Anatomy of a book proposal

l’ve recently been offered the opportunity to write and present a 3-book proposal to an agent for a new mystery series.

As I delve into this for the first time — ever — I thought I’d share what I know and am learning from the process.

So, to start, here’s the anatomy of a book proposal:

  • Overview -> on average, this is a half- to one-page description of the premise of the series, with a lot of focus on the protagonist. You want to catch the agent’s (and publisher’s) attention here so she’ll keep reading.
  • Synopses -> this is plural because for a 3-book proposal, you need to have 3 synopses. They do not have to be long at all. In fact, they range from a paragraph to a half-a-page for each of the 3 books. I’m thinking of them as extended elevator pitches – the way I’ll describe the books if I have a couple of minutes to talk about them.
  • Author bio -> this is probably self-explanatory, but the bio needs to represent how the writer has the background and/or experience to write the proposed series. Including links to published works is acceptable, but the 1-2 paragraphs should be narrative.
  • Comparative titles -> List 3-5 titles of books or series, along with author names and publishing houses if you know them, comparable to what you’re proposing to show there is a market established.
  • Marketing or social media platform -> depending on your experience, this section can be wrapped in with the author bio, or be called out separately. Authors need to have a platform, even if they land a contract with a ‘big’ publisher. This section should include details on your involvement with social media, how you can promote your own work, as well as listing any statistics or details on the topic you are writing about.

Let the agent know what you know about the potential pool of readers. For example, if your books relate in some way to adult evening community classes, you can include something like: there are x number of people who attend adult enrichment classes each year.

  • Sample pages -> depending on how long you write, this can be one or a few chapters, but you want to have 30 (or so) pages of the first book ready to send along with your proposal. And for me, since I’m proposing a mystery series, I have to make sure that I have a dead body in the first 30 pages.

Overall, other than the sample pages, the proposal should be in your natural voice. Write it as though you’re speaking with the agent and only use $5 words if those are part of your natural vocabulary. You want to catch the agent’s attention and make her want to work with you and help pitch your books to publishers. (It’s an entirely different discussion about finding the right agent for a manuscript.)

The total proposal you send in will range from 20 (if you’re sending a short chapter) to 45 pages.

Lisa J Jackson writer Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys New England’s crisp fall mornings and warm sunny days. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.

How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 1

roaring lion

“How do you get so much done?” is a question I hear from friends, colleagues, and clients pretty frequently. I don’t say this to brag. Like every other successful freelance writer I know, I hustle. I make hay while the sun shines. I burn the midnight oil (and, sometimes the candle at both ends). I get stuff done because I have to. (A deadline is a great motivator.)

What I do is not magic. I’m not an incredibly fast writer, nor have I figured out how to survive without sleep. (If you crack that mystery, please let me know.) What I do have is a system and some basic project management skills. Today, I want to share them with you because if I can help even one working writer reduce the chaos and tame the stress, it’ll make my day.

In my two-part series on the secrets of successful freelance writers I encouraged writers to become good project managers. One of the most important aspects of providing strong project management is creating and managing project schedules. You need to be able to provide an up-front plan, stay on top of it, and revise as things develop. You also need to be able to help keep your team (including your client) on track and on task with friendly reminders and nudges.

But how on earth can you expect to stay on top of all of that while you’re also trying to handle your own marketing, client meetings, and the actual writing?

It may seem impossible, but it’s not.

There are 5 tools I use to help me get a handle on (and manage!) my schedule – from the Big Picture to the minute details and everything in between. In this post, I’ll share the first two:

The Writer’s Big Picture: Good, Old Excel

You know that saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees? It’s definitely applicable to the freelance writer’s life. Often we are juggling so many projects and tasks that it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks – things like an interim deadline, client call, or – you know – feeding the kids.

Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by my workload, I take a breath, step back, and look at the Big Picture. I do this using a basic Excel spreadsheet that I designed to help me create a visual overview of my workload and pipeline (jobs that I think are coming soon). This 30,000-foot view always helps me to feel a little bit saner.

I call the spreadsheet my “Workflow Doc.” Here’s what it looks like:

Workflow spreadsheet sm

And if you click here, you can download a copy of the actual Excel document.

To use it:

  1. List your clients and projects down the left-hand side
  2. Define the current and upcoming months and weeks across the top (I like to look at four months at a time, but you can look at two or three if that seems more manageable.)
  3. Using the color key at the bottom (which you can’t see in the screen grab, but it’s there), color code the project cells to indicate what type of work needs to be done for each project during each week. I use the following phases: Initiation, First Draft, Edits, Development, and Launch. I know that each of these phases will require a different level of attention from me. For instance, the Initiation phase is typically just a meeting or two and will usually only require a few hours while the First Draft phase may require several solid days. The Edits phase might need about 30-50% of my time, while Development (typically the phase during which the project has moved from my hands to either a designer or a developer) may only require 10% of my time for small edits and adjustments.

After you have the chart filled out, you’ll easily be able to see any potential train wrecks, where you have time available, and opportunities to “massage” schedules in order to make your life less crazy. For me, being able to see everything on paper is a lot less scary than just having a vague sense that things are barreling out of control. Even if I fill out the spreadsheet and see that I am, in fact, in a load of trouble, just knowing exactly what kind of trouble I’m in makes me feel better and gives me the information I need to start working on a solution.

The Writer’s Project Plan: A Gantt Chart

The next level of detail is the individual project plan.

Confession: in my past life, I was a project manager, so I have better-than-average tolerance for all things budget- and schedule-related. That said, learning the basics is not as difficult as you might think.

When I was a full-time project manager, I used Microsoft Project to create project schedules in a Gantt chart format. Now that I am on my own (and on a Mac), I don’t have MS Project anymore, so I needed to find a simple (preferably free) tool that would let me create Gantt schedules. After much searching, I settled on an online service called ViewPath, which has the baseline features I need and a free option. Perfect!

Here is what a basic Gantt format schedule looks like:

sample gantt

I could spend several posts talking about how to build a schedule, but here are the basic steps:

  1. Make a list of all the tasks that need to be completed. For a basic writing project, these might include initiation tasks (discovery meetings, research, outlining, etc.), writing tasks (first drafts, revisions, final edits), client management tasks (presentation and review meetings), and so on.
  2. Put the relevant tasks into your Gannt chart in the appropriate order. (I group each set under a sub-head to make the overall schedule easier to read.)
  3. Identify where there are “task dependencies” and “link” those tasks in the Gantt chart. For instance, you cannot start your research until you have had the kickoff meeting and received the reference materials from the client. You can’t start on your first draft until the client has approved the outline. You can’t make revisions until the client has provided feedback. Within the Gantt chart, you can connect the end of one task to the beginning of another to show these dependencies. The beauty of this is that, within the scheduling software, when you move one date (say the client is two days late with feedback), it automatically moves all the subsequent dates so that you know what impact the delay will have on the overall schedule.
  4. If you are so inclined, you can assign resources to each task.

You can, of course, go into all kinds of additional detail, but those are the basic steps. Once you have created the schedule, you can include it in your scope of work so that everyone involved is on the same page in terms of timing. In this way, you are providing a better experience for the client and making your life easier because you’ll have an even better sense of exactly what has to happen next.

… but, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of managing individual tasks next time.

Here’s the thing – managing your time and your projects well is a critical part of freelance writing success. Without these skills, one of two things will happen: 1) You’ll miss deadlines and lose customers (and, eventually, your business will fail), or 2) You’ll push yourself to work ungodly hours and burn out (and, eventually, your business will fail).

I don’t want that for you. We writers need to stick together and help each other out.

I hope that my Big Picture and Project Plan tools help you find some additional sanity. Next time, I’ll share with you the three tools that I use to manage my time and projects on a day-to-day basis. Until then, keep writing, keep breathing, and if you have any questions – leave ’em in the comments! 


Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Image Credit: iam_photography

Have you planned your week yet?

It’s Monday, do you have your plan for the week made out yet?

  • If Yes — congrats! You’re on your way to a productive week.
  • If no — what are you waiting for?

Do you know — specifically — what the top 3 tasks are that you want to have accomplished by Friday?

  • If Yes — Fantastic!
  • If no — how about a top 1 or top 2?

Do you know what little steps you need to take this week to reach your annual goal for x? Of your big goals for the year, each has several smaller steps needed. Have you been on track to reach a goal by 12/31?

  • If Yes — you’re on fire!
  • If no — why not take some time today to look your goals over and evaluate yourself?

calendarAre there a lot of carry over tasks from last week to this week? Have they been carried over previously?

  • If yes, do these tasks absolutely have to get done? (maybe they are just taking up space on your ToDo list)
  • If No — way to keep on track and take care of things!

I spend some time each Sunday evening planning out my week. I have my tasks broken into 7 categories: writing, editing, marketing, reading, business, volunteer, and personal.

Some weeks are more focused in one category than another, but there’s always at least one thing in each category that gets attended to. In order to reach any goal, we have to take consistent steps toward achieving them. Writing these actions in a calendar is the best way to make sure they don’t get lost along the way.

It may be difficult to make time to plan your writing and business schedule for the week, but a little time invested at the beginning of the week and reap large benefits by the end — because you’ll see results, and results lead to more results.

How is your week looking?

Lisa J. Jackson Lisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who enjoys writing short. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.

3AM is too early, but it’s where I needed to start

Traveling is always an adventure. Planning ways to get where you need to be, or where you want to be, can translate to goal setting for writing projects, too.

In planning a recent trip, for instance, I knew what time I wanted to arrive at my destination in order to make the most of a few days. Translate that into a writing project and it would be knowing the requirements of the final written product.

Next, for the trip, was to figure out the major points that would allow me to get to my destination. I started with “before noon,” “most direct,” “least amount of driving.” For a writing project, that equates to a specific deadline, i.e. “by Friday” or “by the end of the month,” and so on.

Then I had to do some research, since my destination required airfare. I searched various airlines for flights and prices. In a writing project, I would be using the Internet or setting up interviews as the piece started to come together.

Next was selecting the best combination of arrival/departure flights to get me where I wanted to be and back again (full circle, of course!). For the writing project, I’d start seeing the article/story in my mind and know what details to focus on to get me to the specific word/page count.

And then it was all about filling in the details — planning specifics for the week, packing, stopping mail, setting up pet sitting, and so on. The writing should come easily at this point, as it’ll be about filling in the blanks or coloring within the lines (if I may).

So, the result of the planning for my trip meant a 3AM wake up, but it allowed me a full first day (and last day), and was totally worth it. If I booked a flight based on a ‘usual’ day, I wouldn’t have arrived at my destination until 5PM or later — an entire day lost to avoid being tired. But taking the time to plan is always, in my opinion, worth it.

Starting with the end in mind is a great way to attack a writing project, too. The starting point may be a surprise, but by working with the end result in mind, you know you’ll be starting in the right place.

Do you usually start a project with the end in mind?

Lisa J. JacksonLisa J. Jackson is an independent writer and editor who continues to find new opportunities through LinkedIn. She loves writing about NH people, places, and activities. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to network with writing professionals on a weekly basis. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn, and Biznik.

Wildly Improbable Goal 2012 Update

Back in January, I posted my writing WIGs (Wildly Improbable Goals) here on Write To Live—Live To Write. I recently looked back at my goals for the year to see what I’d accomplished and what I hadn’t gotten done.

Here’s my report on my WIG to become a published author and how I did accomplishing the first steps I identified back in January:

  • Record writing accomplishments 2011 (It’s always good to start with a celebration!)
    • Did it! It was fun to do but I forgot to look back at it over the year for inspiration.
  • Create or join a critique group that meets weekly.
    • Did it! Started a critique group with one other member and we were meeting weekly through the winter and into the spring but summer came and our meetings got postponed. The good news is that we are restarting next week and have added a third member who fits in with our editing style and our crazy time schedule.
  • Find 3 contests I can enter and commit to them (deadlines in calendar).
    • Did it! I entered three contests and submitted to two of them. The third one I started a piece and let life get in the way of completion before the deadline. Lesson learned: Don’t waste money on a contest unless you know you are going to be able to meet the deadline.
  • Research 3 magazines I can pitch to (one a week for three weeks).
    • Did it. I found three great magazines I was excited about, but then I dropped the ball. I never ended up contacting any of them. That’s going back on the list for 2013.

Other than these first steps, I have met some other writing goals this year:

  • I won Nano 2012!
  • I met with an agent and pitched a story idea.
  • Started posting to my blog (Healing Choices) weekly.
  • Blogged every other week for NHWN.
  • Guest blogged for a number of different blogs.
  • Went to a writing conference.
  • Hosted a writing retreat.
  • Hosted a Nano Write-In.
  • Joined The Writer’s Chatroom as a moderator and got to interview some amazing authors!

Okay, so—I’m not a published author yet, but—I enjoyed meeting all of these goals and I’m excited at the progress I’ve made.

Becoming a published author is definitely a Wildly Improbable Goal, so I’m sticking with it. No one said I only had a year to make it happen. I’m putting in my “10,000 hours” and enjoying every step along the way.

Now I’m thinking about the new goals I’ll set for 2013.


Time management – scheduling e-mails in Gmail

Did you know e-mails can be scheduled ahead of time like blog posts? Do you have a need to schedule e-mails? Do you ever create e-mail drafts and then send the e-mails when you need to? I’ve tried the drafts technique, but the busier I get, the easier it is to lose track of when an e-mail needs to go out.

Scheduling and forgetting is a great option.

There are some e-mail programs that allow scheduling, such as Microsoft Outlook, but if you have Gmail, scheduling isn’t an option…without a plug-in. And I recently found one with everyone’s favorite price tag –> $0.

It’s called Boomerang for Gmail. It’s compatible with Firefox 3.6+Chrome 5.0+ and Safari 5.1+ and it works with Gmail and Google Apps e-mail.

In addition to scheduling, you can also set up automatic reminders on any e-mails. For instance, I schedule a lot of author interviews for my Reviews and Interviews blog and I ask that interviews be to me at least 7 days before the scheduled date. With the scheduling option, I can have the confirmation e-mail returned to me if the person doesn’t reply to the e-mail by the date I specify.

This definitely saves me time. I don’t have to:

  • check my calendarBoomerang for Gmail Reminder Hear Back
  • determine which person I haven’t heard from
  • search for the last e-mail I sent to them
  • and then forward that e-mail asking the person to reply.

With scheduler, if the recipient doesn’t reply by the date I specify (for myself, which is called ‘boomerang this message‘), I’ll have my last note to them pop up as a new message that I can then easily forward again. Definite time saver! This is great to use for any e-mail that you need a reply to by a specific date.

Do you and your friends say, “We should schedule lunch some time?” Now you can say, “Pick a date. If I don’t hear from you by next Thursday, I’ll get back in touch.” User ‘boomerang this message’ and get that lunch scheduled!

A bonus I found with this plug-in is that if you have multiple Gmail accounts, you only have to install the plug-in to one of them.  I did one simple and quick install, and all my accounts now have the scheduler.

In related news, I saw an article yesterday about Google Chrome passing Internet Explorer as the most popular Web browser. I’ve been using Chrome for less than a year and am just starting to get used to it. What browser do you favor?

Do you see any benefit to scheduling e-mails?

Lisa J Jackson writerLisa J. Jackson is an independent editor and writer who is still striving to find the perfect combination of technology that makes her life most efficient. She’s also a New England region journalist and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom

A tool for organizing your brain

Welcome to 2012!

I found a new tool last week that I find quite useful for organizing thoughts and ToDo items.

It’s called WorkFlowy and it’s used to “organize your brain.”

As I finalize any yearly goals, I find I have sheets of paper that are so filled with goals broken into tasks and subtasks  that the sheets are more chaos than useful, especially since the ideas don’t hit the page in the order in which they need to be addressed.

What I initially think is subtask 3 becomes task2 and may eventually be subsubtask 14. A lot of crossing out, drawing of arrows showing where to move an item, I can even use colored ink to represent changes. My sheets become an total mess.

I always intend to rewrite the lists to make them legible, but of course I don’t. Goals and tasks get lost, and so do the sheets of paper they are written on.

WorkFlowy eliminates the mess. You start with the top goals and then can indent several times, outdent if you need to, and then even add and remove items as your brain starts making the connections.

I love the ease with being able to organize my goals – if I realize a small item should really be a quarterly goal instead of a daily task, I can easily adjust the listing. No scribbling, no small writing, just a clear list.

workflowy example

And WorkFlowy emails my changes to me each day. I can download my list at any time. There isn’t any limit to the number of bullet points I can have. And when I just want to focus on one goal, I can – I don’t have to stare at the full list all the time or scroll down and down and down to find the point I want to work on. I can drill down as low as I want and easily get back to any level in the list that I want.

Working in WorkFlowy has made me realize that I have way more things I want to do than I have actual time to do, and that’s a great realization. It’s helping me focus more and narrow in on what is important.

I don’t have to delete any of my goals, but I can move them to the bottom of the list. I won’t lose the piece of paper, I won’t have to give up on the goal, I can simply focus on it at a different time.

I’m not a WorkFlowy affiliate, but I am a fan already. They have a blog that gives a lot of insight into the tool. It’s an online tool, nothing to download. Create a username and password and start working. You can even use WorkFlowy from your phone or tablet.

The product has useful Help and fabulous short tutorials that get you being productive in minutes.

You can tag items with when you want to address them, ie. #Monday, #Sep, #soon.

There are numerous tags for the tasks you have including #links, @contacts, #checklists, #issues, #projects, and so on.

Knowing I can print out my list at any time feeds my desire to have paper copies to carry with me.

Your list can be shared with others or kept private. You can add notes; mark items as complete; move items up, down, in, or out.

You can use it for annual goals, shopping lists, working out story ideas, the options are numerous.

If you give WorkFlowy a try, or if you’re already using it, let me know what you think of it. Do you find it useful for anything?

Lisa Jackson is an independent editor, writer, New England region journalist, and a year-round chocolate and iced coffee lover. She writes fiction as Lisa Haselton, has an award-winning blog for book reviews and author interviews, and is on the staff of The Writer’s Chatroom where she gets to chat with best-selling authors, non-fiction writers, publishers, and other writing professionals on a weekly basis.