By Sherry, who’s hoping it’s warmer today than when I set up the post!
This month we’ve decided to all chime in on the process of writing proposals for book series. Mystery series are often sold this way, in fact all of us have sold series in this manner, some of us more than once. The format for doing this is fairly standardized in the publishing industry and each Wednesday this month we will dive into one aspect of the process. This week we are talking about writing the first three chapters for your proposal. Wickeds, did you agonize or did the chapters pour out of you? Give us your best tip!
Sherry: Some of you might know this story. When I had the opportunity to write the proposal for the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series my agent said: I want it as soon as possible. Four days later I sent him the proposal. Fortunately, I had Liz, Edith and Barb’s proposals to work off of. The whole thing just poured out of me — it’s never happened before or since. But my best tip is to end the third chapter on a suspenseful note that will want to make the editor read the rest.
Edith: I had written a very early version of A Tine to Live, a Tine to Die eighteen years earlier in between farming seasons. For the proposal (and the book), I knew I had to rewrite the content, but I was able to keep the fictional world I had set up all those years ago. Protagonist Cam Flaherty, former software engineer. Small rural town. Antique saltbox farmhouse. And death by pitchfork in the hoop house. So I had a head start, and it wasn’t that hard for me to craft the first three chapters. The last chapter of the proposal ends right after my farmer discovers the body. So the tip about that might be: make sure you hook your reader, who you hope will be your publisher, with great storytelling and, if not a body, then something that will really grab them.
For my Country Store Mysteries proposal (Flipped for Murder out in November, under pen name Maddie Day!), I had to set up the entire world, the protagonist, the supporting characters. But since the series is set in southern Indiana, a part of the universe I love, and because I had a vision for the near-Southern language and way of life, I had a lot of fun with those first chapters. Totally agree with Sherry, though – you have to start with a good hook, and make sure your last paragraph has one, too. The end of the proposal chapters shows a local police officer telling Robbie and her date about the murder of a local official Robbie had had conflict with – and that the victim had one of Robbie’s signature cheesey biscuits stuffed in her mouth.
Liz: Thanks to the counsel of Avery Aames/Daryl Wood Gerber, I had a good foundation to use when putting my proposal together. And the idea for the Pawsitively Organic Mysteries, which my agent and I both loved, was exciting to me – so the first three chapters were a lot of fun to write. The one thing I struggled with was how much set-up I needed to do versus just jumping right into the story of the murder. I wanted to set the stage for the town and characters enough that readers immediately felt familiar with them, but didn’t want to kill it with a lot of backstory. It ended up that my victim was found at the end of the second chapter, and when I ended the third it was setting up Stan’s situation of being a suspect.
Barb: Great timing on this question as someone recently asked to see my proposal so I read it again. I was surprised how closely the first three chapters in the proposal were to those that were eventually published in Clammed Up. I remember that I had a lot of fun with these chapters. My agent had emphasized that it was a spec proposal and though he thought clambakes were a subject that should interest publishers, it was by no means guaranteed. So my thought about the first three chapters was–have fun, don’t overthink, don’t get too attached. It’s a fun way to write. The set-up, a wedding, was intended to quell my panic about supplying recipes for a series. A clambake is the same meal over and over and over. I thought if the Snowden Family Clambake Company was the setting for special events, other kinds of food might be served. In the series, I’ve solved this problem in a completely different way, so the wedding was unnecessary, but I’m glad that’s where the series started. Eventually another publisher, who ultimately passed, asked me for three more chapters. Those didn’t end up in the book in the same spot.
Jessie: There’s a lot of business to accomplish in the first three chapters. Introduction of main and a few supporting characters, the inciting incident and the voice of the novel all need to be present and correct. It can be a bit overwhelming. On the other hand, the story is so fresh and the enthusiasm should be so high that it should be a pleasurable challenge. Which brings me to my best tip: if the first three chapters don’t have you chomping at the bit to tell the story then you should ask yourself if you are telling the right tale. I don’t mean to say that the first draft of these pages should be the most perfect thing you have ever written. I do think, at this stage, your enthusiasm is a strong guidance system and if you don’t have it something is wrong and you should listen. Whether that means tweaking some details, weaving n new story threads or scrapping the whole thing and starting over, it would be wise to set off on a journey you really wish to take. Now is the very best time to do so.
Julie: My first three chapters story is a little different. A year and a half ago I was given the opportunity to audition to write this series. I was given an outline of the characters, and a fairly robust storyline. My job was to show my editor that I could write the series, but also that I could write the series that she had created. So I needed to figure out how to make the story mine, and hers, at the same time. I also needed to figure a way into the story. The series was sold, I just needed to sell my skills as a writer, and a storyteller. Ironically, and interestingly, those first three chapters got me the gig, but I didn’t end up using them in the final product. So my advice, make sure the first three chapters are written really well. If you want someone to give you a contract, they need to trust that you have the craft under control.
Edith again: I love the timing of this post. I am writing the first chapter of the second Country Store mystery this week. Today! And all these comments are helping me.
Readers: What do you want to see in the first three chapters of a mystery? If you’ve written your own first three, what were your joys and challenges doing so?