I've been working on a presentation about book proposals all weekend (which you should go to next Thursday, if you are lucky enough to live in Colorado Springs) and it has me once again thinking about concise and precise language.
All too often I've read the first page of a book proposal only to realize I have no idea what the subject of the book will be. This makes me stop reading. I know you want to think this is not true, but I'm actually being a little soft about it.... Editors and editorial assistants simply have too much to read and you are officially wasting their time with your beautifully crafted but long-winded description of what your book will not be about, or what inspired you to write it, or the setting...
What you really need is the written equivalent of the elevator speech--your proposal should briefly and quickly tell a reader what your book is about, preferably within the first paragraph. As one of the acquisition editors I consulted puts it:
"Even if [authors] plan to take a more literary approach in the manuscript itself, a proposal should tell me -- in as straightforward and honest a fashion as possible -- what the thing is about, ideally in an introductory couple of sentences.”
Of course you still want to write well, convey a bit of yourself, and offer a hint of what a reader will find in the full manuscript. It's a tall order, I know, but you can do it. I have faith in you. And just imagine you happen to be in the elevator with Michael Chabon at the next AWP...wouldn't you love to tell him all about your book before he can escape? So, finally (why are my entries about brevity are always so very long?), here's your Monday morning writing exercise:
Without using any existing language from your manuscript, describe your book's subject in no more than three sentences. If you feel overly ambitious, craft a paragraph around these three sentences. And since I'm in a book proposal state of mind, if you post them in the comments, I'll ruthlessly offer my assessment of them.