Notes on taming the beast that is the non-fiction book proposal.
“Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning — with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.”
– Sven Birkerts
This weekend, I finished my book proposal – something I quite frankly could not be any more relieved about.
It was my third time putting the proposal together (and third time seriously better be a charm in this case), and each time it has been about as fun as my dad saying, “Kids, time to clean out the garage,” when we were young. Translation: It isn’t something I particularly look forward to.
I’ve found it requires a different part of your brain – not the fun writerly part that concerns itself with creating prose so pretty “you wanna roll around in it,” as my friend Kim so perfectly put it the other day. Rather, it’s all about wrangling the many parts of your book into a whole.
You have to convince the agent (and subsequently the publisher) that there’s a story here worth telling – and a story worth selling.
You have to know where the story is going, which means putting a chapter outline together – a delightful little section of the proposal that I would rather floss my teeth while doing sit-ups than write.
You have to know the peaks and valleys – and if you haven’t walked them yet (i.e. written that chapter), it’s hard to forecast the terrain before you get there.
I was reminded of all this over the weekend, as I kicked and screamed my way through each chapter summary. But at precisely 3:01pm on Sunday afternoon, I finished the last one, and thus the entire proposal – and celebrated by promptly throwing myself into the Arabian Sea.
And it was while I was basking in the late afternoon sun that I admitted I’d actually learned a few things during a process I claim to loathe so much – a few things I’d like to share with you, in case they’re of some use for your own book, either now or in the future.
As I bring mine to completion over the next few months, I’d really love to be transparent about it with you here – to hopefully gather a few posts together that might be a resource for fellow writers, so that we’re all kicking and screaming our way to publication together.
Here’s what I got:
1. It’s all about the story.
Two weeks ago I read a novel called Room in some six hours, it was that compelling. Never mind that it was 400 pages long, never mind that I had other work to do – I could not bring myself to do absolutely anything else until I knew how the story ended.
And as I felt myself being sucked into this vortex of a good story (and loving every minute of it), I thought – if only I could write a travel memoir this gripping. So I started reading some that are, in their own way, such as Cheryl Strayed’s wilderness memoir called Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
I started paying attention to where my attention peaked and waned in the narrative; for instance, how even the slightest romantic interest – even if it never pans out to much of anything – keeps you turning the pages.
I realized I could do a better job of telling my story, that there were places where I could amp up the tension and create a bit more mystery – and it was this realization that brought on the crisis I wrote about in my last post, the one where I stared at my computer screen last weekend and screamed, “This isn’t working!!!”
If I was boring myself with my own story, something had to change.
2. Make a list of 10-15 turning points.
I realized I needed help, that I had been focusing too much on the poetry of the prose and not enough on the actual plot of the book – you know, the thing that keeps you turning the page. So I turned to Google, who in turn led me to this piece by Nina Amir – “Plot, Structure, and Theme in Your Memoir.”
Here’s what she had to say:
“Dramatic structure, the narrative arc, is a mythic structure, a deeply satisfying resolution that fits with our need to create pattern and perspective in the midst of chaos of real life. That is why memoir is so challenging—we are trying to create story out of chaos, to make sense of the irrational and nonsensical impulses that drive all human beings. When you lift your own significant plot moments out of the confusion, you will have the basic spine of your story.”
What helped me the most was an exercise – making a list of my 10-15 turning points, or as Nina puts it, the “most significant moments that turned your life path from one direction to another.” As my memoir is focused on these last five years on the road, I didn’t start from birth, like Nina suggests, but during college. And that’s when a pattern began to emerge:
- Deciding to major in English.
- Deciding to go to London.
- Deciding to move to New Zealand.
- Deciding to move back to India.
There were a few turning points in between these, of course, but I was struck by how many times the word “decide” appeared on my list. I realized that the actual events themselves weren’t the turning points but the decisions that preceded each event.
This revelation led me to one of the new main themes of my book – making decisions for our dreams – and I would never have got there without this exercise.
3. Choose your 8 essential plot points.
During my masters course in London, we had a visiting lecturer named Mark Barrowcliffe. One of the things I most remember from our sessions with Mark was him saying that [almost] every screenplay has the same structure, with the same five key turning points and the same rising and falling action.
I decided to employ this structure in my memoir. Who knows where my notes are from Mark’s lecture, but I found an article that refreshed my memory – “How to Write a Script Outline: The 8 Major Plot Points.” (Another helpful one I read, “The five key turning points of all successful scripts,” terms these differently but essentially lists the same stages):
1. Opening and Closing Images
2. Inciting Incident
3. First Act Break
4. The Midpoint
5. The Point of Commitment
6. All Is Lost
7. The Climax
8. The Resolution
What happened next was like that exercise from elementary school, where you had two columns of lists and you had to draw lines connecting the corresponding pairs together. So yet again, I lined up my list of 10-15 turning points and then simply figured out where they fit into the above screenplay structure.
Which wasn’t so simple, really, but what finally emerged was an actual plot – I had a story!
So while I will always delight in the words themselves, what carried me through writing my book proposal all weekend was knowing I now have a structure for my story, too – something to hold all those words together.
Even in a memoir, it’s about the poetry and the plot.
PS – It just so happens that Writer’s Digest has an upcoming webinar on plot development called “Find, Fix and Finesse Your Plot into a Winning Idea,” led by literary agent Kate McKean. Here’s a link to it in case you’re interested!