My first book proposal: It's a love-hate relationship.

April 20, 2009

Two-and-a-half months. That’s how long it took me to write a book proposal. And it doesn’t even include sample chapters.

What proposal could possibly take you 2.5 months, you ask? The kind that’s required for a nonfiction book, one with a working title, promotion plan and detailed outline for each chapter. (For all you novelists out there, a nonfiction proposal is quite different from what’s required for fiction.)

I need a proposal to convince a literary agent to represent me and a publisher to buy my book. Initially, I found the task frustrating, since it required spending hours upon hours creating a document intended to sell my project, instead of writing the book itself.

But the more I wrote, I realized that this proposal did, indeed, have another huge benefit, one I hadn’t expected: It forced me to flesh out my idea. And I mean really flesh it out. This piece of work had to be more than a puny paragraph that summarized my book. It required becoming intimate with the theme of my travel memoir, planning how the plot will unfold and outlining every chapter. Not to mention titling every chapter and the book itself. To do that — to create titles — I really needed a clear vision.

Luckily, I had a leg up on most wannabe authors who set out to write a masterpiece. I had my blog. On that travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, I had relayed dozens of tales in real time, stories that now are serving as rough drafts, pieces of chapters. All I had to do to put together my proposal was sift through those stories, pick out ones that were book-worthy and tie them together with a theme.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy, just as it won’t be easy to turn my proposal into a book. Those blog posts — most written in haste in the middle-of-nowhere Africa while I prayed my Internet connection would last five more minutes — must be re-written with style. And there are a lot of holes to fill. But it’s a start! I’ll take any head start I can get.

Since I’d never written a book proposal before, I enlisted the help of literary agent Michael Larsen — well, through his book anyhow. How to Write a Book Proposal has got to be the best guide out there. Larsen so baby-stepped me through the process that sometimes, when I squeezed my eyes shut, I could actually feel him holding my hand. (OK, so writing and rewriting and rewriting on my computer all day may have me longing for human interaction.)

I read Larsen’s book once. Then I read some parts again. And as I drafted the proposal, I referred back to individual chapters. Following Larsen’s method, I crafted what I believe is a cogent and convincing, 30-page proposal — one that’s now helping me write the book. As soon as I finish sample chapters to go along with it, my proposal will be ready for a literary agent’s eye.

So what does Larsen suggest?

An overview of the book, including a title, subject hook and selling handle. Since this is one of the most important components of my proposal, I’ve spent the most time honing it. I’ll save my working title for a future post, but here’s a look at my subject hook and selling handle, the first two graphs an agent or publisher will read when they consider my project:

When this Houston-based journalist told family and friends she was preparing to leave her reporting job to travel alone in Africa, they thought she was crazy. “Alone?” they asked. “Why would you do that?”

[Title here] answers that question. The story of a journalist who leaves behind a stable life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives.

In the rest of the two-page overview, I go on to explain the theme, how my travel memoir is different from others on the shelves and a bit of the plot. You’re getting just the tip of the iceberg.

Information about the writer: Bio, mission statement and platform. I’m hoping that having published my work for the last few years in newspapers, including a few lengthy features, will help my cause. But this is still my first book, so I’ve gotta put my best foot forward in this bio.

An author platform basically means you’re already well-known for something. Anything, really. Famous people like Oprah have an obvious platform, but even say, a doctor who specializes in cancer treatment can build a platform for himself as an expert in that area. The idea is to use that platform to sell books, through your networks, speaking engagements, etc.

The closest thing I have to a platform is selling myself as an expert in independent travel, particularly for women. Luckily, while author platform is essential for most nonfiction books, narrative nonfiction works slightly differently, a bit like fiction. For my travel memoir, quality writing and story-telling are far more important.

Promotion plan. What will I to help sell copies? The publisher will give me a hand, but most promotion will be up to me. More on this in a future post.

Outline. Titles and descriptions for each chapter. Larsen suggests one line of description for each chapter page; in other words, for a 25-page chapter, I’d write 25 lines of description.

Sample chapters. Two. That means I should stop blogging and write them.

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