What Came First, The Book or The Book Proposal?

In my case, I needed to lay down the tracks; get the story or at least a first draft written. Fortunately, I noticed a weekend course being offered at UCLA on How to Write & Sell a Nonfiction Book Proposal, by Agent Betsy Amster and Leigh Ann Hirschman.

I suppose there is no right or wrong way. I usually just dive in and start swimming and boy am I glad I latched on to the How to life ring. There are things I need to know going forward if I want to sell this project and writing a book proposal is an eminent and daunting part of the process. One which I learned can be even more challenging than writing the story itself.

Last Saturday, I sat in the classroom in Rolfe Hall intimidated with the at least 50 other non-fiction writers who are going to make a difference somehow: doctors, lawyers, movie studio execs, marketing people all with 5 easy steps to cure something or change the world (comparison of Features & Benefits section of the seminar). There were also a handful that had amazing cookbook ideas (an already crowded market), including a Russian student with an idea for one (something about Leo Tolstoy’s recipes! Seriously?!) There was even a woman writing her grandfather’s (Carl Laemmle, for God’s sake!) bio. I wanted to pack up my notebook and pencil while there might still be time for a refund. Some only had ideas; some had been blogging or writing short pieces for awhile like what to expect the first year of baby’s life (I can tell you I didn’t do much reading during my babies’ first years). Nonetheless, she had accumulated enough anecdotes to sew into a giant patchwork quilt for her next baby. Me, what I lack in experience and professional degrees, I make up for in tenacity and perseverance. Within two weeks, I had 73,579 words; that’s 279 double-space Times New Roman 12-point font pages of narrative and only part of a story about an Ethiopian women’s journey out of a mud hut, into Mother Teresa’s shelter in Italy and then to America where she ends up owning her own 5-star restaurant in northern California (I also now have 12 pages of a book proposal. All that’s missing are the sample chapters. That’s just par for me to put off the hard stuff.)

But do I have a story readers won’t want to put down? Is my concept unique? Who is my target audience? Do I have a marketing plan (I’m blogging aren’t I?) Dr. Menbere “Menbe” Aklilu loves to take the stage to tell her story. Problem solved. So now, what’s my competition? (Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, of course, or Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson and Veronica Chambers, or even Dave Eggers’ fictional What is the What?)

During the How To seminar, we were given handouts, including sample proposals. There was a section entitled About the Author: The sample authors were doctors, Harvard, Yale and Cambridge Grads with PhDs (I shrunk in my classroom seat made for 20-something-year-old derrieres). So, about me? Well, I’m smart enough to know that my subject Dr. Menbere Aklilu is someone to be recognized. She is the right person to narrate her story. She’s already out there delivering a powerful and amazing story as I sit here and write. And, there’s the word: WRITE. I do believe I am the right person to write Menbe’s story. The longer I sit with her and laugh and cry with her as we dig deeper into her history and that of her homeland, I do believe I am the right person to do the job. The more vertically we dig, we are finding the story full of gold; a story that is juxtaposed with the sometimes violent and tragic, yet always persevering culture of Ethiopia. Ethiopia, a country I’m excited to learn more about and the more I work on getting the story, the more I transform my thoughts and start to believe I am Menbe.

There are many ways to skin a cat (metaphor for selling or writing a book) and of course, there are those of you who simply want to write a book or memoir to leave for your children and grandchildren, but if you’re serious about selling your masterpiece, I recommend researching how to write and sell a non-fiction book proposal. It’s a great place to map out the direction for the journey on which you wish to embark.

Now back to writing!

2 thoughts on “What Came First, The Book or The Book Proposal?

  1. So well said…probably none of us think of ourselves as interesting or noteworthy, but everyone is fascinating in some fashion. It’s teasing it out that’s the challenge…and you are meeting it, repeatedly!


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