This week I submitted another proposal to my editor, and it got me thinking again about that strange art.
The kind of proposal I mean here is the one that already-published authors submit to their editor; often, though not always, it’s in response to a request or suggestion by the editor. It’s generally composed of a pitch and summary, the first few completed chapters of the first book, and, if it’s a series proposal, some sense of what the next books might be.
As such, that kind of proposal is not unlike the book proposals unpublished authors address to agents or editors too; except that the book isn’t finished. In fact, the ‘luxury’ of the exercise, on the already-published author’s part, is that the book doesn’t need to be finished at the stage when it’s pitched.
Another difference is that you’re talking to someone who knows you very well, so you don’t need to be overly formal in the pitch and the explanations of the next few books; you can also refer to your own previous books to make it clear where it stands in relation to the rest of your writing (if you’re still fooling yourself that your overall oeuvre is a miracle of coherence and forward planning.)
The proposal is an odd mixture of pragmatism and passion. Generally, you’re writing it in response to a suggestion by your editor; whether it’s very specific (‘I urgently need a 5-7 steampunk series involving mermaid hedgehogs’) or rather vague (‘I’m thinking of, like, some kind of animal story? Quirky maybe?’), you will have in mind at least some parameters and you will structure and strategise the writing and pitch accordingly.
In that sense, the proposal asks for your cold and calculating superego to control quite strictly the writing-splurge ambitions of your writerly id. You can’t get too attached to the budding project, because it might well get rejected (it often is) or require drastic rethinking; in which case you might not agree with the suggested changes, and choose to withdraw the proposal.
At the same time, you do need to develop with your embryonic project at least some promise of future love, or else your few chapters will lack enthusiasm - and you will lack the motivation to carry on, should it be accepted. I have started, and scrapped, very many book proposals that I felt did the job correctly, but which would be an absolute chore to write, because they would have been written ‘as proposals’, not ‘as books’.
My writing folder is full of rejected proposals, forever deprived of middles and endings. Some had good pitches (I thought), but the writing didn’t seduce. For others, the writing pleased, but the pitch was limp. Rejection at proposal stage happens very often in the life of a writer.
It’s a strange kind of mourning, because the emotional investment hasn’t been quite strong enough to really deplore the non-existence of the finished books. After being rejected, proposals get forgotten quite easily. I’m not particularly keen to resuscitate any of them.
They’re a different kind of writing to the other kind of unpublished work, the full manuscripts, revised, rewritten and edited so many times, whose failures still sting. You know, when you’re writing a proposal, that it’s more likely than not to remain bodiless.
People outside publishing don’t generally know about that kind of proposal, and when they hear about it they tend to be horrified at how dry and cold it is. But there’s always something to be gained from a proposal, even if it ends up being rejected. You’ve inhabited a world for a little while, thought up an idea, invented characters. They’ll come back in a different form, some day, somewhere else.
Clementine Beauvais writes in French and English. She blogs here about children's literature and academia.