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Thursday, October 27, 2016

What Every Aspiring Fiction Writer Needs to Know: An Interview with Sarah Arthur

When a writer recently asked me about the path to publishing a debut novel, I asked the brilliant Sarah Arthur for advice. Sarah, who writes both fiction and nonfiction, serves as the preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards. She’s also an all-around smart cookie. I thought her wisdom was so valuable, I wanted to share it with you. You're welcome.

Sarah, I’m wanting to offer good guidance to a first-time writer who wants to publish his completed fiction manuscript with a traditional publisher. What are the most important things he needs to know?

Has he completed a novel, novella, collection of short stories, or what? Because all of those are very different forms with potentially different answers to your question. I, for one, cannot write short stories, don't generally read short stories, and find them as baffling as mathematical equations. They are also incredibly difficult to get published unless you are an established writer—whether in fiction or nonfiction.
Thanks, that’s helpful. Does he need to build a big platform?

Yes and no. Does he need 100 thousand followers? Not if his story is strong enough and he at least demonstrates an active interest in connecting with his tribe. He needs to show an aptitude for social media, an active presence online 

What does that look like?

An author website, a social media following, reposting other authors, industry news, etc. He also needs to have an interest in networking with other authors and industry professionals through conferences, guilds, etc., and building relationships with his local bookstores & libraries by things like volunteering to lead book groups, etc. If he is a recluse with no aptitude or interest in this kind of networking...then he doesn't have much chance of getting a publisher's attention.

Does he need to be publishing stories now?

If he is writing short stories then yes, absolutely, he should be publishing in various journals. If he is a novelist and that's all he is, then he might try building his byline by writing lit-related essays or articles, novel reviews, author interviews, etc. Anything to show he is adept at engaging the publishing world in his genre. 

What does he need to have to approach an agent?

To approach an agent he needs a proposal and full manuscript—preferably one that’s been workshopped with peers for readability, plausibility, blatant awfulness, etc.. He needs a website (he does not need to be blogging, although a place where he briefly reflects on his approach to the craft would be good). He should also put together a CV that includes his education, work history, publishing background, any writing guilds he's in or conferences he's attended, etc. 

Can you suggest what proposal template a writer should use?

Sure, I'm happy to share this fiction proposal template that was shared with me by friends at a major Christian publisher.

And can you suggest a good author website that does what an author website should do?

One I love is Ashlee Cowles' site.

Thank you, Sarah!

Sarah Arthur is a fifteen-year publishing veteran and the author/editor of over eleven books, including several anthologies of poetry and fiction. She regularly serves as the preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today Book Awards and coaches aspiring authors via conferences like the Frederick Buechner Writers Workshop and the Writing For Your Life webinars and events. Find her on Twitter (@HolyDreaming), where she dishes out the daily kick-in-the-pants known as #todayswritinggoal.

Fiction Proposal Template for Christian Publishing Houses

When I want to know about Christian fiction, I turn to the experts. I'm excited to welcome Sarah Arthur to the wordmelon blog and am grateful for this special gift she brings with her for you! (Editors at a major Christian publishing house shared this fiction proposal template with Sarah, a preliminary fiction judge for the Christianity Today book awards, who's sharing it with us!)

A Fiction Proposal Template

Plot Summary

The acquisitions editor will have to describe your book to various people in the company who won’t have read your MS. Succinctly describe the protagonist and plot of your novel; include a condensed version of your hook if possible.

Fit & Mission

Read the mission or vision statement of the company you are hoping to publish with. How will your book help the publishers further their mission? What value will your book provide to readers?


What makes your book different from its competitors? What makes it stand out from other romance/mystery/fantasy/coming-of-age novels?


What age group is this book for? Is it for a primarily male or female audience? Is it for a Christian audience or a general audience?

Comparable Titles

What other titles currently on the market are similar to yours? How have those titles been received? What sets your book apart from those?


What’s your background? What makes you interesting as both a writer and a person? Have you written other books in the past? Have you won any awards or been published in any magazines or websites?


Who reads your work? Who do you know? Who would be willing to help you get the word out about your book? What kind of social media presence do you have? Do you have a website?


Do you know anyone who would be able to provide an endorsement or blurb for your book? Obviously, recognizable names are a big plus here. Do you know any of the other authors this company publishes? Do you have a relationship with any well-known bloggers? Does your pastor have a following? 

Word Count

Write the number of words in your MS so editors will know how long of a book to expect.


Write a brief outline of the plot of your book so that the editors can see where you’re going.

Writing Sample/Partial MS

This is THE most important part of your proposal. A cool idea and catchy hook are great, but execution is ESSENTIAL in fiction. Two to four chapters is usually a good amount to include. Do NOT send in your first draft. Make those chapters as good as you possibly can. Solicit feedback on them from someone whose literary taste you trust. Read them out loud. Proofread them twice.

Check out my interview with Sarah, about what every aspiring fiction writer needs to know!

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