Writers Workshop: The Nonfiction Proposal

New Paperback Non-Fiction - Really?! 07/366/20...

There are lots of different ways to construct a nonfiction proposal. It’s easy to search the Internet and come up with some very good advice (and examples) about this subject. Anyone who writes and publishes nonfiction certainly understands that the proposal is the key to generating interest in your writing project. It’s critical to the entire process.

In the nonfiction world of publishing, it isn’t always necessary to have your project completely written before you step into the proposal end of the business. This is especially true if you’ve already established yourself in an appropriate genre. However, even if this is your fist foray into nonfiction, the proposal may be enough to get that critical attention and, hopefully, a writing contract.

Over the years, I’ve found a simple technique that works for me. Agents and publishers seem to like it, and it manages to get their attention as effectively as any other method. There is nothing special or secret about the way I construct a proposal. It’s just an amalgamation of the knowledge of others and a lot of experimentation with what works and what does not.

My technique is based upon two concepts: simplicity and compactness. I understand that agents, publishers, editors and their kin will not spend much time studying any proposal. Rather, they will give it a moment’s attention and either pass it over or delve a bit further. So, your proposal must be tight and manageable yet provide enough information and appeal to demand a deeper look.

My nonfiction proposals look like this:

A few sentences of introduction (or overview). This must be brief and need only state the nature of your proposal and a few words about yourself. The key is brevity. I never let this go beyond 5 or so sentences. This is certainly not the place to gush, sell, or bore your reader.

A list of chapter titles. Now, this is just a list and nothing more. In nonfiction, the chapter titles had better convey what is to follow or you’re lost. If, for some reason, you use less informative (perhaps more “leading” titles), you can follow each chapter title with one descriptive sentence. It’s important to keep this to a single, tight, interesting sentence. It should immediately follow the chapter title and clearly be associated with it.

The complete Introduction. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t believe in long Introductions. You can see some examples on this blog. I think it’s important to be very careful when writing your Introduction. It should really shine and strongly carry your reader onward. I usually put this in front of the chapter list, but not always. I’m not sure which is the best method and I’ve changed-up on this part over the years. In fact, it may not even matter.

That’s it. I know it seems short and, perhaps, simplistic. However, it’s worked well for me over the years. It gives the reader a less overwhelming feeling, which often happens with proposals. It also provides enough information to both point clearly at your topic (chapter titles) and display your writing talent (Introduction).

If you’ve found a nice way of creating nonfiction proposals, won’t you share it?


Griffin, The Man Who Rocked My World

It wasn’t the first book I read but it was the one that ignited my passion to write, a passion that lasted a lifetime. The book was Black Like Me, written by John Howard Griffin.

The book was first published in 1961, by Houghton Mifflin, and I read it the same year. I was 15 and going into my first year of High School. This was an impressionable age and a time in America when everything was about to change. A new generation was beginning to look at who we were as a society, and they weren’t comfortable with what they discovered. Griffin’s personal journey in writing his book was a poignant and timely reminder that we all needed to reconsider what was important in our lives. I caught that fever immediately, thanks to the words of a man I would never meet.

At the time, Griffin was not considered an especially important writer. His work was known to some but he was not a household name in literary circles. Griffin was about to take the art of investigative journalism into the mainstream with his passion for fairness and equality. He would take the rest of us along for the ride and give us a legacy that proved to be unforgettable.

Griffin’s book was a nonfiction, intimate journey that captivated American readers. The fundamentals of the story first came to light as an article in Sepia magazine, who helped fund the writing project. When it appeared in print, Griffin’s experiences instantly drew readers from across the country. The story demanded a full treatment in book form, and what a powerful book it became!

“He who is less than just is less than man.” ―...

The story line dealt with race relations from the most personal aspect imaginable. For those who haven’t read Black Like Me, I won’t throw in any spoilers. I’ll just tell you that it presents the experiences of a white man who went through extraordinary measures to penetrate racism in America by pretending to be a black man. The narrative deals with his travels and personal encounters in the deep South. Through them, Griffin exposes the pain of a segregated, prejudiced America that was so prevalent at the time. He also tells us about a handful of wonderful, incredibly generous individuals he met along the way. The book reaches highs and lows worthy of the powerful point Griffin was trying to make.

It was not just the story line that moved me, powerful as it was. It was the sacrifices of the writer, his determination to get to the bottom of the story, that rocked my young world. All other books seemed tame after reading Griffin. Here was a writer who lived his work, who had a boundless commitment to the story he was chasing. Griffin put no limits on himself to learn what it was like to be black and live in the U.S. in the late 1950s. No one had ever put this kind of experience into written form in quite the same way. It opened my eyes to cruelty and indifference, but also to the willingness of some to extend their hands to the downtrodden and ignored. It showed me both the best and worst in our society. The mosaic it offered was compelling, penetrating and wholly personal. This was the kind of writer I wanted to be, someday.

Griffin made me love the importance of nonfiction when done the right way. Before Black Like Me, I wasn’t especially interested in nonfiction. Now, I understood just how a great writer could move me with something real and tangible. There was nothing dry in Griffin’s writing, nothing impersonal or academic. It was raw and real. It was all painfully true. It was groundbreaking.

There were other writers who strongly influenced me at that young age. Some specialized in fiction, some nonfiction. They all played their part in moving me further into reading and writing. But it was Griffin who started it all with Black Like Me. Even today, the relevance of his work remains strong. That’s surely the mark of a literary classic.

John Howard Griffin, the man I never met, will always be one of my heroes.

Big Daddy Conlang Fathers Famous Offspring

KlingonsConlangs begot Artlangs. Science fiction writers and readers know this relationship well, even if they’ve never heard the terms. Constructed languages (conlangs) gave birth to artistic languages (artlangs). In doing so, we all inherited a fresh, fascinating vision of science fiction, mythology and fantasy writing. Artlangs opened up a very different reading experience, one that has immense staying power.

Conlangs and artlangs are a science unto themselves, an intricate study of linguistics. But we needn’t go that far to find their value. For writers, they are creative forms of expression. They are a means to add dimension and authenticity to a story line that’s intended to carry us away to other worlds and other times. They are a powerful writing device.

The Big Daddy, conlangs, has been around for a very long time. Early examples can be found from very different parts of the world across many centuries. The Lingua Ignota, created by Hildegard of Bergen, is dated from the 12th century and meant to express the language of angels. Dante Alighieri chased the perfect Italian vernacular. Kabbalistic scholars tried to hunt down and record the original language of higher beings, much like Hildegard. The list is a long one. These were the original conlangs, never designed for the pure enjoyment of readers. They served other masters.

For our purposes, artlangs are of special interest. Artlangs are not intended to be a functional, useful language. They have no real-world practicality. Instead, they are expressions and reflections of the writer’s art, a way to weave a deeper, more sustainable tale. Artlangs give characters their own special language, a way of communicating that is unique to them. Obviously, this makes the characters even more fascinating, more real to readers. It doesn’t matter that the language is incomplete or that we have little idea about its meaning or complexities. A well-constructed artlang drives us deeper into the characters and makes them come alive on the page.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

The popularity of artlangs began to take hold in the early twentieth century, probably with the publication of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is considered to be the modern father of using an artlang to enhance his characters and story line. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who formalized the use of artlangs when he created an entire family of interconnected languages for his characters. He was so fond of artlangs that he lectured publicly on the topic. For artlangs, he became the great publicist and the writer to emulate for fantasy, myth and science fiction.

A century later, artlangs are everywhere. They have become a vital part of creating a good myth, strong characters, and lasting memories of fictional story lines. Here are a few other writers who have used artlangs to create enduring stories and engaging characters:

Anthony Burgess, Samuel R. Delany, Suzette Doctolero, Diane Duane, Suzette Haden ElginFrank Herbert, M.A.R. BarkerUrsula K. Le GuinBarry B. LongyearMorioka Hiroyuki, George Orwell, Karen Traviss, Christian Vander, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Jordan and Christopher Paolini.

There’s also a world of artlangs all around us in other forms of entertainment. Consider these: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings (movies), Stargate SG-1, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Game of Thrones, Avatar, Dune and the Myst series of computer games. The list is enormous. Artlangs are expected, even demanded by readers, viewers and game players.

For any fiction writer, it’s important to remember that artlangs can go a long way to captivate readers. It’s not an easy task to construct an artlang and use it effectively. Artlangs demand consistency, an implication of clear meaning, coherency and a unique tonal quality that sticks with the reader. It’s something that cannot be overused or it will lead to utter confusion. Treat it like salt — a little goes a long way. When it’s done right, there are few techniques more potent than following a character through a story line in his or her own language.

To help with your artlang inspiration, here’s a famous proverb:

bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’

Get it? Its Klingonese, one of the most popular conlang/artlang constructions ever devised. It’s also one of the most complete and, like a living language, it’s still evolving.

Revenge is a dish best served cold,” uttered by Khan Nooien Singh in Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.


Writers’ ROI (Return On Investment)

Spurious Causality

A number of years ago a friend approached me with a compelling idea. Would I be willing to write a book (under a pen name) that his organization could use as a fundraiser? I suppose this idea had been used many times and in countless ways, but it was new to me. My friend knew that I was interested in the cause he represented so it was an easy sell. It also appealed to me because I could keep my writing sharp while lulling through those “between project” times. There was no downside to the idea.

Fast forward. I’ve done this same thing a few times in the intervening years and found it to be a terrific experience. I loved the projects because I believed in the causes. As a writing workout, it had everything I wanted in terms of interest and freedom. I got to choose the topics, present them my own way, and know they would be appreciated and used in a positive manner.

When this kind of writing was still new to me I did some fumbling around to find the right formula. It took a little time, but it all finally came together. Now, I’m a true believer. My hope is that other writers will take up this kind of project for their favorite causes.

Here’s what I learned about this type of writing. It’s a personal formula, so there’s lots of room for improvements and tweaks. Just some highlights.

Be ContentMake no pitch in the book. It’s only necessary to add a single, discreet line to let readers know that your book will funnel all profits to the chosen cause. I like to add this as a brief line in the Introduction and within the traditional back-cover teaser. This seems to work best. There’s no reason to beat the drums. If you do a “hard sell” in the book you risk a big turn-off with the reader. Not good.

It must be relevant. Obviously, you want the topic to be relevant to the cause. There must be a clear tie-in that the reader cannot overlook. If you’re trying to fund-raise for a hunger project there’s no point in writing a tome about aircraft design. This is the point at which you work closely with the cause folks to come up with just the right idea.

"Timeless" Clock 時計 Sign, Asahikawa ...

It should be timeless. These writing projects need to stand the test of time and go on for years to be really effective. Time-sensitive topics don’t work well when you’re doing a fundraiser. What does work well is a topic that remains relevant over a long period of time. You want the book to have a strong shelf life.

It should not be unnecessarily long. With this type of writing project, the usual rules of novel length do not apply. In fact, I’ve found that a rather short book with tight, easy to digest chapters works well for most readers. It’s not necessary to spend thousands of words on character development or story line meanderings. Simple is best. Also, the book must move along.

Chapters need not be sequential. It’s OK to write a book that a reader can pick up at a moment’s notice, turn to any chapter, and begin reading. This seems to work better than creating a work that demands linear reading, front to back. The formula I prefer is to create a book in which any chapter can be read as a standalone piece of work. Obviously, there must be an overall tie-in that holds everything together. Readers seem to like this technique.

Graphics are not always necessary. Although graphics can enhance any literary work, they are not critical to this type of writing. Graphics help, but a book written for the purpose we’re discussing can be quite simple and still be very effective. I point this out because the cost of printing and publication can directly relate to the graphics content of the book regardless of how it is to be published.

Book Signing

Go to the events. It really helps your cause if you can attend events and sign copies of the book as they are purchased. This is not only a great way to thank the cause supporters but also a means to generate interest from potential readers.

Keep your causes separate. It’s not wise, nor proper, to mix your messages when promoting a cause-related book. This must be a personal decision, though. Just as you use a pen name for these creations, it’s best to keep your other work apart. Focus on the cause and the book it represents. There should never be any selling involved when you promote this kind of book. That responsibility belongs to others involved in the cause.

Feel good about yourself. This is the reward point of your contribution. With each book sale, your cause can grow and become more powerful. That’s the “feel good” part of the process that should not be overlooked. As writers, we all want others to read our words. If we can put our books in front of new readers, and feel good about it at the same time, we’ve been well rewarded.

So, why not give it a try? It’s the kind of offer that any forward-looking cause can appreciate and you’ll feel very good about your labor. A guaranteed return on your investment.

Soul Letters: Chris Kluwe

Soul LetterWriters are renown for their ability to construct moving, passionate letters. It’s a natural byproduct of the craft, usually garnered after decades of toil and trials. However, they are not alone when it comes to creating a unique style of missive, the soul letter, that faithfully holds its creator up to a mirror. Soul letters speak to more than the recipient, touch upon more than the topic at hand. They provide us with a personal, faithful glimpse of the writer. These letters hold nothing back, regardless of the writer’s intent. They lay it all bare for us to ponder, each sentence in a white hot light. Although they will never be considered great literary endeavors, they are superb unto themselves. They are written from the heart and lay bare the soul. They are honest.

This letter deals with a very charged issue – gay marriage. However, the politics of the issue are not the focus of this article. They are the back story. Regardless of your views on the matter, this writer created a soul letter. It tells us so much about himself, his passion and his view of the world. Like all soul letters, it is genuine.

The letter was written by Chris Kluwe, a professional football player. It was directed to Emmett C. Burns Jr., a Maryland State politician.

Dear Emmett C. Burns Jr.,

I find it inconceivable that you are an elected official of Maryland’s state government. Your vitriolic hatred and bigotry make me ashamed and disgusted to think that you are in any way responsible for shaping policy at any level. The views you espouse neglect to consider several fundamental key points, which I will outline in great detail (you may want to hire an intern to help you with the longer words):

1. As I suspect you have not read the Constitution, I would like to remind you that the very first, the VERY FIRST Amendment in this founding document deals with the freedom of speech, particularly the abridgment of said freedom. By using your position as an elected official (when referring to your constituents so as to implicitly threaten the Ravens organization) to state that the Ravens should “inhibit such expressions from your employees,” more specifically Brendon Ayanbadejo, not only are you clearly violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a narcissistic fromunda stain. What on earth would possess you to be so mind-boggingly stupid? It baffles me that a man such as yourself, a man who relies on that same First Amendment to pursue your own religious studies without fear of persecution from the state, could somehow justify stifling another person’s right to speech. To call that hypocritical would be to do a disservice to the word. Mindfucking obscenely hypocritical starts to approach it a little bit.

2. “Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement.” Holy fucking shitballs. Did you seriously just say that, as someone who’s “deeply involved in government task forces on the legacy of slavery in Maryland”? Have you not heard of Kenny Washington? Jackie Robinson? As recently as 1962 the NFL still had segregation, which was only done away with by brave athletes and coaches daring to speak their mind and do the right thing, and you’re going to say that political views have “no place in a sport”? I can’t even begin to fathom the cognitive dissonance that must be coursing through your rapidly addled mind right now; the mental gymnastics your brain has to tortuously contort itself through to make such a preposterous statement are surely worthy of an Olympic gold medal (the Russian judge gives you a 10 for “beautiful oppressionism”).

3. This is more a personal quibble of mine, but why do you hate freedom? Why do you hate the fact that other people want a chance to live their lives and be happy, even though they may believe in something different than you, or act different than you? How does gay marriage, in any way shape or form, affect your life? If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you’ll start thinking about penis? “Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!” Will all of your friends suddenly turn gay and refuse to come to your Sunday Ticket grill-outs? (Unlikely, since gay people enjoy watching football too.)

I can assure you that gay people getting married will have zero effect on your life. They won’t come into your house and steal your children. They won’t magically turn you into a lustful cockmonster. They won’t even overthrow the government in an orgy of hedonistic debauchery because all of a sudden they have the same legal rights as the other 90 percent of our population—rights like Social Security benefits, child care tax credits, Family and Medical Leave to take care of loved ones, and COBRA healthcare for spouses and children. You know what having these rights will make gays? Full-fledged American citizens just like everyone else, with the freedom to pursue happiness and all that entails. Do the civil-rights struggles of the past 200 years mean absolutely nothing to you?

In closing, I would like to say that I hope this letter, in some small way, causes you to reflect upon the magnitude of the colossal foot in mouth clusterfuck you so brazenly unleashed on a man whose only crime was speaking out for something he believed in. Best of luck in the next election; I’m fairly certain you might need it.

Chris Kluwe

P.S. I’ve also been vocal as hell about the issue of gay marriage so you can take your “I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayanbadejo is doing” and shove it in your close-minded, totally lacking in empathy piehole and choke on it. Asshole.

Mrs. Zxy and Jane Maul Mr. Bill

Mr. BillThe headline sounds like something ripped from a check stand sleaze magazine except that it’s true. It’s also a common tale for anyone who has kids. Our hero, and victim, is Bill, my youngest kid. Today, he is an avid reader and published writer. But, it wasn’t always so. There was a time when everything went sideways.

Like most neo-adolescents, Bill was not fond of reading. In fact, he completely avoided it. I had seen this problem come and go with my other kids, so I wasn’t too concerned, at first. Many of these phases tend to work themselves out. Mostly, I didn’t want to force him into a pastime that I knew he disliked. I’ve never appreciated people telling me what to do so I assume others, including Bill, usually feel the same way.

Moving into his first year of High School, Bill drew a teacher, Mrs. Zxy, whose job it was to get him reading. As I recall, the class was about 25 strong, all new to High School, all new to each other, and probably most not interested in reading. No one would envy Mrs. Zxy’s job. I assumed she understood the perils of her role and was prepared to meet them head on.

Now, this teacher’s answer to a predictable reluctance to read was to throw Jane Austen at her class. Since our educational system is based on uniformity and collective adherence, this was a time-honored way of accomplishing the task. Throw out a classic, like Austen, and they will all become avid readers. The future would be secured. The predictable protocol would continue to reign as education king.

Talk about wrong-headed!

Portrait of Jane Austen

What in this universe of swamp gas would a neo-adolescent male find intriguing about Jane Austen? Sure, she was a literary luminary of the first order. Certainly, she was a classic author. But, where was the relevance? Mrs. Zxy may have been an expert in the Classics. Maybe. But she was older, mature, her education completed, her personal story line well into the process of being written. She was as far removed from adolescence as Mr. Scrooge, or so it probably seemed to her charges. If Mrs. Zxy would have asked, I would have been more than happy to explain to her that the Classics is not the starting gate for future readers. It’s more like the 1/3 mile post.

Anyway, I learned about the problem in the usual way, by talking with Bill. There he was, stuck with Jane Austen and trying very hard to please Mrs. Zxy. Bleak. We both knew that he had no choice but to carry on, to struggle through the Classics no matter his level of disinterest. I was secretly concerned about something else. Would this episode destroy his interest in reading, now and forever? It wasn’t what I wanted for the kid.

I thrashed around a bit, trying to come up with something innovative and easy to swallow. More pressure was certainly not the answer. I knew that the only way to engender a passion for reading was to get his attention, grab it outright, and never let go. But it wasn’t something I could do alone.

Carlos Castenada on Peyote. AKA, Why I Don't H...

At about the same time, the Carlos Castaneda mythos was making the rounds to a new generation. I had his first three books and enjoyed each. I devised a plan to just be seen around our house with the book in hand, or lying nearby. At some point, I banked on the assumption that Bill would show some interest. That would be my big chance.

He did, and he began reading. Bill liked Castaneda’s first book. He read it right through and moved on to subsequent Don Jan tales. Easy. He became a reader and, in later years, a talented writer. He survived Jane Austen and Mrs. Zxy. Like him or not, Castaneda became somewhat of a helper-hero in our family, one of those unexpected people whose work pushes you in a new direction.

And the moral? Two, really. The first is a lingering distaste for the uniformity of our educational system. But, that’s a soapbox topic and I won’t add to the boredom. The second moral is far more important. Readers need to be captivated, to become ensnared and moved, to live as participants in the story line. Failing that, boredom quickly sets in. For a young adolescent male, Jane Austen will never be the trick pony. Mrs. Zxy should have known that. Still, I don’t blame her too much. We need to take a big role in how our kids move through life. In the end, the job is ours.

Want your kids to read? Find out what moves them, what carries them through the pages. That’s how to create a reader. If you can help them read, you can help them write. The rest they will do for themselves.

Writers Workshop: The Spymaster

English: John le Carré at the "Zeit Forum...

David John Moore Cornwell is better known to us as John Le Carre. He worked for British intelligence (MI5 and MI6) during the height of the Cold War. It was during this period that he turned his attention to writing under his now famous pen name. In 1963, his novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became a best-seller and his place among famous writers was established. Several of his novels have been taken to the big screen and television with considerable success, although Le Carre has sometimes disagreed with that conclusion.

I’m an unabashed fan of Le Carre for his ability to take a complex story line, with complex characters, and carry the reader right through to the end of the plot. He moves carefully, but always moves forward. At times, the plot carries the characters. At others, the characters dominate and fascinate us. He manages to strike a near-perfect balance between story line and character development in such a way that we keep turning those pages.

So, what better way to help improve our writing than from a master writer working within his special genre. Here are a few of Le Carre’s quotes that give us a tiny peak into his mind and style. Some are from the author himself. Others are spoken through his characters. There is a good deal of wisdom and insight here.

A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” (Le Carre)

The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.” (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy)

Sometimes we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers.” (A perfect Spy)

Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” (The Looking Glass War)

The monsters of our childhood do not fade away, neither are they ever wholly monstrous.” (Le Carre)

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.” (Le Carre)

The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing.” (A Most Wanted Man)

Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes.” (Le Carre)

Unfortunately it is the weak who destroy the strong.” (Le Carre)

Ideologies have no heart of their own. They’re the whores and angels of our striving selves.” (Le Carre)

After all, if you make your enemy look like a fool, you lose the justification for engaging him.” (Le Carre)

Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.” (Le Carre)

Let’s die of it before we’re too old.” (The Honourable Schoolboy)

Everyone who is not happy must be shot.” (The Little Drummer Girl)

A committee is an animal with four back legs.” (Le Carre)