In the nonfiction publishing world, proposals are supposed to be the acorns, watered by a generous advance, from which mighty oaks will grow. 

I have published four nonfiction books and I have had a tough time writing a proposal in the first place and then writing from it once committed to the book the proposal purports to describe. 

For most of my writing career, I wrote the entire book first, fiction and nonfiction alike, then (mostly) got it published. No proposal, just a complete manuscript. For a writer like me, that’s still the ideal arrangement. The one nonfiction book I wrote a proposal and chapter outline for I’m not happy with. The momentum of the early chapters took me in an unexpected direction that I could not follow once having committed to the  structure of the book that I laid down in the proposal. The chapter outline chained me to a trajectory I outgrew in the actual process of writing. 

How do you know what you’re going to think until you think it? That has always been my dilemma.

Another thing I’ve learned is that I can’t write the first chapter directly from anything I say in the proposal. All those generalities, summary statements, are worthless to my creative soul. Fiction, memoir, nonfiction, all of it, I have to start from particularity. Scene, vignette, anecdote. That’s what makes it come to life for me. Once I have that opening scene securely on the page, it will guide me gently by the hand whatever the genre into a whole rich world of ideas, made-up happenings, or memories.

I stole this technique a long time ago from the great humorist S.J. Perelman, a superlative stylist who always kicked off his satirical essays with a lively scene rather than a general remark. When I found that this little trick never failed to unlock my own creative door, I hung onto it.

More organized, less intuitive nonfiction book writers don’t seem to have this problem. I have read with admiration their 90-page narrative proposals paired with penetrating market analysis, the ones that garner $100,000 advances. I just don’t seem capable of doing this myself. Ninety pages, I think. Why not just write the book?

To the right writerly temperament, however, proposals can be a tremendous incentive. The late fiction writer Stanley Elkin once said he felt he didn’t have a real mandate to start a novel until the signed contract lay on his desk.

Most fiction writers, of course, don’t have the luxury of asking for an advance until they are well established, as Elkin was. The no-advance-for-fiction practice is based on the reasonable assumption that it is far less predictable how a piece of writing that comes from the right brain is going to turn out than one that originates in the more logic-oriented left brain. Only the dependable brand names in fiction or the occasional first-novel smash hitters have earned that privilege. Yet even in that commercially exalted sphere there’ve been some crashes and burns. The latest effort from an internationally renowned fantasy writer, doubtless underwritten with an astronomical advance, was flat as a pancake. Flat as only a tale spun from a 1-2-3 outline instead of direct from the imagination could be.

Right now I have two nonfiction books on my plate, both of which were solicited by publishers. (The third, that big scholarly book, continues to inch along glacierlike in the background.) For the first book I wrote a half-page scattered collection of ideas last year, stressing to my agent and the one publisher she showed it to that this was strictly a preview of a preview, not a proposal. My plan was to write a few chapters (not just the first one) to see if I could carry it off. 

As it turned out, I was very thankful I withheld this one pager from any formal submission routine (not that anything so vague and abbreviated would have gotten a contract) because the three chapters I then proceeded to compose did not come out right. Not at all. A big underlying issue had surfaced that needed threshing out in the strictest privacy of my unconscious. If I’d signed  a contract,  I would have had to push right through. I did that once with a complicated book that was on deadline (the one I’d written the proposal for). It didn’t have a conclusion, and the one I wrote was not the best. That book wasn’t the work it could have been if I had had more down time, a stretch of sheer inactivity, to allow the final unifying thoughts to bubble up in my head.

The offer for the second book came about six months after I had completed the three unsuccessful chapters of the first book. It was a really great topic, one I knew a lot about. I got terribly excited. I jumped into a shorthand chapter-by-chapter description of the contents (not an outline, I told myself) that felt very alive. At six pages it was growing like a healthy embryo and I was already very intrigued by the way it was developing. Knowing from experience that this was no guarantee I’d really be able to deliver the goods, that the only thing that counted for me was writing those first three (never just one) chapters, I knew that if I was serious about this project I would need to sit down and write them before making any commitment.

But I already had three chapters of another book! And I had done most of the research for that one, whereas this one would mean starting from scratch again. Which to choose? 

One morning after the Christmas holiday I woke up to hear a voice in me saying: The first one, that baby is further along in its gestation and wants to come out. So I went back to those three weird chapters and what do you know? They weren’t so bad after all! I saw how to work with them. The problem had somehow solved itself without any conscious effort on my part. As my esteemed colleague Micheline Aharonian Marcom has commented, sometimes the best editor is the drawer.

So that first book is what I am writing now. When I have completed five (not three) solid chapters, I’ll send it out to publishers. It will be too far long for me or them to mess up, and I won’t have to write a real proposal, just a chapter list of the rest of the book. And when that’s finished, I’ll move on to the second book.

Writers: This is my trip, not yours. What way of getting into a project, and staying with it, excites you the most? Does that piece of paper with the orderly breakdown of your book seem like the only lifevest in a sea of chaos, or not? Does a detailed outline keep you focused and on message, or not? Only you know what is best. It is always a personal decision, a personal call. 

The writing life has only one real directive, and it is this: Find the path you can’t wait to start walking down, and take it.

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Victoria Nelson

Victoria Nelson is a fiction writer and essayist, author of two books of stories, a memoir, and the award-winning critical books The Secret Life of Puppets and Gothicka. She is also cotranslator of Letters, Drawings and Essays of Bruno Schulz. Her screenplay adaptation of a classic English thriller will be produced as a feature film in the UK. You can see more of her work here: “Stephenie Meyer and the 21st century Vampire Romance” (YouTube at the Claremont Graduate School for Writers in Action); A BESTIARY OF MY HEART (podcast from City Lights Bookstore); “Haunted Reflections: Walter Benjamin in San Francisco” (podcast).
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