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The Art of Revision: Six Ways to Polish Your Book Proposal Before Sending It Off
Written by
Passion Project
November 2010
Written by
Passion Project
November 2010
Editor Amanda Moon pulls back the veil on how an editor works with an author (Passion Project winner, Monique Fields!), sharing strategy along the way. It’s a real delight to be working with Monique Fields on her proposal for a book currently entitled Raising Simone and Nadia. I remember reading her entry at the early stages of the She Writes Passion Project contest, and I was moved by her story of change, growth, and understanding. Every editor has a different editorial style – in my case, I like to speak with an author about her vision for the book, discuss concerns. I enjoy being a “hands-on” editor and asking as many questions of the author as possible, finding ways to be more specific when it comes to an idea, more accurate when setting a scene, as assertive as possible when describing why you are the right person to write about your topic of interest, and finally, finding ways to crystallize your hook – the angle and viewpoint that really makes your project stand out in the mountain of proposals going to agents and publishers these days. I also like to line edit. So I offered Monique line edits, and the “macro” level big-think edits as well. Monique and I talked a bit about some of her questions and concerns with her proposal draft, and then went over my impressions of her proposal, ways to strengthen her message, and ways to enhance the “saleability” of her project. Here, I’ll list some of the themes that came up while I was editing her work – themes that often come up at the critical editing-the-proposal stage: Observation #1: The power of tense, the power of time. Shifting from past tense to present tense and back again can be quite powerful in a narrative. In some cases, however (particularly in the memoir genre, and at proposal stage), it can trip up a reader who is considering your proposal and trying to contextualize the experiences you are sharing. We all have a memory we hold dear to us, something that may be incredibly vivid in our mind. But sometimes it’s tough to recall exactly when it occurred. We can be so closely tied to an ongoing issue in our lives that events surrounding that issue blur together. In proposals for memoirs, it’s important to set the stage for the reader, to give the reader a good sense of timeframe, to make it clear to the reader if you are speaking about your current feelings surrounding an event in your past, or your feelings at the time. In Monique’s case, there were moments when we needed to ground the work with some time cues and references to the ages of Simone and Nadia along the way. I also flagged some areas when Monique was shifting from past to present tense without transitions between the two (again, incredibly common) and asked for clarification and a stronger foundation to make sure that her message was communicated in the strongest way possible. Observation #2: The power of “I” and the problem with “The book explores….” Monique has a beautiful and compelling story to tell, but I observed that the language used to convey that special story wasn’t always as authoritative as it could be. If you see “This book shows…” or “My book argues…” or similar language cropping up in your writing, try substituting with: “I show…” or “I argue…” or “In my book, I reveal that…..” It’s amazing what a difference this can make. Subtle changes, but powerful ones. Observation #3: The power of multiple audiences and the “comp title” section. All of us want our books to communicate to multiple audiences, and many of them can and do and will. But it’s important to show that we can clearly pinpoint our “target reader” and core audience for the book. If you don’t, and you list several books in your comparative title section, and they all speak to different crowds of people, the proposal runs the risk of looking like all-things-to-all-people which quickly translates to: “I’m not sure who this book is for, first and foremost.” The book grabs one major audience and can flow into several, but you have to start somewhere! So, how do you communicate this in the best way possible in your proposal? Monique mentioned that she was concerned about the number of comparative titles to include in her comparative title section of the proposal. In addition, she was concerned about “having the right mix” of titles in that section. I advised that rather than worry about the final number of titles, she might think about the different audiences, and group books into different categories. In other words, there’s the memoir-loving crowd. There are the teachers, counselors, and psychotherapists who will find Monique’s story to be a great resource for themselves, for families, for biracial kids, and more. There are textbooks that have explored issues of race, ethnicity, multiracial families, the psychology of race, and more – and professors and those in academia will no doubt be interested in Monique’s take on this important topic. And so on. Grouping the comparable titles in this way allows the agent or publisher considering your project to quickly see how you think about your book and provides them with a good jumping off point as they come up with their own ideas as well. Finally, make sure that if you include a comp title from 1995, you balance that out with several titles from the last two years or so. The market looks very different now from how it did fifteen years ago, so it’s important to show how your book can work once it comes to market, after you deliver your manuscript, after it’s accepted, and once it’s published months (or a year!) later. Observation #4: The power of structure. Raising Simone and Nadia is a story everyone can relate to on some level. That said, Monique and I talked about the fact that she is the authority here – this is her story, her memoir, her journey – she is the person to write it. She’s incorporating some research along the way, has a strong background in journalism, and has a network that is expanding every day. But her author bio section felt a bit buried to me! It was at the end of the proposal and I thought she had an important platform from which to write about this topic – and therefore her author section should be moved up in the proposal. Of course, everyone has different opinions about the order of elements in the proposal, but in this case, I felt strongly that Monique’s bio should be front and center. I also talked with her about the fact that she had an overview followed by a synopsis in the proposal. They were blurring into each other a bit, covering similar ground, so I encouraged Monique to cut back on the overview, to crystallize the overview to the key elements of the book, so that she could expand in the synopsis and avoid repetition. Observation #5: A powerful title and subtitle. Of course, it’s usually the case that your title and subtitle will change during the publication process, but the title/sub combination you go with in the proposal says a lot about how you think about your book and its market. In Monique’s case, we talked about the fact that I felt a slight tension between the title (Raising Simone and Nadia) and the subtitle (A Black Mother’s Journey to Racial Self-Discovery). To me, the title conveyed “this is a book about parenting, being a parent, raising two daughters…” yet the subtitle conveyed “this is a book about my own self-discovery, my journey to understand my own feelings about race and ethnicity…..” Now, clearly, the two are linked, and Monique deals with the issues raised in the title and in the subtitle. But I wondered if we could come up with a slight tweak to the subtitle that could get at the fact that her daughters sparked her own growth in many, many ways. They raised her, as well. Monique is going to give this some thought, as am I. We may not come up with the perfect tweak right now, but it’s something to sit with a bit. You are referring to your title and subtitle throughout the proposal, so it’s best if it can distill your main hook and the ultimate goal of your book as well. It can be done! Observation #6: The power of a date. Last but not least: the delivery date. When it comes to your delivery date in the proposal, always build in extra time! It’s difficult enough to get the whole thing into perfect shape – and now you’re taking on a huge manuscript that should be stellar when it is submitted to your editor! Believe me, it’s much better to delivery early than to deliver late. Your agent or publisher will discuss the final delivery date with you too, but a publisher will be looking at that delivery date in the proposal when they are thinking about timing for your book, the estimated publication date if they take it on, and more. Monique mentioned that she would like four months from the signing of a contract to delivery of a final manuscript. I advised her to consider building in some time here, and going with something between nine and twelve months. Or even six. Monique is on the way to developing a final proposal that will convince an agent, editor, publisher that her book must be published! There is no doubt in my mind that it will be. It’s been a true delight to work with her on this project and I can’t wait to see what happens from here on in. (And I’m here, Monique, if you want to talk more!) For more of Amanda’s sage advice, we steer you to her webinar, Inside Publishing: Your Book, from Submission to Publication, with literary agent Erin Hosier Photo: Unhindered by Talent/Flickr RELATED: More advice from our Passion Project consultants at the Passion Project archive Title Workshop (get feedback on yours!) Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal that SELLS (a She Writes webinar) Memoir Writers (a She Writes group) Editors (a She Writes group) How Do You Know If It’s a Book? by Kamy Wicoff

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  • Michelle Wonsley

    Amanda, thanks so much for these pointers. I will be sure to share them with writer friends with whom I've committed to the proposal writing process. Good luck Monique!

  • Barbara Terao Writing

    This is very helpful, Amanda. Thanks! And good luck, Monique!