The first time I heard memoir teacher Marion Roach Smith say, “Memoir is not about you,” I thought, Wait … what? Of course my memoir is about me! This probably won’t be a shocker: Marion was right and I was wrong. She goes on to teach us, in her evergreen book, The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life, and numerous articles on her website (marionroach.com), that, “Good memoir takes on something universal and uses you as the illustration of that larger idea.”
Well, when you put it like that, Marion! An idea that at first didn’t seem intuitive to me at all quickly made complete sense. Something similar happened a few months ago when my book coach and I were talking about book proposals.
I don’t know about you, but the thought of writing a book proposal has always been one of those tasks I’ve responded to with an “Ugh!” and roll of my eyes. It’s right up there with platform-building. However, both are a necessary part of the process of getting our books out into the world.
How many of us are in love with the idea of spending time working on either task? If I asked a room full of writers that question, I’d probably hear crickets. I, for one, have just had to pull up my big girl writer pants and accept this nonfiction book-publishing truth: platform-building and book proposal writing are not optional (unless your name is, say, Elizabeth Gilbert or Cheryl Strayed. Hmmm … Tess Enterline. Not even close.)
Who is a book proposal really for?
So, back to my discussion with my book coach. As I alluded to above, he said something to me that became another one of those Wait … what? moments. It was actually a statement made by a well-known writer and teacher to him.
“Writing a book proposal,” well-known writer said, “isn’t for the publisher; it’s for the author.”
Okaaay … if you say so, coach and well-known writer.
I didn’t say this to him at the time but I thought, I’d be just as happy not doing it for me or the publisher! But darn if it hasn’t turned out to be true!
Why is a book proposal “for me”?
Writing a book proposal with a mindset of, “It’s for me, the writer,” has led me to attack it more deliberately. I keep asking myself, “What is this book really about?” I keep probing deeper and deeper into my story to make sure it’s a genuine reflection of the past thirteen years of my life.
I am, of course, also writing a book proposal because, as a memoir writer, that’s the first thing I’ll have to present to a prospective agent or publisher. But writing the proposal for my benefit as well (or perhaps most of all), has somehow fine-tuned my desire to get it right.
I’m even more intent on writing a memoir that is honest and vulnerable and (oh Lord, please help it be) fearless.
Writing the Brief Description—with a mindset of the proposal being for me, the author—made me bring the themes and the argument of my memoir into better focus, something I had tried to corral for several years. While I worked on it, I’d close my eyes and imagine myself sinking deeper and deeper into the heart of my story.
Writing an Author Bio—with a mindset of the proposal being for me, the author—has made me consider even more closely why I’m the person to write this book. Do I have the background? Do I have the expertise? Do I have the writing chops? I think a “for me” mindset has helped “snuff out the fluff” and made me look at each detail about myself with an especially fine-toothed comb.
Working on my Table of Contents and Chapter Synopses—with a mindset of the proposal being for me, the author—has made me consider these sections in a more personal way. I’m looking at the structure of a portion of my life set out in front of me. Via the Table of Contents and Chapter Synopses, I’m taking myself on a journey back through bumps, bruises, joys, sorrows, lessons, and grace. I want to help others by taking them on that journey with me, in the hope that it will reconnect them with a similar journey in their own lives. Together maybe we’ll figure some things out.
Crafting my book proposal with this changed mindset has made the whole process so much more meaningful; I feel so much more invested in it.
Honestly, saying that I’m doing anything “for me,” feels a bit selfish. That’s how we’re conditioned, right? But I quickly saw the long-view of this “writing a book proposal is for me” philosophy … that it would give me a roadmap for my memoir.
I’m still working on my proposal; some parts have yet to be started. As in all writing, though, I draft and edit, and then edit some more, and each time I come ever closer to my intended story and message.
The intended outcome: A better book proposal to present to agents and publishers and a better book for readers.
Tess Enterline is a creative nonfiction writer, currently working on her first memoir. She’s also a wife, mom, former hospital chaplain, dog lover, and fountain pen/stationery enthusiast (i.e., addict). You can visit her on her website at www.tessenterline.com.