This week, my client/colleague/friend Lisa Cron got offers on TWO non-fiction books, which she secured based on only proposals. The proposals were pitched by Lisa’s agent to Lisa’s publisher, as per the contract for her first book, Wired for Story – so this is not a typical first-time author experience. This is a seasoned author experience. But there are still so many interesting things to learn about the book proposal process from Lisa’s story. I had the honor of helping Lisa through the proposal-writing process, and I asked her to share some of her insights on it.
Jennie: Each of these proposals took quite a long time to pull together – I’m thinking it was nine months for Story or Die, maybe six months for Story Genesis. For each book, you were crystal clear about what you were writing about, and crystal clear about who the books were for. So what took you so long? (And I am asking this in the nicest possible way….it takes a long time! It just DOES. But many writers don’t understand why. So I’m asking you to shed some light on why…I mean, besides the fact that you were travelling around speaking for Wired for Story, giving a Tedx talk, writing dozens and dozens of articles and guest blogs….)
Lisa: Great question! Ah, where to start? It takes a long time because when you’re writing a book (or a book proposal), you’re starting from scratch. Worse than scratch, truth be told, because you have a big idea, but ideas are, by definition, vague, unclear, and disorganized. So your first job is to drill down to the lynchpin of your idea – what the point of your book is. And then you have to ask the hard question: Why would anyone else care? How would it help them, as far as they’reconcerned? After that comes finding a way to lay out your idea – which is probably layered, nuanced and deep – in a linear way. With Wired for Story that was my biggest problem – how do I take 16 things writers need to know concurrently and parse them out one by one? (Thank you, thank you Jennie!) This part alone can take months, because you’re creating something out of nothing. It’s way harder than pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Then comes figuring out how you’ll help market it; what your platform is; how your book is different from other books on the subject. Did I mention you also have to write a chapter or two and an annotated table of contents? It’s kind of amazing it doesn’t take even longer than it does.
Jennie: Each proposal end up being approximately 50 pages, including the sample chapters, and I am estimating that we went back and forth on each of these proposals about 15 or more times. What were we doing in all that back-and-forthing? What is this work really about?
Lisa: Fifteen? You’re being kind. More like thirty. We went back and forth on all of it, because it’s insanely hard to be sure that the point you’re making in your head is actually there on the page. The killer thing was that very often when I was sure I had nailed it, I’d get it back all marked up with tons of notes. And you were just about always right. And the times I disagreed, it was way more often than not that while the point I was trying to make was good, the way I was making it blurred it.
Jennie: Beginning writers are often surprised that agents don’t do this kind of work with their writers, but they usually don’t. That is not to say that your agent wasn’t very involved in your proposal-development process. She was. She’s an incredible agent – supportive of your career, specific about what she needs from you. Can you speak a little about her role vs. your book coach’s role (that’s me.)
Lisa: I love this question, because writers often think that they have to get it “good enough” and then an agent will see something in it, and help the writer find their point. This was never true. Asking an agent to represent you is like saying, “bet your money on me, and pay up in advance.” An agent can put days, months, years into selling a book. And if it doesn’t sell after all that time? The agent gets nothing. That’s why agents only take on things they think they can sell. Which means that they’re looking for things that are not only marketable, but that are as absolutely good as the writer can make them before they submit them.
What work do they then do? Some do no editing at all. Others, like my brilliant agent, do. But the kind of editing she does is very different than what my book coach, Jennie, does. Largely because I would never, ever send her material in the shape I send it to Jennie. It’s Jennie who dives into the muck with me and helps me wrestle the idea itself onto the page, and then shape it into something my agent can sell. My agent then does what she does best (after editing). She knows who to take the book to, who might be interested, and then she provides top level guidance, and negotiates the best possible deal for me. But that’s not something she could do if I hadn’t presented her with the best possible proposals to begin with.
And one last thing – my agent had one really big note for one of the proposals, it was something I had to go back into and not just edit, but rewrite. And . . . it was the ONE thing that I’d fought Jennie on, and told her it was fine and I was leaving as-is. Just saying.
Jennie: Part of the work we did on these proposals is really digging into the competition. You could write pages and pages about the competitive titles for these books, and can say precisely why yours is different. Is that a skill you were always good at or have you learned that skill?
Lisa: This is one of the things I was pretty good at going in. Not by magic, but because what I write about is something that no one else is saying – that’s why I wrote the book in the first place. So I already knew why my book was different from the others, and what it offered that theirs didn’t. Plus, I like to mouth off – you know, in a nice way, so no one will want to set my hair on fire. So that part was fun.
Jennie: So you have two books to write! How are you going to pull that off?
Lisa: By breaking it down into doable chunks, so I don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer, terrifying enormity of it all and decide to take a nap instead. I’ve always loved deadlines, as long as I could see them. So each week I have a target – something I will accomplish -- and then aim for it. Plus, that way I get to celebrate every step along the way. It’s a win, win. Which – to be very clear – doesn’t necessarily make it easier. It just makes it doable.
And, last thing – that’s why having a coach is so incredibly freeing. Jennie holds me accountable.
Jennie: These two books are going to open up whole worlds to you in terms of your career. You can almost plot out the next three years (in a upward trajectory of awesomeness, of course!) How does that feel? Is it a relief? Exciting? Terrifying? All of the above?
Lisa: All of the above and then some. But my theory is, if you’re not at least a little scared of it, you’re not doing it right.
Jennie: If you had to give one piece of advice to non-fiction authors working on their book proposals, what would it be?
Lisa: Hire a book coach. Yesterday. Without Jennie I wouldn’t be writing this now.[Note from Jennie: I didn’t make her say this, I swear!] Did I mention that even though I write non-fiction, I wrote my first book before writing the proposal, and that Jennie helped me with that, too? I’ve never met anyone better at seeing what’s missing, how things really come together, and then restating exactly what you were trying to say with such ease and precision (did I mention that she does it so quickly it makes your head spin?) so that at the same time you love her, you kinda hate her. In the best possible way.
And can I say one more thing? I have a loving family, fabulous friends, but when my agent wrote to tell me about the offer we got, the FIRST person I told was Jennie. Because she gets it. She knew how much work I’d put in, and what it meant to me. As much as our family and friends love us, often they just don’t get what it takes to succeed as a writer. Being told you did good by someone who really, really knows? Nothing feels better than that! [Note from Jennie: I didn’t know this, Lisa! This made me cry! Thank you!]
Jennie: It’s going to be some months before Lisa’s books hit the shelves (because, you know, she still has to write them and the publisher still has to publish them…) but in the meantime, Lisa is offering a short little guide based on one of the books on her website. It’s called Novel Genius and it’s for fiction writers, obviously. It’s a fantastic tool. It walks you through five key questions you must be able to answer before you start to write. Head on over to wiredforstory.com and check it out.
Photo by Liz West, Flikr