Rewriting. Not my manuscript, my proposal.

One of my projects while at The Hambidge Center was to rewrite my proposal.

I wrote my proposal once already, at the beginning of this year, before I began writing the book. Back then it served as an outline and guide as I began to draft chapters.

But as I prepare to seek out an agent to represent me, my proposal needs to be rewritten. A lot has changed between when I first started writing and now, when I’m just a few weeks away from finishing a draft of the manuscript.

Rewriting that proposal helped me realize just how far I’ve come. My themes are more solid than they were nine months ago. I’ve cut several chapters and changed the direction of others. Now I’m not writing about how I want the book to read, I’m writing about how it does read.

I also can see clearly the work that lies ahead of me. The last third of my manuscript needs more shaping than the first two thirds. And the book is still too long — It won’t yet hit the 85,000 to 90,000 word-window that I’m aiming for. Trimming and cutting will be a big part of my revision process.

What’s in the proposal? The first 10 pages include an overview of the book, my promotion plan (what I’ll do to sell the book), a list of competitive books and how mine is different, and my bio. Then 23 pages of chapter summaries. Finally, two sample chapters from my manuscript, which tacks on another 24 pages. In total, it’s a 58-page document.

It’s polished and ready to go!

The all-important query

A query is a pitch to a literary agent, asking him or her to look at your book proposal and hopefully represent your work.

There are lots of resources on the Web that explain how to write the perfect query letter. The one-page letter should give a summary of the book’s plot and theme, as well as why readers would buy it. It should include information about the author and why she’s qualified to write the book. And it’s gotta be catchy — this is the writer’s one chance to catch the eye of an agent.

I’ve already written my query. As soon as I finish my sample chapters and add them to my book proposal, I’ll start sending the letter to literary agents.

I’ve personalized my query for every agent I plan to send it to, explaining why I chose them. But the meat of the letter is the same. It includes my working title (which may change as I write), selling handle and comparison to another published book, three components I’ve already addressed on this blog.

Wanna have a look?

Dear [agent name here],

I hope you’ll be the right agent to take on my travel memoir, Madame or Mademoiselle? A woman’s solo journey through Africa.

The story of a journalist who leaves a stable Houston life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives. Think Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on estrogen, with a dash of optimism and a few dozen wannabe-suitors thrown in.

While this is my first book, I’ve been published for years in newspapers and magazines. I turned stories for three years at the Houston Chronicle, and I hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I thrive on deadlines and enjoy the editing process. I’m 28: full of potential and worth your investment.

Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon to deliver a gift to a grieving polygamous family and to a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight, when even an independent woman admits she’s vulnerable. I tested the saleability of these stories through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months, an impressive figure for an independent start-up.

Please let me know whether you’re interested in looking over my 29-page proposal, plus two sample chapters. I’ve provided a self-addressed, stamped postcard for your response.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant

After hearing on Twitter that agent Jessica Faust would critique several queries on an Editor Unleashed forum, I jumped at the opportunity to submit mine. Faust is on my list of agents I plan to approach, so having her feedback would be useful. She’ll critique my query and four others during a live online discussion on Editor Unleashed on May 13 at 11 a.m. I’ll let you know what she suggests!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear YOUR suggestions. Is this short and sweet enough? Does it get my point across? What can I do better?

That magical title

To pitch my book to agents and publishers, I need a title.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I possibly come up with a title when I haven’t written the book? It ain’t easy. But since I’ve already outlined the book for my book proposal and developed a theme, it’s feasible to build upon that base and create a working title.

I need something catchy. Something that “tells and sells,” as literary agent Michael Larsen advises in his book about writing a proposal. A title that will appeal to a wide audience, one that offers a bit of the book’s flavor.

Most successful women’s travel books use the Title: Subtitle format, and for good reason: It allows for creativity but also gives the reader a sense of what the book’s about. To prove my point, here are a few examples from my bookshelf full of travel memoirs:

* Somebody’s Heart is Burning: A Woman Wanderer in Africa. By Tanya Shaffer.

* Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. By Elizabeth Gilbert.

* Tales of a Female Nomad: Living At Large in the World. By Rita Golden Gelman.

* Without Reservations: The Travels of an Independent Woman. By Alice Steinbach.

Since the second phrase usually explains the meat of the book, I brainstormed the subtitle first. What makes my book stand out? What makes it different from other travel books? 1. I’m a woman. 2. I traveled solo. 3. I traveled in Africa. And so I came up with this subtitle: A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa.

The primary title is a bit harder because it requires more creativity. So far, I’m leaning toward Madame or Mademoiselle? Here’s a paragraph straight from my book proposal that explains why that title’s appropriate:

Unlike other women’s travel books, the author is not looking for love, nor escape from a failed relationship. Instead, she seeks freedom and independence, a chance to see the world through her own eyes. Paradoxically, to fend off men hoping to snag a white woman as their wife — “Mrs. or Miss?” they ask, and, “Are you married?” — the author constantly lies about her single status, claiming that her husband is back at the hotel or at home in the states.

Together, those pieces form this title:

Madame or Mademoiselle? A Woman’s Solo Journey Through Africa.

Whatcha think? Does it work? Or should I go back to the drawing board?

Learning to “handle” comparison

As part of my book proposal, I need a catchy two-line selling handle that summarizes the theme and plot of my book. The handle is a bit like the book-jacket blurb, the paragraph readers skim while browsing in the bookstore, one that convinces them to purchase a book.

I’ve already shared with you the first part of my (work-in-progress) selling handle:

The story of a journalist who leaves behind a stable life in Houston to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives.

Now comes the hard part. Some writers and agents recommend creating a sentence that compares the manuscript to other books that have already been published. This helps the agent — and later, the publisher and readers — quickly get an idea of what type of story he’s considering.

In The Sell Your Novel Tool Kit, Elizabeth Lyon (who also authored another book I recommend, Nonfiction Book Proposals Anybody Can Write) gives this advice:

“Comparing yourself to other published writers is a tricky line to walk, because a writer who boasts of being “the next Harold Robbins” in half-inch letters (the lead in a real query shared with me by an agent) will receive a rejection so quickly, the envelope will be blistered where the agent pounded it shut …

Some agents suggest that you offer one comparison to a classic author and one comparison to a contemporary author. It is also acceptable to compare your book to movies that have sprung from books …

Handles seem to me very Hollywood-like, but many agents like them — if they are accurate and not another version of the Harold Robbins example given earlier.”

Throughout her explanation, she gives a handful of examples:

“This novel falls somewhere between Fried Green Tomatoes and A Time to Kill in style and content.”

Continue reading

How’s the book coming?

More than three months have passed since I returned home from Africa, determined to write a travel memoir.

As I hole myself up in my home office and coffee-shop hop with my laptop, friends and family ask, “How’s the book coming?”

I know what they’re really thinking: What has she been doing all this time?

So, here’s what I’ve been doing. I’ll expound on each of these tasks in the next dozen or so posts:

1. Figuring out how to write a book proposal — and writing it.

This ain’t no small job — It has taken the bulk of my time. A nonfiction book proposal includes an overview of the book, promotion plan and detailed summary of each chapter. Basically an outline of the book, which means I actually had to figure out what I’m going to write, then give it structure and theme. Not to mention a working title, a challenge in itself.

2. Learning how to write a query letter — and writing it.

To attract an agent, I need a beautifully crafted query letter that explains who I am, what my book is about and why they should represent me — all in one page.

3. Researching literary agents.

I’m constantly reading about agents to figure out who might be interested in representing my type of book. I’ve come up with a list of a dozen for my first round of queries — let’s hope I won’t need a second round.

4. Reading about book marketing and picking strategies.

Why now? Because a large chunk of my book proposal must be dedicated to book promotion. To convince a publisher to buy my book, I need a plan for how I’m going to sell copies before it’s even written. (A publisher helps with promotion, but much of marketing is still up to the author.)

5. Networking.

I’ve joined all the popular social networking sites — and then some. I’m building contacts now so when my book is published, I’ll have a wide net willing to catch my promotion.

6. Picking the brain of anyone who will indulge me.

I’ve tracked down friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who work in publishing to ask for advice about this process. Same with authors and other writers.

7. Creating a personal Web site.

I’m going to need a site once my book is published, so why not build it now? Agents and publishers interested in my work will visit the page to learn more about me.

8. Applying to writers’ colonies.

Rather than write alone at home, I’m hoping to escape to several residency programs for writers. The catch: they have to want me. I’ve got to earn an acceptance, and these applications are time-consuming.

9. Writing.

I’ve spent only about a quarter of my time so far actually writing the book. For now, I’m channeling my writing energy into two sample chapters that will become part of my proposal.

10. Crossing my fingers.

This has slowed my progress considerably, since keeping my fingers crossed makes it nearly impossible to type, a skill required for steps 1 through 9.