Friday, March 3, 2017

WRITING A BOOK PROPOSAL ... AND NOT JUST TALKING ABOUT IT

I recently consulted with an established narrative non-fiction writer on a potential book publishing project. As we talked, he said “I can write the book proposal... that’s not a big deal,” and began to speak of other issues. I stopped him almost immediately and asked “Have you ever written a book proposal?” He admitted he had not.

Unfortunately, this is biggest impediment most writers face in the book publishing process, and one that is usually the difference between just having an idea for a book and actually having one published.

The purpose of the proposal is two-fold. One, it helps a writer clarify and identify the book they intend to write, to push the concept forward from “I’d like to write a book about X” toward something more specific and coherent. Here’s an example: Several years ago as the 100th anniversary of the building of Fenway Park approached, I knew I wanted to write something about that – I had the authoritative background to do so. But I also knew that the anniversary was certain to inspire a number of titles on Fenway Park. How could mine stand out? And how could I do something different?

Although I knew I wanted to write about Fenway’s history, simply saying I wanted to write a book about the history of Fenway Park was not nearly specific enough – all anniversary books would in some way try to do that. I needed an organizing principle, one that could be distilled into a single sentence that was clear, concise and unique. A lifetime of writing and more than a dozen successful proposals for single books and series had taught me this.

I was driving to my local town dump one Saturday when it hit me: instead of trying to tell the entire 100-year history of Fenway, I would tell the story of only its first season, from groundbreaking in the fall of 1911 through the 1912 World Series, which culminated in a world championship for the Red Sox. I knew that as I told the story of the ballpark’s construction and first season that would give me the opportunity to write about its larger history as well – the first home run hit over the left field wall would allow me to write about the Green Monster. My idea could then be easily distilled to a title and a single sentence: Fenway 1912, the building of America’s most beloved ballpark and its first championship season.

When I returned home, I sent a one paragraph description to my agent and he was immediately enthusiastic. I had written more than a dozen successful proposals before, and consulted on a number of others, so I was familiar with the format and intention. But having a well-defined idea was essential, and made the proposal itself a relatively straight-forward process. I had a finished proposal within a week and received an offer almost immediately. That book, eventually entitled Fenway 1912: The Birth of a Ballpark, a Championship Season, and Fenway's Remarkable First Year was easily the most successful of what eventually became nearly 20 books written in response to the anniversary, making best-seller lists in New England and winning several awards.

But that’s just one aspect of the proposal – just as important is recognizing that the proposal is a sales document. If a writer does not have an agent, the next goal of the proposal is to attract an agent, and then, in turn, a publisher. A writer needs not just an idea, but then needs to know how to frame and present that idea in a way that underscores both his and her own abilities, but also the marketability of the manuscript, to show its appeal to a well-defined readership.

Unlike what the writer believed at the start of this post, this is actually“ a big deal.” In fact, It’s actually a HUGE deal, for even a great idea, poorly presented and executed, is easy to reject. Every year publishers are hit with millions of book ideas. The whole idea is to make it impossible for them to say “No.”
This is a skill, one that can be taught and learned, and something I now do professionally, both privately and in workshop settings. If one wishes to become a professional author, learning how to write a successful proposal is absolutely essential. How essential? One more short story.

Three weeks ago I was speaking with a publisher. A basic book idea came up in conversation, but one that, due to timing, had a relatively small window to succeed. Within 24 hours I had taken that basic idea, drilled it down to something clear, concise and unique, and completed a basic proposal and forwarded it to my agent.

A few days later, my agent and I reached agreement with a publisher on a contract.

 Glenn Stout is the author and editor of more than 90 books. He will be teaching a three-day workshop entitled “Writing the Non-Fiction Book Proposal... Not just talking about it” at the Archer City Story Center in Archer City, Texas this summer (http://archercitystorycenter.org/professional-workshops/), and giving a one-hour presentation “The Book Proposal: What Agents Want” at the New Hampshire Writer’s Project “Writer’s Day” on April 1, 2017 (http://www.nhwritersproject.org/content/writers-day-1). He also does private consultations on longform narrative non-fiction, book proposals and book manuscripts. For more, see  www.glennstout.net

Thursday, January 26, 2017

THAT TIME I REALLY, TRULY, CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO DIE VOTED ILLEGALLY


 

I must confess. I knowingly once committed voter fraud.

And my co-conspirator was the lunch lady. 

In June of 1976 I was 17 years old and had just graduated from high school in a small town in Central Ohio.  On primary day, June 8, I looked forward to exercising my right to vote for the first time. Although at 17 I was not yet voting age, anyone who would turn 18 by Election Day in November was eligible to vote in the presidential primary.  The rest of the ballot was off limits. To vote for anything else was strictly illegal.

For a 17 year old, I was reasonably politically aware. The presidential race that year was the first post-Watergate, and President Gerald Ford was facing a strong challenge from former California Governor Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination. Yet much to the consternation of my father and most other relatives, I considered myself a Democrat, a rarity in our community, and had followed the Democratic primary closely. 

No fewer than fifteen Democratic candidates vied for the nomination that year, ranging from the eventual winner, Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter, to California Governor Jerry Brown, a half a dozen Senators including West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, Indiana’s Birch Bayh, Henry Jackson of Washington, Frank Church of Iowa, Texan Lloyd Bentsen and Oklahoma’s Fred Harris, plus former ambassador and Kennedy crony Sargent Shriver, Utah Representative Mo Udall and Alabama Governor and noted segregationist George Wallace.

I considered myself a Harris supporter, intrigued by his call for “economic democracy,” his early opposition to the Vietnam War and his populist approach – he stayed in voter’s homes during his campaign. But in a primary season that began in January, Carter surprised by taking command early.  Harris dropped out in March and many others soon after. By June 8, the last date of the primary season, Carter’s nomination was a foregone conclusion.

Still, I was determined to exercise my right to vote. By then, I liked Jerry Brown, but he’d been a late entry and wasn’t on the ballot in Ohio. I grudgingly decided to back Mo Udall.

On the day of the primary I dutifully drove to the polls in the township building at my old elementary school, a small rural school that catered to farm families and where the fall harvest was a legitimate excuse to miss class. Everyone knew each other, and I remember that when I walked into the polls that day, the first face I saw was that of matronly Mrs. Huggett.  She came from a farming family and was a local institution.  She was everybody’s grandmother, the smiling “lunch lady” at our school, responsible for doling out the tater tots, pizza burgers, canned peas and morning milk.

She greeted me warmly. “Hi Gary, let me check you in. Nice to see you back from school.” The other women and men working the poll smiled their What-a-nice-young man smiles.

Gary?  I was Glenn. Gary was my brother, older than me by four years and who I vaguely resembled.  I think he’d just finished college in Minnesota and was celebrating by hitch-hiking all over Europe.

Before I had a chance to respond, she crossed Gary’s name off the rolls and steered me toward a bank of voting machines that contained the full ballot rather than the single machine reserved for 17 year olds.

I said nothing.  Who was I to question Mrs. Huggett, who had fed me every school day for six long years?  

The automatic Rockwell voting machine was a self-contained steel contraption on wheels with a built-in curtain that closed when you entered.  Before me were lists of names, separated by office, each with a tiny black lever that registered the vote.

I was thrilled.  Maybe now I’d get to vote against our local congressman, the one with a name right out of Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.” That was Chalmers Pangburn Wylie (pictured above), a longtime, ultra-conservative, do-nothing rubber stamp of a Republican. His lone moment in the national spotlight would come a decade later when he attached an amendment to a bill that cut funding for the Library of Congress in the precise amount the Library spent producing the braille version of Playboy. True story.

Alas, he wasn’t on the ballot. I then realized that, this being a primary, I was only allowed to vote for candidate of a single party. I dutifully pulled the lever that activated the Democratic slate.

There wasn’t much to choose from.  As far as I can determine the only primaries other than that for presidency was for the U.S. Senate and the state supreme court.

Still, the my lot was cast and there was no turning back. After some hesitation and a sentimental moment considering whether to write in either Fred Harris or Jerry Brown, I skipped over Carter and Jackson and Church and George Wallace and pulled the lever, first for Udall and then for the slate of delegates and alternates that supported him.  Then I committed, that’s right, voter fraud, pulling the lever for Howard Metzenbaum for U.S. Senate, and some name for each of two openings for the state Supreme Court.

Barely a minute after in entered the booth, I pulled back the curtain.  My co-conspirator, Mrs. Huggett, waved a cheerful goodbye. 

Fortunately, the statute of limitations for my offense has long since expired and democracy survived my moral transgression. 

Still, I apologize. Especially to Mrs. Huggett.