I’ve been reading about writing book proposals. Because I’ve been writing a book.
It started when, about a month ago, Daniel and I were talking about my obsession with learning Arabic. It just doesn’t seem to align well with my work or life, and while knowing another language is a nice thing, I am spending a lot of time doing it. Hours a day.
And, it’s tricky, because I only have a few people to talk to in Arabic, one of whom is my teacher. Daniel, however, is the best encourager around. (That’s why we got married.) He has always said “yes, study it. It’s interesting. It adds dimension. It’s the long game.”
Through daily exposure, he’s even learned a couple phrases. Habeebee (my dear, to a man) and Habeebtee (my dear, to a woman). Asalaam Alakum (Peace be upon you), and Alhamdulilah (Thank God.) Shukran. (Thank you.) *
Obviously (or perhaps not) Arabic is really different from English. It takes much more exposure to learn Arabic than, say, German. Probably three times as many hours to become fluent in Arabic as German. I’m struggling to give myself enough exposure to get even to a conversational level, and I’ve been yearning to visit the Middle East for a month or two in the slow season of winter, in order to take some near-immersion courses. I’m particularly interested in social/ cultural issues that become clearer through learning the language.
As we discussed my confusion about where to take this obsession, we also talked about all the odd and curious and funny things that happen to me while trying to get this language. Daniel described it as a romantic comedy, where the object of desire was the language. He suggested I write a book.
Or more specifically, a book proposal, and see if a publisher would buy it, consequently funding the studies in the Middle East. (Studying for a couple months in Jordan, all expenses & travel for two people included, would probably run $10k. In Morocco, it would be about $5k, but the Moroccan dialect is pretty divergent from standard Arabic.)
I was mesmerized by the idea, and immediately started writing down vignettes. Within a couple of weeks, these had been fleshed and synthesized into 50 pages, a cover letter, table of contents, and a book proposal. Carefully following the directions on each literary agents’ website, I emailed it to 45 agents. Within two weeks, I’d received about 20 form rejections.
Not particularly rejected, however, I started thinking more about the improbability of what I’d just tried to do. I went to the library and picked out books on book proposals. And read them quickly. And understood immediately what I was doing wrong.
The first book “78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published & 14 Reasons Why It Just Might” by Pat Walsh, was quick and dirty, mostly targeted at fiction writers, but really quite applicable to my situation as well.
For those who have not pitched a book before: it’s normal for non-fiction proposals to be for books that are not-yet-written or only-partially-written, while fiction proposals almost always require that the entire manuscript be complete.
Within pages of opening “78 Reasons”, I could see that the core of my pitching problem was that I proposed my skills as a story-teller of non-fiction- without having had most of the stories happen yet, and without any published history. (Beyond a blog, which doesn’t count.) My pitch immediately sounded ludicrous to me, just a week after having written it.
But not to despair. My ego is not tied up in being a writer. It’s much more tied up in being a fashion designer, which is why I don’t like writing about fashion.
I opened my second book on book proposals, “The Art of the Book Proposal” by Eric Maisel, and read the opening chapter. Maisel describes thinking as the most important tool for writing. I immediately felt: “this author- he gets it. I like his way of seeing.” To summarize, Maisel suggests that much of good writing, especially of non-fiction, requires a great deal of logic, thinking, organizing, and structure. And he further suggests that most writers, himself included, make the mistake of not thinking enough about their project, because thinking is exhausting, thinking is messy, thinking is hard. (He gives the example in which a grandmaster of chess burns as many calories in a game as a runner does during a marathon. Interesting. I’m not sure it’s true.)
I like thinking. I was pleased with myself to realize that I had managed to properly identify the themes I was interested in exploring.
A BOOK PROPOSAL TO MYSELF
The moment of inspiration really occurred when I started to think about writing a book proposal to myself: for a structured series on this blog. I started writing a blog proposal to myself. Within an hour, I’d written themes for a hundred blog posts. Some, like this one, I could write without research, others would require a modicum of research, still others, hours.
I like this practice of pitching to myself. Of writing a book proposal to myself. It’s an organizing structure that provides momentum. It’s a technique I’m sure I’ll use over and over again. It’s like writing a business plan- also a fun activity- but with more of a creative angle.
If you glance across any of the numerous articles on how to write a book proposal, the basic elements are fairly standardized. In many ways, the industry seems dramatically less opaque than, say, fashion. (Not having worked in it, however, that might be a premature statement!)
For new writers, it’s assumed that you will pitch to a literary agent, not an editor or publisher. Literary agents are easy to identify: there are dozens of books cataloging them, as well as online resources with contact information. Virtually all agents have websites, identify the details of their submission process, and request emailed submissions.
And the submission process is practically identical across agents: a query letter, a table of contents, and the first ten pages. That identical submission process allows an agent to rapidly dismiss non-conforming or uninteresting work.
In retrospect, had I read these books prior to writing a book proposal, I would not have written the proposal. I don’t think the proposal itself was embarrassing, but it was uninformed about the industry, and lacking in elements that seem essential. Maisel’s book did the best job of identifying some of these additional elements, in which I was lacking:
1. good title and subtitle
2. author credentials
3. placement on a spectrum between secularism and existentialism (secular = chicken soup for the soul / existential = Albert Camus)
4. marketing and pr plan
5. book length and delivery date.
“The Art of the Book Proposal” is basically a how-to book, with lots of exercises and brainstorming techniques. The brainstorming exercises for titles were especially useful, and I’m still applying in developing a good name/ tagline for this blog.
It’s also what got me thinking about pre-writing large portions of this blog series. Like many artists, I prefer to work in flow. Typically when I write, it’s on a topic I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks, and the post appears practically fully-formed. The downside of that can be that nothing shows up wanting to be written for months.
But creating engenders more creation. Writing makes more ideas. By pre-writing, in a quasi-structured format, I’m getting to write in the flow for a few days or a week, and pause for reading and recuperation for a similar stretch of time.
Have you ever written a proposal? For a book or a business or to yourself? Did you read books on it first?
*Arabic words that have made it into English-language awareness I’m transliterating in full English characters, for others, see transliteration guide