Mastering the Book Proposal

Recently I had the good (ahem) fortune of writing a book proposal, a document I’d avoided for years because it simply didn’t seem necessary. My book was done; I’d been sending it around without one, so why the need? But when I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference in February, an agent I’m interested in working with—along with a former book editor-cum-entrepreneur whose advice I trust—said in no uncertain terms that every memoirist needs a robust (read: 100-page) book proposal. I realized that if only for the very practical reason that if I wanted to query this agent I’d need a book proposal, that I had to write one, daunting as it was.

Daunting.

Daunting.

The tricky thing about a book proposal is that it calls on a completely different part of your brain than the one you use to write your book. You hope the book-writing part uses the creative, spontaneous, brilliantly fresh part of your brain; the book proposal requires something more like an MBA. Here is the book market, you need to say. Here is how I fit into it. Here is how my book improves upon and contributes to the many voices already writing memoir, anxiety, romance. And here is why I’m the best person to write this very book. You also need to learn to talk about your book and why you’ve written it in a way that suggests confidence, poise, and drive, plus no small measure of self-aggrandizement.

My first draft was a disaster. I followed a template to the letter of the law, in the process confounding an editor I’d hired. In my chapter summaries (oh yes: you need a roughly 1-page summary of every chapter in your book, which in my case is 20+ chapters long) she couldn’t find the theme of the book; she didn’t understand what the climax of the story was or how anxiety even fit in. Since anxiety is supposed to be the very bottom building block, the most important thing, I knew this was a major problem. And while the editor didn’t have much negative to say about my 12-page Marketing and Publicity section, it was killing me: I spent hours coming up with a list of blogs and publications and connections and opportunities, but somehow this all felt folksy, redundant; that it didn’t really describe how I plan to market and promote my own book. Did I really need to state that I planned to Tweet about it? I mean, duh, right?

Luckily, a writer friend to the rescue. She let me look at her book proposal. And then I found a few others, remembered that an old college buddy had, years ago, sent me his. Reading these through, I realized that the most salient point of a book proposal is that, while in an actual book you have pages upon pages to allow themes to marinate, in a book proposal you have mere sentences to make yourself understood. You have to hammer home your points in a way that a busy agent or book publisher, skimming your proposal, can easily grasp. So I rewrote and rewrote those chapter summaries, emphasizing the two main threads of the book—making peace with fear, and love as acceptance, if you’re wondering—in every single one. And in the Overview section, I strove for an almost-painful clarity: the theme of the book is this, I said. The most important takeaway is this. Finally, instead of concentrating all my industry-speak into that one Marketing & Publicity section, it occurred to me to sprinkle it throughout, and to use the “About the Author” section to tout my accomplishments (man, that’s an uncomfortable phrase to write) and emphasize the ways this book fits into a larger scheme of me as a writer.

The surprising thing about writing this book proposal was not facing the discomfort of shamefully selling myself, though that did give me pause, but rather how damn useful it was. Being forced to write a sentence like “the themes of the book are X, Y, and Z” helped me to reflect on, well, the themes of the book. It allowed me to go back and look at the book and ask myself whether those themes were in fact clear (and if not, to take one last moment to make them clear). Similarly, writing the “Comp Titles” section—where you compare and contrast your book to others in the same genre—allowed me to really envision where my book sits on the shelf at the library. It allowed me to come up with catch-phrases to describe the genre and what I’m trying to do. It gave me the opportunity to think of ten books that I really, really like and describe how my book complements them. Finally, the book proposal was a great opportunity to talk a little about anxiety, to throw some statistics around, to say what I know and very much believe to be true: that Americans are more anxious than ever, that anxiety has become a huge part of our national identity, that more people need to be reading and writing about it. Because I truly believe that.

Last week, with very little fanfare but a nice oomph of satisfaction, I sent out that book proposal. I’m now in that awful period where you wait and wait and wait. But it actually doesn’t feel so awful, I think because I’m really happy that I finished that book proposal and feel good about it. If nothing else, writing it helped me to really put the cap on the pen that has been this long, long writing project. If nothing else, I gave it a very good shot.

Resources That May be Helpful if You Are Writing a Book Proposal:

Start Here: How to Write a Book Proposal

The 8 Essential Elements of a Non-Fiction Book Proposal

How to Sell Your Memoir by Brooke Warner

Secrets of the San Francisco Writers Conference Revealed!

The San Francisco Writers Conference was amazing.

Still life with business cards

Still life with business cards

Truth: Ahead of time, I had convinced myself that the event would be pretty stressful, full of intimidating publishing industry “gatekeepers.” I kept thinking, I just have to get through this. I had gotten myself a little worked up by last Thursday, the day the conference started, and even considered popping a Xanax before the first session. But then I went to hear Brooke Warner, Cynthia Frank, Regina Brooks, and other editors both local and from New York talk about writing and editing non-fiction, how to create a memoir book proposal, who to work with, how to categorize your work, and more. I felt immediately happy I’d trekked up Nob Hill on a hot day with a heavy bag (sans Xanax, for the record). The editors were accessible, the content was good, the format was easy, the hotel was nice—it was an utter treat to be there.

This was my first writers conference, and I’d managed to get in as a presenter in the poetry division. Saturday morning, I moderated a panel on “deadly writing habits” and then presented on a panel about how a day job can support one’s writing. Because my duties were fairly limited, I was able to attend all the sessions I wanted on Friday and Saturday: craft (in the sense of, how-to-write) sessions, meet-the-agents sessions, sessions about how to use Twitter and Facebook and other social media to build a writer’s platform. I filled my notebook to the brim with notes, ideas, contacts, questions. I collected a fistful of business cards. I pitched my memoir to five incredibly kind literary agents (three of whom gave me the green light to query them—yeah!). I had a lovely lunch with a book editor I’ve hired, a woman I felt I could be fast friends with (she’s terrific: if you’re looking for an editor, ping me via the contact page or on Twitter and I’ll connect you. Also check out the eatery Harrow, in downtown San Francisco—yum.) I met, paneled with, and read poetry with a wonderful poet from UC Davis, Andy Jones, and spent a lot of quality time with my writing-mom-walking buddy Aya deLeon (who has great news—check out her blog!). I met writers, editors, agents, publishers, teachers, social media experts, and more.

Not surprisingly, there was a lot of talk at the conference about community. In a panel on building a writer’s platform, Andrea Dunlop from Girl Friday Productions, a Seattle-based editing/publishing/coaching business, talked about how the best way to build your writer’s platform (e.g., your stance as someone people will want to read) is to simply be a part of a writer’s community. That means reading your friends’ books, reviewing them, being in a writing group, hosting a reading series, going to readings, supporting your local bookstore, and tweeting and blogging and Facebooking about all of that. It was enormously comforting to me to hear that something as simple as having a thriving community of writers could do wonders for your work. Because I do have that wonderful community. (You know who you are.) And being at the conference was another exercise in community-building. I’d feared it would be about posturing or one-upping, but instead, it just felt supportive, like gates were opening rather than being held closed.

During the conference, I felt so invigorated, despite the fact that I was up at six on both Friday and Saturday mornings and the days went long (and my dinner Friday night consisted of some cheese and charcuterie and about three glasses of wine, which made Saturday’s wake-up less than awesome). During the week in my normal life, I often feel exhausted by working, writing, parenting, and keeping everything together. It felt promising that while at the conference I felt energized, excited, and possible, and that nice feeling stayed with me through a leisurely Sunday and Monday at home with my boys. Of course, questions were raised as well, particularly about the catch-22 that is “the writing platform”: in order to build one, you have to publish a book; but when you try to publish a book, everyone wants to know whether you already have a platform.

That, and other conundrums, will certainly stay with me over the next few weeks as I dig out from the conference: I have emails to send, tweets to tweet, notes to make sense of, ideas to put into fruition. I’ve got a handful of new connections, was just invited to join a writer’s group, and of course have some queries to send out (and a book or two to write). It’s exciting, thought-provoking, and good, and I’m so glad I went.

Plug: California Prose Directory

I got an advance copy of the California Prose Directory 2013: New Writing from the Golden State, edited by my pal Charles McLeod. It’s a solid red brick of a library of California’s finest essays and short stories. To quote the back of the book, here are some of the gems you’ll find within: “A Vacaville rodeo. Hollywood quid pro quo. A verbal altercation at a Buddhist retreat. Nearly starving to death in the farmlands of Clovis. The Santa Anas blowing fire through the SoCal foothills.” (There’s quite a bit more, too.)

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

California Prose Directory amidst California poppies

I’m just starting to read it, and so far, it’s a nice slice of life in the Golden State. It reminds me how, whatever you feel about California, you can’t deny the diversity of experience in a body of land as large as this one. Vacaville and Hollywood, for example, are worlds apart, despite being in the same state. I enjoyed the first short story in the book, “You Are Not Here” by Andrew Foster Altschul, which is set in San Francisco, in neighborhoods and on bus routes with which I’m intimately familiar, because I used to live there.

The Directory features writing by well-known and emerging writers alike, including Stephen Elliott, Vanessa Hua, Jasmin Darznik, Tom Molanphy, Erica Olsen, and Anthony Seidman.

Locals, please note that several writers from the anthology will be reading this coming Sunday, May 19, at 5:00 p.m. at Alley Cat Books in San Francisco (on 24th street near Folsom).

Sharon Olds

Last week was a rollercoaster, for many of us, I’m sure. The bombings in Boston, where I grew up, were a scary and melancholy backdrop to a host of personal stresses: taxes, two last-minute freelance jobs, papers to grade, and our car starting to overheat on the Bay Bridge at midnight (not to mention the next day’s $500 repair). Needless to say, I just didn’t find the time or the energy to sit down and write.

And so it’s a little late that I address the recent Pulitzer Prize winners. The only one whose work I’m familiar with at all is poet Sharon Olds, who took away the poetry prize. I haven’t read fiction writer Adam Johnson or non-fiction writer Gilbert King, though both men’s books look really fascinating. (Is it just me–random question–or is a lot of the fiction that’s popular these days historical fiction?)

Anyway, Sharon Olds. Her work is what we poets call “confessional,” meaning no subject is off the table. Olds writes exuberantly about sex and her husband’s body and her children’s bodies and her own breasts and all kinds of other subjects many of us find taboo; she writes about her daughter losing her virginity and her abuse as a child and a miscarriage in the toilet. She can be, I think, for many people, a little cringe-worthy.

But she’s an incredibly accomplished poet (after all, she just won the Pulitzer), prolific and unflinching. I don’t yet have her prize winner, Stag’s Leap, but on my shelf, conveniently, sits her 1983 book The Dead and the Living. Here is a beautiful poem from that collection called “Grandmother Love Poem.” Just in time for the last week of National Poetry Month.

Grandmother Love Poem

Late in her life, when we fell in love,

I’d take her out from the nursing home

for a chaser and two bourbons. She’d crack

a joke sharp as a tin lid

hot from the teeth of the can-opener,

and cackle her crack-corn laugh. Next to her

wit, she prided herself on her hair,

snowy and abundant. She would lift it up

at the nape of the neck, there in the bar,

and under the white, under the salt-and-

pepper, she’d show me her true color,

the color it was when she was a bride:

like her sex in the smoky light she would show me

the pure black.

© Sharon Olds