Tuesday, June 26, 2012



Do you have a novel in the works or are you contemplating writing one? Wait! Before you finish that potential bestseller, you have a little business to take care of. You really must write a book proposal.

Why expend your precious energy writing a proposal for your amazing book? Many novelists resist writing a proposal because, well, it just isn't a creative endeavor. Plus, they've been told that you don't need one for a novel. One overzealous hopeful author actually told me this week that he wasn't going to write a book proposal because his book is so good it will sell itself.

Why write a book proposal for a work of fiction? Let me count the reasons:

1: A book proposal can mean the difference between a rejection slip and a publishing contract. Contrary to what you may have heard, most traditional royalty publishers request a book proposal--yes, even for fiction. In fact, sometimes the publisher is more interested in the book proposal than he is the manuscript. Just look at some of the books that have made it into Barnes and Noble and that are on the bestseller lists. Are they all really that good?

The fact is that sometimes mediocre manuscripts are produced when excellent ones go unnoticed. Why? Think about it: A publisher is in the business to make money. Let's say that the publisher can produce one more book this year. He's looking for a single book to fill his catalog. If one author comes to him with a good book and no ideas for promoting it and another author shows up with a mediocre manuscript and an amazing promotional plan written into her proposal, which one do you think he's going to choose?

2: A book proposal will tell you whether you have a book at all. A synopsis is a major part of a fiction book proposal. If you can't write a succinct synopsis that brings your story to life, your book might not have all of the elements of a good story. Writing a synopsis is an excellent exercise--one that affords you the opportunity to examine your story from outside the traditional boundaries of the manuscript. Doesn't it make sense to determine whether you have a viable project before you approach a publisher or self-publish your book?

3: A book proposal will help you to learn something about the publishing industry. As part of the book proposal process, presumably, you will spend some time studying aspects of your genre. You'll define your publishing options and learn the possible consequences of your choices.

Think about it, you wouldn't enter into any other field of business without learning about the industry, the products, distributors, manufacturers, suppliers and so forth. You would check out your competition and the needs of your customers. Publishing is not an extension of your writing. Publishing is a business and your book, once published, is a product. A book proposal, then, is a business plan for your book.

4: A book proposal will help you to identify your target audience. Yes, even fiction has a target audience. Who is yours? Readers of historical fiction? Mysteries? Thrillers? Science Fiction? Chick Lit? How many such readers are there? Is there another genre that is currently more popular? Perhaps there's something you can do to make your book appeal to a wider audience such as, young adults, both men and women, seniors or readers of romance, biographies or humor, for example. Can you see how writing a book proposal can help you to write the right book for the right audience?

5: A book proposal will help you to reach your target audience. In order to sell books to your audience, you need to know where they are--where do they buy books, what sites do they frequent, which magazines and newsletters do they read? The answer to these questions will help you to create a marketing plan. And, a marketing plan is necessary in this publishing climate. You'll need one and your potential publisher will require one.

6: A book proposal gives you the opportunity to build promotion into your book. How do you build promotion into a book? For fiction, you might discuss a popular issue and/or choose a more promotions-friendly setting for your story, for example. Make your novel more salable by giving a character a horse, a motorcycle, diabetes or triplets. Do you see how additions such as these would give your fiction book expanded promotional options?

7: A book proposal will help you to build your platform. You won't get very far selling books without a platform, nor will you get very far with a publisher. Publishers are interested in their bottom line. They want to know that their authors will take a strong role in the promotion of their books. What do you have going for you or what can you develop as part of your platform.

Platform, by the way, is your following; your way of attracting an audience. Publishers want authors who are known in their field or genre. They are interested in authors who prove themselves to be aggressive promoters--who are accustomed to presenting seminars, who understand the publicity business and who have the time and funds to travel and promote their books, for example. If you have never written a thriller before, start now establishing your platform. For example,

* Submit your short stories to appropriate magazines, newsletters and web sites.
* Expand your mailing list.
* Create a newsletter and/or a Web site dedicated to your book or genre.
* Develop a seminar related to your genre or the theme of your story.

The book proposal is not just for the nonfiction book anymore. Write a book proposal for your fabulous novel and you're much more likely to experience success as an author.

Patricia Fry is the author of 25 books, including "How to Write a Successful Book Proposal in 8 Days or Less," "Over 75 Good Ideas for Promoting Your Book" and "The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book."

Monday, June 18, 2012

Passive vs. Active Voice

Passive vs. Active Voice

English teachers like myself love to warn new writers against the evils of passive voice. Here at Daily Writing Tips, Michael has written about passive writing, and I recently wrote about dummy subjects, but it looks like there’s still some confusion about passive voice and its use.

For more on passive vs. active sentence construction, I turn to two books that should be staples in any writer’s library: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, and Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax.

First, let’s review what passive voice is. In most sentences, we have a subject performing an action. For example: Jason threw the ball. “Jason” is the subject.

In a passive sentence, the subject of the sentence is acted upon rather than performing the action, as in: The ball was thrown by Jason. “The ball” is the subject and it is being acted upon.

Verbs in the passive voice have two parts: some form of the verb “to be” and a past participle form of the action verb: was thrown. (The helping verbs has or have can also appear in a passive verb: the ball has been thrown.)

A writer may choose to use the passive voice in order to emphasize one thing over another. In the second example, the ball (rather than Jason) becomes the most important component of the sentence.

Zinsser says that passive voice should be used sparingly–only when there’s no way around it. “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style–in clarity and vigor–is the difference between life and death for a writer.”

In most (but not all) cases, the passive construction is longer, clunkier, and more vague. Take these examples from student research papers:

The poorer people were deprived of their opportunities.

Documents were cited to prove that an estimated 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants have been admitted to the United States.

Talks have been conducted on the subject of starting a worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In each of these examples, the passive voice construction gives us unnecessary words and clunky sentences that can be easily revised:

Harsh immigration laws deprive poorer people of opportunities.

State Department officials estimate the number of illegal immigrants at from 12 to 20 million.

President Bush has proposed starting a [guest] worker program for the illegal immigrants.

In part, the use of active voice over passive voice is a matter of word economy and simplicity. If you can say something with fewer words, you probably should. It’s also a matter of making your words work for you. As Zinsser says, “active verbs push hard and passive verbs tug fitfully.” Using an active verb helps make the sentence more vivid and precise; does your subject walk, or does he saunter? Does she fall, or does she stumble?

Hale warns against relying too heavily on is and are (and “to be” in all its forms):

Novices tend to rely on is and other static verbs and lose momentum by stumbling into the passive voice.

That said, you still have to be careful not to overdo it. Sometimes, passive voice is useful. Sometimes it’s even necessary. As commenter Bill G pointed out, the dummy subject it is necessary in describing weather phenomenon (it is raining). In Sin and Syntax, Hale gives us this example:

Writers and editors can get too literal-minded about “eschewing the stationary passive.” They forget that the passive voice does exist for a reason. One syntactically challenged slot editor at the Oakland Tribune, sticking adamantly to a policy demanding the active voice, changed the screaming, above-the-fold headline “I-580 killer convicted” to “Jury convicts I-580 killer” (which screamed less loudly, since the stretched-out phrase required a smaller type).

In Hale’s headline example, we can see that the sentence was better served by the passive construction. The action (the killer’s conviction) was more important than the subject of the sentence (the jury). The trick is knowing when to use active voice, and when passive voice is more effective. Many writers–especially beginners–rely too heavily on passive construction, allowing their prose to become limp and lazy. You can keep from falling into this trap by being conscious of your use of dummy subjects (it and there) and “be” verbs.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Literary Terms You Should Know

Heresy of paraphrase: New Critic Cleanth Brooks believes in the impossibility of discerning meaning in poetry, and that it’s entirely possible to just enjoy its mere existence at a specific point in space and time.