A Book Proposal Doesn’t Merely Sell Your Book—It Helps You Write It!

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.

13 Replies to “A Book Proposal Doesn’t Merely Sell Your Book—It Helps You Write It!”

  1. This is a wonderful way to look at an issue from a completely different angle. Structuring the book in such a way that the end questions are answered in the beginning is a smart, analytical approach to work that has to be done anyway. Thank you for this post!

    1. It helps me, in any case. I used to think I had to work out of a kind of seizure of inspiration. Now I use those unpredictable bursts to write proposal. On a daily basis, I work best in little defined chunks.

  2. I’m writing my synopsis first and just now started the writing, and I feel a lot more prepared, maybe I should finish out the proposal instead of doing that last again. Hmmmm.

  3. This is a great idea, especially for writers who may be stuck. Writing the book proposal, as you stated, isn’t necessarily as creative as writing the book itself, so taking the time to critically think through what you want to write could actually help you be more creative in the end. Similarly, completing a ton of research before writing your book, I think, helps the creative process. The writer isn’t going into the project blind; he or she has the background and is able to be more free during the creative process.

    Great post, Patty!

    1. I actually think, though we don’t normally characterize the creative process in this way, it’s essentially the kind of work one does on a book proposal: sorting the parts of the project out from one another, considering each one separately and finding it good, putting it where it belongs. That’s how God went about the original creation, dividing the light from the darkness, the heavens from the watery chaos below, the waters from the land, etc. I hope this doesn’t sound too irreverent–after all, God created us in his image, probably right down to the way we ourselves go about creating–but when I’m done with a book proposal, I feel like I imagine God must have felt on the sixth day: excited and zapped, ready for a long, leisurely writing sabbatical.

  4. Thank you for this post. I do have a book proposal in mind (not on paper). I have the intriguing title and 3/4 of the book written. I am stuck on the ending – not where I want it to end but how to write the ending in a way that will pull my target audience in. Right now it sounds too preachy. I’m learning as I go and having a lot of fun and a lot of painful memories emerge as I seek to put the memories on paper, but loving the writing process.

    1. This puts me in the mind of my advice to students who get partway through a paper and find themselves thinking, Now, what was I trying to say? In a situation like that, I tell them, what you need is an outline. Nothing formal. Just a note from you to you saying what the original plan was and how you hoped to get there. In your case, that you’re already actively considering your target audience is a good sign. I’d advise going ahead and getting that cerebral book proposal down on paper–nothing formal, just a note from you to you–as a vehicle to getting your perfect ending written.

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