10 March 2015

The perfect proposal

I am in the midst of writing a book proposal. When I say "in the midst", I mean I have been thinking about it for over nine months and not actually written a word of it yet, so whether you consider this the start, the middle or the end of the process is really a matter of opinion. Anyway, I have come to a point where I feel it would be useful to put my feelings about this process into words. So this is mostly a pep talk / message to my future self, in case I ever find myself in this position again. But just in case it is of benefit to others, I am sharing it.

Following a heart-to-heart with a good friend, the question I have been asking myself just in the last couple of hours is: Why do I really want to write this book? This, I realise now, is the most important question of all.

Do I want to write this book in the hope that it will become a best seller and make me enough money to buy a small island, which I can flounce off to each winter in order to write more best-selling books that will rake in the cash? Or do I want to write this book because it means I can spend several months of my life learning about something that fascinates me and wake up every morning knowing that I have the time and space to write, which is a thing that I genuinely enjoy doing?

If the answer is the small island, then all I am thinking about is how to write the perfect proposal for the best-selling book. All that's in my head is how I'm going to convince the publisher that my book is going to be the Best. Book. Ever. When they read my proposal they need to be thinking, "Man, if we don't accept this proposal then we are ID-I-OTS. Send a courier with a cheque* for six figures immediately."

The book that buys the island is the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life.

But if the answer is more about fascination, and time and space to write, then I need to view the proposal in a completely different way. I'm thinking about how to attract a publisher who wants to publish my book. This might sound like the same thing, but it's really not. If my aim is to write a book that I'll enjoy writing, I have to write the proposal for that book, not the book that I think the publisher wants. Otherwise, I could end up spending months of my life working on something I'm not particularly excited about and, okay, I might have a small island at the end of it, but will I be HAPPY when I'm flouncing off the following winter to write my next stupendously popular book in the knowledge that part of my soul will have to die in the process?

[Long pause for thought.]

If I go with the second type of book, the gamble is that there might not be a publisher who is as fascinated with the subject matter as I am. Is that likely though? Am I a complete loon who is only interested in stuff that doesn't interest anyone else?

What I think I have concluded is that unless I actually want little pieces of my soul to start disappearing, I have to write the proposal for the second type of book. That way, if it is accepted, I'll have (more of) a guarantee of spending time on something I'll enjoy. Besides which, the mysteries of publishing are such that it can be impossible to predict what it is that the publisher actually wants. If I write the proposal for the book that buys the island, whether the publisher actually likes it or not may have just as much to do with who they had lunch with last Friday as with how I describe the potential market.

The only sensible option is to write a proposal that passionately communicates what fascinates me about the subject matter, and to write it in a style that I will enjoy writing in for tens of thousands of words.

Obviously, I'm making this a bit too black and white. I can't totally ignore what a publisher might want to see in a book proposal. If I am really fascinated with the population dynamics of a very rare species of cockroach and have convinced myself that there are more than a couple of other people in the world that want to read 600 pages on the subject, then I have probably strayed too far from the book that the publisher has been waiting for all their life. But ultimately, there's very little point submitting a proposal about ladybirds when what I am really interested in is cockroaches.

There. I think I have justified to myself the type of proposal that I REALLY WILL start writing tomorrow. My soul will remain largely intact. Purveyors of small islands need not contact me just yet. But who's to say that the book I want to write isn't the book that buys the island? Or at least a patch of garden to put a two-metre square writing hut on...

*I don't know why they wouldn't just log in to internet banking and send the six figures electronically. But publishers can be strange creatures.