You know you have a great idea, but is it a BOOK? (As opposed to an essay, a magazine article, or a compelling blog?) Three of our Passion Project judges -- an agent, a publisher and an author -- talked with Kamy Wicoff about how you can tell the difference.
In reading the entries for the She Writes Passion Project
-- a contest rewarding one unpublished, unagented author with a dream team to help her complete a book proposal -- our judges evaluated entries against several criteria, but none more important than this: is it a book? Because while you might have a compelling story or a lyrical writing style, those things alone do not a book make. How did our judges make their judgments? And how can you?
Yesterday, on She Writes Radio, I asked three of our Passion judges, the author Valerie Boyd
, the agent Erin Hosier
, and the publisher Brooke Warner
, to address this question. For their full answers, and to learn from She Writers who called in to run their ideas by the panel, listen to the She Writes Radio show recorded yesterday, "How Do You Know If It's A Book?"
For the Cliff's Notes, read on: SIX QUESTIONS to ask of yourself and your big book idea.
ONE. Does your story or subject have some universal appeal?
In other words, is your story broader, bigger and deeper than just one person's transcription of her own experience? "I'm always looking for the capacity an author has to reflect back her individual story and reach universal conclusions," Brooke Warner said. Erin Hosier agreed, using the term "perspective" to refer to a writers' ability to achieve the necessary distance from the events she is recounting. "A book isn't just for your processing," Brooke added. "It needs to be reflected back to an audience who will be helped by your message."
TWO. Do you have enough passion for your subject to give it the time -- often measured in years -- to finish it?
As author and editor Valerie Boyd put it: "Think about your own energy -- can you sustain your interest in the topic over the year or two that it may take you to finish a book?" Valerie speaks from experience; her biography of Zora Neale Hurston, Wrapped In Rainbows
, was 528 pages and the product of years of research. You may be very gung-ho about an idea in its initial conception, but quickly find your interest can't sustain a book.
THREE: What is driving you to write this story?
Are you writing it because you think it will be a bestseller? Because you think it's a commercial idea? Or because you have to write it, because it is the thing that wakes you up in the morning and puts you to sleep at night? Again, Valerie Boyd: "Writing a book is hard...it takes total dedication and focus. And because it's so hard, it needs to be something that you feel absolutely passionate about." In my opinion, the best books are written by authors who felt that they had no other choice but to write them, and that when you write from that place, you'll (almost) never regret it, whether you publish your book or not.
FOUR. Has it been done before? Never before? Where does this book fit in?
This kind of thinking may seem to be in direct conflict with the previous question, but it doesn't have to be. The book you deeply want to write can, and should, be put into the context of other books on similar subjects, because that's what the marketplace does. (If you are not writing for publication, you can skip this question.) Educating yourself as though you were a publisher will help you present the work in a way that increases its chances of publication. "We need to know who are you similar to, what your book is like," Brooke said. "But there are two wrong ways to go with that. One is, 'I'm exactly like David Sedaris,' or someone huge, like Augusten Burroughs. On the flip side is (the writer) who says there's nothing like it, and that's also problematic. And it really is frustrating when people don't have a sense of what's come before."
FIVE: Does Your Book Have A Center?
Sometimes books have too much going on -- particularly in memoirs, where authors often struggle against an urge to tell absolutely everything, in great detail, without choosing an angle or an approach that will provide the book with the center it needs. As Erin Hosier memorably put it in her excellent post, "The Great Competition for the Saddest Story Ever Told"
(useful for further reading on this subject), "If you're writing your own story, please know the difference between autobiography and memoir. In general, only really famous people like presidents and rappers can get away with telling us the whole story of their lives. That's an autobiography. But for the most part, memoir is about one aspect of one's life." Finding that aspect and sticking to it is critical to taking raw material and shaping it into a book.
SIX: The closer! -- would this be just as good, or better, as an essay or an article? Be honest. Would it?
Valerie Boyd is also a teacher and writing coach who has worked with many students on book proposals over the years. As she shared with us yesterday, she pushes her students hard on this question. "Why is this worth writing 200 or 300 pages about?" she asks her students, enjoining them to think very seriously think about whether, if the same idea were put into a 15 page magazine article, all the questions that interest them about that topic could be satisfactorily addressed. "You have to really be honest with yourself as a writer," Boyd says, "and ask 'why do I need 200 pages to tell this story, and how can I justify that in a book proposal?'" More and more outlets exist that specialize in publishing Creative Nonfiction (the wonderful literary journal Creative Nonfiction
, for one), and writing something shorter doesn't mean writing something less worthwhile -- in fact, speaking from personal experience, it often leads to a better piece of writing in the end.
One of the most interesting parts of the hour yesterday was hearing specific examples from Valerie, Erin and Brooke of times when a proposal turned out not to be a book. Have you wondered whether your idea was, or is, enough to sustain a book? And how did/will you decide? Please tell us, so we can learn, as ever, from one another.