As a professor of creative writing and the author of several memoir-based books, I’m often approached by students and even the occasional stranger embarking on memoir projects of their own. They all have the same question: How do I go about getting published?
Something about memoir—probably the fact that one’s life experiences have already happened and thus seem, in some sense, already written—often blinds would-be memoirists to the obvious answer to their own question: You start by writing a book.
Never has my visitor arrived at my door book in hand, in which case our conversation might proceed slightly differently. Only occasionally has the person written a single chapter. Some have scribbled snippets of their story into a journal or mentioned it in a writing assignment for a class. Most, though, are in what I call the dreaming phase of writing: They have a zeal to write but haven’t yet rested their fingers on the computer keys and begun to type. In a sense, they have writer’s block before they have even started writing.
And so our conversation is about the bigger, scarier questions looming beneath the publishing question, questions so terrifying that no one ever really asks them directly. How do I get my story out from inside of me and onto the page? And then, once I do, how do I keep at it over the months and maybe years it may take to get it into something finished that someone might want to publish?
The answer, for me, is the book proposal. I wrote my first one, grudgingly, when I was looking for an agent. All the websites on getting published that I consulted when I was a would-be published writer myself said that I had to have an agent before a publisher would even look at my writing, and, to get an agent, I’d have to write a book proposal.
A typical book proposal, I learned, had several essential parts. A really interesting potential title. An encapsulation your book’s idea in a single sentence. A statement, also brief, of why specific readers out there need your book. A paragraph on who you are and why you’re the best person to write your book. The results of your research into how your book is different from similar books recently published. And an outline of how your book works.
I say I wrote that first book proposal “grudgingly,” because it seemed not only unpleasant but unnecessary work. Shouldn’t the publisher be the one to figure all this stuff out? I grumbled. Oh, right. I don’t have a publisher yet.
Worse, writing a book proposal entailed a task that the dreamer I was then wants to avoid: confronting the reality that bookstores and libraries are stuffed full of books just like mine and figuring out why a publisher or a bookstore or a reader would want to add mine to the list.
However, having now written a book proposal for each of the books my agent eventually presented to potential publishers, I have come to depend on them as my primary means of transportation as a writer. They provide the spark to get me started writing, the fuel to keep me going, the map to tell where I want to go.
Nowadays, I write my book proposal before typing a single word of the book itself. Without a book proposal, my book is just a dream and my day-to-day writing just doesn’t get done. The book proposal carries me through the writing process, from dream phase to bookstore.