08-20 at 10.55.15 AM
Populating the chapter folders with scenes. This allowed me to create chapter outlines for the book proposal, a task very difficult to do without a finished manuscript.

Creating the chapter outline without an existing manuscript was messy. The order and content of the chapters would change once the rewriting began in earnest. But through this process the narrative arc emerged. So did capsules of the main events. All that remained was to write two to three succinct paragraphs about each chapter—no mean feat. (My first drafts had whole pages or more for each chapter. Happily, what I cut from the chapter summaries in the book proposal came in handy in helping me build the scenes for the rewrite in Scrivener.)

The Rewrite

The rewrite was certainly not the simple reshuffling of chapters and scenes that I had originally imagined. The rewrite was indeed a REWRITE. But the process of preparing for and writing the book proposal, which took the better part of 2015, had laid all the groundwork. In January, 2016 I began writing out the next chapters. Mid February Claire submitted the proposal to an Indie publisher. Mid March my client had a contract—and I had a deadline of August. I wrote chapters. I axed chapters. I moved chapters around. I anguished over integrating flashbacks. I went down multiple wrong paths. But I had to stick to the TOC and the chapter outline we had sent in. In the end, I finished writing roughly twenty chapters of an essentially different book between March and August.

What about you? Have you been stuck with the direction your story is taking? With where to start or what to include? Are you rewriting your story? How have you approached this task? I would love to hear!


4 thoughts on “The Book Proposal as Guide: Pinpointing Purpose and Readership

    1. I have written about Scrivener before, Norah. I still need to learn to use many of the functions better (such as word counts, categorizing, and compiling a manuscript) but for organization I don’t see how I could have kept it all straight in MS Word. I do polish each chapter significantly once I move it into Word, but Scrivener allows a much easier “at-a-glance” experience.

  1. Congratulations on sending off your manuscript! It’s been fascinating to follow the process with you and to realize what a great learning curve you’ve climbed. And now you have you have all that experience for the next project. Feel proud, you deserve it!

    1. So good to see you here Chica and thanks for the comment. And for the months of listening to the (sometimes numbing) details of the process. Thinking now of a long-ago night in Beppu Japan, you and I scribbling and laughing around a table with Patty and Linda…my first writing group ever… thanks for staying the course with me dearest friend.

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