I don’t know how recently you’ve stumbled across this site…but if you have been exposed to even a little bit about my work, you know there is NO WAY I am going to tell you that in a mini-blog. I hate shortcuts. Or, as Ro$hi says in video #6 from Finish Your Book in Three Drafts,
“If the way presented to you seems easy, it is probably false.”
And yet, a current client – whose book I love, by the way – emailed me this very question, saying: “You promised to tell me what makes a great book and what made you say that mine has the potential to be one. Now is the time for me to work toward fulfilling that potential!”
She says I promised this nugget in an in-person meeting. I honestly have no idea where that miscommunication occurred, but this is what I (fairly predictably) responded:
“That’s what we’ve been talking about all along my friend. That’s been in all of my comments urging you towards greater clarity, connections, and depth. There isn’t any secret to what makes a great book. It’s in the embrace of revision, the effort to not quit on a paragraph, a sentence, or even a word.”
Beginnings in literature are highly confusing. In media res, inciting incidents, grab-‘em-in-the-first-five-pages-or-I-can’t-represent-this… you know the drill.
To back up, I think the easiest way to think about plot is that a story has to ask a question. And then not answer it. And then answer it. If it’s a novel, you might want to have several questions, some of which are answered as they resolve themselves into different and perhaps more difficult questions.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. In fiction or creative non-fiction, we start with a question. (In prescriptive non-fiction, the equivalent is identifying a lack which the reader perceives within himself or herself). Beginnings ask questions. Good beginnings ask good questions.
Revision is not something you do after you are done writing. Revision is writing.
A paragraph does not come tumbling out in perfect form the first time you glimpse its need and some of its contents. You (might) get one perfect sentence.
And then in the next draft, you follow the clues and nail another one.
And then in the third draft you have lived an extra day or week and you get another sentence that fits into the groove left by the first two.
And then maybe you show this paragraph to someone you trust and they say, what about?… And you say, Can I use that? And you have your fourth sentence. And if your paragraph was only supposed to have four sentences — you’re done.
Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #9.
If we want to attract the attention of a literary agent who will take our manuscript to larger publishers or if we want to approach a smaller publisher on our own, we have some more work to do. If you are writing non-fiction, you will need a book proposal and a query letter; if you are writing fiction, you will need a query letter (and possibly a synopsis). Generating these documents does not need to be a dreaded exercise. Instead, you can use the process to learn more about your own work, which will help you hone it through subsequent revisions, and also be of practical use in your book’s press release, back cover, web copy, and other promotional literature.
I know this won’t shock you, but I think the best way to write your book’s support materials is through a three-draft process. For the first draft, the messy draft, all I recommend doing is answering questions. It is in that spirit then, that we will proceed.
Non-Fiction Book Proposal
The traditional non-fiction book proposal has six sections. You may see numbers that fluctuate from that slightly, but that is because some sources recommend combining certain sections and exploding others. In this PDF we will focus only on the first four: The Overview/About the Audience, About the Author, Marketing & Promotion, and Competitive Titles. After that you will want to present your material in both highly synopsized form in a Proposed Table of Contents and in full-blown fashion in your best Sample Chapters.
Overview/About the Audience
(Length: 2-4 pages, longer if incorporating sample material up front)
Some agents recommend separating these two sections from each other as well as starting with a writing sample—something dramatic that draws people in, either one medium-length story or more short snippets that demonstrate what makes your work unique. I suggest that we combine all of these approaches in the same section and that we make sure to answer these questions:
What is the hook of this book?
What does your book do that no other books do?
What is the title and does it reflect the book’s uniqueness?
What is the subtitle and how does it tell the rest of the story?
What passages in your book represent this uniqueness most succinctly?
How would you define the audience?
How do you know them?
How do they think?
What results can they expect to get from this book?
What do they see as their problem or goal?
How would you like your book to affect the lives of your readers?
How would you describe the tone of voice you use to reach these readers?
What is the genre of your book?
Where would it be housed in a bookstore, or what would people search for online?
You can think about your Overview as your “Highlights of Qualifications,” for those of you who have been on the job search lately or are in charge of interviewing candidates. It’s not the worst thing in the world to repeat yourself either, both in the Overview and in the sections that are to follow. If you’ve read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), you know how I feel about repetitions (with variation!).
About the Author
(Length: 1-2 pages)
Literary agents and smaller publishers want to know about you—and not just the fact that you’re not psychotic. This is the section to tell us about you, both from the perspective of the traditional CV and who you really (also?) are.
What are your largest accomplishments in the field in which you are writing?
What awards have you received?
What have you written and where has it been published?
What degrees do you hold?
Where have you been recognized as an expert in your field?
What makes you unique?
How did you get into this line of work?
Where does your interest in this area come from within yourself, or when did you realize you had empathy with people who read about this topic?
Marketing & Promotion
(Length: 1-3 pages)
Having defined your audience in the Overview, in this section you will talk about how you plan to reach them. Numbers are key here; I spoke with an agent recently who said the only thing that really matters is your book’s concept and your platform. By platform, she meant how many people you currently reach. Numbers, in other words.
Scope of Activities
When it comes to the active promotion of your book, where will you be putting your attentions?
Are there conferences where you can speak and support your book?
Are there organizations that might buy your book in bulk?
Could your book be taught?
How much time do you have to devote to the promotion of your book, and how naturally do these efforts dovetail with your current position?
What media outlets are currently waiting to help you publicize your book?
Where are your current contacts?
How many people visit your website monthly?
How many followers do you have on Facebook (or friends depending on whether you have a personal or professional page), Twitter or Instagram?
How many connections do you have on LinkedIn, or followers if you use their publishing platform?
How many subscribers are there on your email newsletter list?
What about the organizations who will get the word out about your book—what are their numbers?
In this section, you can also speak to the valuable lessons you have learned from the promotion of your other works or your career in general—either about your audience or yourself—that might inform your promotional effort. Clips that showcase you as an expert in your field are great—ones that show you as mediagenic are even better. Some people get crazy with color, images, and live links here; others stick with plain text. Right now we’re just trying to figure out which direction your most magnetic and connected side faces.
(Length: 2-3 pages)
The way I usually approach this section is to begin with one opening paragraph about your book. This is followed by 3-5 individual entries on the other top books in your field, and possibly a brief conclusion (or if your opener to this section is strong enough, you may have covered everything already).
What is your book about, really?
How might you compare it to other books on the subject in terms of style, content, and/or voice?
How does it fit in with what’s out there?
What are the top-selling books in the genre your book belongs to (as identified in the Overview), and/or what are the emblematic books in this genre that everybody knows?
What works well about these particular books?
What has changed in the world or about your subject since these particular books were published?
What part of your subject do these particular books not cover (that yours does)?
We have to be careful not to put other books down too much in this section—it will be the same publishing house editors who are reviewing your proposal that purchased these other books! Depending on your genre, I think it is useful to note that readers often don’t have just one book in the fields of writing reference, say, or business memoir— therefore you can shade this discussion toward how your book complements the others and present its publication as a kind of win-win. I have even gone so far as to sometimes retitle this section, “Comparative Titles,” in that light.
The query letter to literary agents or smaller publishers is often broken down into three paragraphs, which are presented in the following order:
The Cook (the author)
Okay, the cook is kind of stupid… but it rhymes. You can consult the Overview section of the non-fiction book proposal above for help brainstorming your hook, except, instead of writing 2-4 pages, try to write one paragraph. Likewise, if you need inspiration for how to describe yourself (the cook, final wince) you can look in the About the Author section.
For how to describe your book, I recommend you consult PDF #6. It walks you through how to generate a four-sentence statement of what your book is about, which you can use as your elevator pitch here in the middle paragraph.
I know there are people who don’t agree with me, but I think when you approach a literary agent with both a query letter and a non-fiction book proposal, it’s okay to repeat yourself in both documents. Readers don’t pick up 100 percent of what you are putting down. Especially if the next time they see something, you are varying it, putting a spin on it; I think that’s just sound argument making. We’ll see if it works!