BEHIND THE BOOK: How to write for a children’s or teen book series – Part III (elements of a proposal)

Yesterday, we discussed what to look for when researching a children’s or teen book series. Now we’re going to talk about developing your idea for the next book into a pitchable concept.  Let’s break down what you’ll be putting together.

The Proposal

Assuming, you’ve already inquired about the guidelines from the publisher or packager, you have now reached the stage where you have been invited to submit a proposal. Or you have gotten confirmation from somewhere that the publisher or packager is accepting proposals.  Usually they will tell you what they need you to send in, but if not,  use this as your guideline.

  • A cover letter
  • Short plot summary and character sketches (for new characters you are introducing)
  • A one-to-two page synopsis or outline of the book you propose
  • Three sample chapters

What if I want to propose my own original series?

As I mentioned before, I won’t be fully addressing this topic because that has its own requirements, but you should still pay attention because you need to understand how series books are put together and pitched.

I will say though that proposing your own original series as an unpublished writer can be very, very difficult. Why? Publishers are hesitant to buy just one book from a new author. Why would they risk buying three or more?   In general, the rule of thumb is, if you are unpublished, you need to write the first book in full (to demonstrate you can write a whole book well) and sell that using normal procedures for selling a first book (see my crash course). Don’t even bother to mention the other books. Let the publisher decide if the book has enough commercial appeal to become a series.

I kinda agree with this advice, but then I kinda don’t.

I do believe that you should write that first book, over sending in just a proposal with six zillion story ideas. Yes, agree! As for mentioning other story ideas when you submit a full book? It’s not exactly necessary, but if it’s important to you to let the publisher know you have more, a line or two in the query letter won’t kill your chances. Your manuscript is what’s going to make it or break it for you. Not a small mention in your query letter.

Okay, let’s get back to the proposal now.

The cover letter

Read my article on writing a cover letter if you don’t know what this should entail.  In our scenario, you have already contacted the publisher or packager, and now you’re sending in what they need.  You’ll need a cover letter to go with your submission. If this were me, I would also add a snappy one-paragraph summary of your idea in your cover letter. Something that you might usually include in a query letter.  Why? Your one-paragraph summary (if it’s good) will help spark interest in reading the pages that come after.  Also, if the editor likes your proposal, you are helping him or her tremendously by giving them something they can use to tell others about your proposal.  These one-paragraph summaries can be excellent tools to help get your book sold!

For THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA proposal, my agent wrote the cover (usually an email telling the editor what she is sending). If you are submitting on your own, you will MAIL a letter with your proposal to the packager or publisher unless you are told to do otherwise.

Plot Summary and Character Sketches

So the cover letter will be the first thing in your proposal. The second might be a page or two of info that contains a brief plot summary, so your reader has context (once the cover letter has been chucked to the side), and some character sketches …  Here’s an example of the brief plot summary that I turned in for THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA.

Cece Charles wants to cure a case of Texas-sized boredom and a summer abroad in China is just what she needs. But going to Xi’an, China’s most historical city, isn’t only about soaking up the culture and learning new things; it’s also Cece’s chance to reconnect with her mysterious past–a past Cece’s adoptive mother had hoped would never be explored.

Of course, Cece can’t spend every moment in China looking for family she’s never known. She’s made a promise to herself: no matter what, she’ll make her visit one she’ll never forget. With all the shopping, nightlife and sites to be seen, there’s never a dull moment. But what else does the “land of kings and emperors” have in store for Cece? Is it the truth?

Or love?

Or maybe both…

Now you’ll need to tell the editor about your characters.  If the books always have the same characters, this may not be necessary.  They’ll know who the characters are; you won’t have to explain it to them. But in my case, each book in the series features a whole new cast of characters. So I tried to give the editors some flavor of who my major characters were. Some publishers or packagers may ask you to turn in more detailed sketches, but for me, I just did enough to give you a general idea of what they were like. I didn’t work out their life history or anything. Try to keep it simple if given a choice. Here’s an example of what I submitted for that part.

Character Descriptions:

Celise Charles or “Cece”, adopted 16-yr-old Chinese girl (white parents). Wavy hair, a distinctive beauty mark on her cheek. Very cute, but doesn’t totally realize it.

Edmond Charles, Cece’s supportive father, paleontologist/professor.

Sheryl Charles, Cece’s overprotective mother, sports doctor.

Jessica Ye, roommate in the program. Rich Chinese-American. Long, smooth hair. A girl used to getting her way. Born from strict Chinese-American parents.


Wow! Looking back, I really didn’t put too much info in there. You could probably stand to add a sentence or two for each one. If I were to do it all over again, I’d also make them each sound pretty interesting. Ugh! This is so dry and blah. (Seriously, do a better job than I did. This is pretty embarrassing.)

Okay, next …

A one-to-two page synopsis or outline

Some publishers might want a chapter by chapter outline, others might want just a synopsis.  If you have no real guidelines to work from, do what makes you most comfortable. But no matter what, work pretty hard on this part.  Yeah, stop groaning.  Synopses and outlines are hard, I know. But if you want to write for a series, or pitch your own series, you really have to get this stuff down.  See my article on the Anatomy of a Synopsis to help with this arduous task.

One important thing to keep in mind: your synopsis or outline is muy importanto for a proposal.  You may have heard that they don’t matter, but that is more likely to be the case when you are sending in an original manuscript. For a proposal, this will be one of the only things (aside from your sample chapters) that will demonstrate to the editor that you know how to plot. SO MAKE THIS GOOD. It should be engaging to read.

Here’s a sample of the opening paragraph of my synopsis for THE GREAT CALL OF CHINA.

CECE CHARLES needs to cure a serious case of Texas-sized boredom and a summer abroad in China is just what she needs. S.A.S.S. has partnered with a local university in Xi’an to create an international anthropology program (IAP) for high school students. Cece, who dreams of becoming an anthropologist, can’t wait to research a real dig there–the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses, one of the world’s greatest archaeology finds–in addition to many other historic treasures Xi’an is known for such as the Bell Tower and Drums, Wild Goose Pagoda, the City Walls, and numerous tombs and shrines spanning eleven dynasties. But Cece’s protective mom SHERYL is worried. She fears her daughter will turn the trip into a quest to find her birth mother (Sheryl’s instincts are correct). But she doesn’t have the heart to stop Cece from going to China. How can she let her own insecurity get in the way of Cece’s career pursuits? And Cece’s father ED? He’s always felt Cece should know more about her adoption (he’s already shared photos with her and the location of the orphanage) but he won’t say more, especially in front of his wife …

K, looking back again, I realize now I had some doozy sentences in there. WHERE WAS SNOOP WHEN I WROTE THIS?!  So I’d edit this more for clarity. But anyway, it gives you some idea of how a synopsis might read …

If you want to do an outline, I’d avoid using the format we all learned in school with the  Is, As, abcs…. That can be hard to read and should probably be reserved for a scientific paper rather than a fiction book outline. Instead just do something as simple and easy to read as this:

Chapter 1

Blah blah blah (about a paragraph per chapter)

Chapter 2

Blah blah blah (about a paragraph per chapter)

I’m going to save the next part of the proposal (the sample chapters) for another article. There’s just so much to cover about them! So stay tuned! To download this entire series of articles to your Kindle in one fell swoop, click here.

Happy proposal-making,

Cynthea (and Snoop!)

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