I have three clients right now who are in the very final stages of proposal development. A proposal is like a business plan that a writer must submit to an agent as part of their pitch. (If you are self publishing, you do not need a proposal.) Although proposals have long been required for non-fiction books, more and more fiction writers are developing them, as well, to show their best hand possible. The three clients in question all happen to be women and all happen to be non-fiction writers, and each is at a very different stage of her career.
- Writer A is pitching her first book for which she has a finished, edited, polished manuscript. She has spent five years on her books and she is looking to land an agent. She has published a few essays and does not have a substantial platform, but has a very high-concept, super commercial story.
- Writer B is pitching her second book to the agent who represented her first book, and to the publisher who has an option on it. (Often a publishing contract will include an option; if a publisher likes your first book, they want first crack at the second.) In addition to the proposal, all she has is a sample chapter, which is all that is required in her case.
- Writer C is pitching her second book, as well. The first one, which sold more than a million copies, was in a completely different field and was published many years ago, so in many ways it doesn’t count for her current situation. She has 100 edited, polished pages of the new book and is looking to land an agent. She happens to run a wildly popular and successful online company, is already considered a thought leader in her field, has a devoted social media following and has instant access to 4 million (!) followers. (You read that right: 4 million.)
So do you think that Writer B and C have it made in the shade? Do you think that they are waltzing through the process that Writer A is sweating through?
It’s not true.
All three of these writers are nervous and sweating, and having to endure some specific kinds of writerly pain. To wit:
- Writer A decided to offer her book on an exclusive basis to her tippy top agent pick and has thus far heard noting and all she can do now is sit and wait and wait and wait, which is agonizing.
- After three weeks, Writer B heard back from her agent, who asked her to overhaul the proposal before it goes out (the agent felt the chapter descriptions were too long and the marketing section was too thin), which means weeks and weeks of work she didn’t expect, plus it’s a blow to her confidence, which is agonizing.
- Writer C had several agents vying to work with her, which was awesome and to be expected, but some of them passed somewhat quickly and dismissively, which was a blow to her confidence. (Who would pass on a writer with 4 million followers? I’m still scratching my head over that one….) The agent she selected wants her to overhaul the 100 pages, which means rethinking the entire book concept, which means months and months of work she didn’t expect, which is agonizing.
At the end of the day, every single writer is trying to do the same thing, which is to prove to someone the following four basic questions:
- What is my book really about?
- Who is my book really for?
- How will I actually reach those readers?
- Why should someone take a bet on me?
We must ask these questions at the start of a project, in the middle and at the end, when it’s time to pitch, and we must have answers. It doesn’t matter if you have a giant following, a bunch of books under your belt, or a wildly commercial idea, it always all comes down to these basic questions, and it always involves a lot of hard work and it always includes moments of agony.
I share all this because it’s so easy to think that other writers have it easier than we do, or other people’s paths are somehow filled with less pain and suffering. It’s simply not true. Every writer is filled with hope that things will work out for their book, and simultaneously filled agony, fearing that it won’t.
So wherever you are in the process, whatever agony you are experiencing, press on with the work. Focusing on the work is always the best way forward.
I Think in Books
I’m turning 50 this year, and so are some books that have meant a lot to me. I just saw the announcement for the 50th anniversary edition of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. Among the offerings is a mini cloth-bound book in a slip case. My grandmother had a set of four such Maurice Sendak books – tiny copies of Chicken Soup With Riceand Pierre – which I think may have been the first books I fell in love with – for the rhythm and language, but also for the way those little books slid into their little case. I also loved The Giving Tree. It is a glorious celebration of love and friendship, although it is somewhat dubious from an environmental ethics standpoint, which is ironic, since the other book turning 50 this year is my dad’s masterwork,Wilderness and the American Mind, an intellectual history of the idea of what wilderness means in this country.
I spent an enormous part of my childhood out in the wilderness with my dad – backpacking, running rivers, skiing – and my dad is somewhat exasperated that I did not adopt those activities as central to my adult life. But I am a writer and a book lover and a teacher because of my dad. He was all of those things, as well as an adventurer, and somehow, those are the things that stuck. Whenever I pick up Wilderness and the American Mind and read a chapter or two, I am most forcefully struck by the power and beauty and depth of the writing, not by the warning about loving the land to death. I guess you never know how a book – or a person – will impact you.