The Great Book Proposal

Or, “Can I Get a Hell Yeah!”

"Write, you bastard!"We did it in just four days.

Writing partner and hetero lifemate Nick Hurwitch and I have had an idea for a “nonfiction” humor book for almost a year now. We’ve been waiting for my arrival in Los Angeles to start serious work on the project, believing proximity will make the work much better, both in quality and in difficulty.

So I’m here – it’s time. But rather than just jump into it, there’s a different procedure for this kind of book as compared to, say, a novel.

A little background on the nonfiction book publishing process:

First, you want to try to find a literary agent. You can bypass this step if you want, but that puts you at a disadvantage if a publisher likes your idea. Because first off, you’re pitching your idea directly to publishers, something with which an agent would help. And secondly, seeing as you’re new to the game, you have no idea how to protect yourself from being ripped off as you’re trying to sell your idea. An agent helps with that, too.

So you come up with your book idea in as much detail as you can, and you write what’s called a query letter. The letter covers some very basic ground: It includes a hook idea that will get the reader wanting to read more about your idea, it identifies why you’re qualified to write the book you’ve come up with, it introduces you to the agent, and it tells the agent why you chose them to send all this stuff to in the first place.

You send these queries to several agents in your field. You’ll want to do some research ahead of time to figure out which agents deal with your sort of book. I did this by doing a fair amount of research using Amazon.com, book stores and Google.

The research process for us was as follows:

1. Identify similar books.
2. Figure out who wrote them.
3. Google-search the authors to find who represents them.
4. Send personalized query letters to agents who already have represented books like yours.

With that handled, you can send out a mess of queries. Most of the content in the letters is identical, except for the portion dealing with the agent personally and why you chose them.

Next, you wait. Well, normally, you wait.

As it turned out, Nick and I got a hit on our query letter that very evening. In fact, next major step – preparing a book proposal – wasn’t exactly fully completed by the time we heard from the prospective agent that he was interested.

Comfortable; not conducive to writing. We spent the weekend slamming through the book proposal. It includes the following pieces:

1. A detailed overview explaining what the book is, in an essay format. As I’ve read, the two most important things you can write in trying to get a book published are the overview, which also has to include a strong hook to get the reader interested, and that aforementioned query letter. Garnering a lot of interest in the project is key: Weakness in either of these two places means no deal.
2. An explanation of your “platform” as a writer. This basically covers marketing – what you can do as a writer to sell a book. We talked about the possibility of sending out press releases, getting features written up in publications to which Nick and I have ties, using social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to develop viral marketing, setting up an exclusive-content Web site – basically anything we could think of to show we’re willing to do anything to sell this thing.
3. Research into and a discussion of the market for the book: who the readers are, why people will buy it, and why a publisher should sell it.
4. A rundown of competing books and other similar titles on the market now, as well as an explanation of why your book is better, covers new ground, or otherwise will succeed despite other people having written in the same vein. We, fortunately, had little competition and were able to point at similar books not as competition but as evidence that a market for ours exists.
5. Your qualifications, past writing credits, and anything else that makes you look qualified to write the book.
6. An in-depth table of contents complete with chapter summaries. This isn’t iron-clad, but you want to convey a feeling that you’ve thought through the content of the book and know what’s going into it.
7. Sample chapters, usually two of them. The agent we sent the proposal to suggested an introductory chapter for setup and a later chapter to demonstrate what the book will read like once you’ve gotten your stride.

That, of course, is a ton of content. Nick and I had developed a lot of the proposal, but we were a full sample chapter and some other major elements shy when we got the response to our query. So we went to work.

I spent most every day sequestered in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf located about a half-mile from our apartment, down on Hilhurst. The establishment makes some decent lattes, but more importantly, the wi-fi is free and I work better when I feel like I have a dedicated destination that’s not the couch. After finishing my day job (which I mostly do at night anymore, due to the interaction between the Pacific and Central timezones and the fact that my deadline every afternoon is 2:45 instead of 4:45 [or 5:45 back in Michigan]), the rest of every day was dedicated to writing the proposal and the sample chapter.

It came together pretty well. Between my work and Nick’s, we had a strong, well-edited proposal that had gone through proofreading from both our girlfriends by the end of the weekend. The sample chapters were a different story.

The HQChapter 3 has been written forever. Back when we first got this idea about a year ago, Nick and I wrote an extended Chapter 3 and backburnered it along with the rest of the project. In our new organization, we cut loose the opening portion and made that Chapter 3 and the rest became Chapter 4. The editing on the new sample chapter, the first portion, was negligible.

The other chapter is a portion of the book’s reference section, which is of a completely different style from the rest of the prose. That we started pretty much on Friday or Saturday. It was completed by Monday. Because we’re pretty awesome.

The section is “Surviving in Time: Prehistory” with the subtitle, “Carnivorous Dinosaurs to Carnivorous Ice Age Land Mammals.” It’s meant to cover everything before the appearance of humans as far as survival, and it came out pretty hilarious, I think. And not just because I wrote the first draft.

While that was being done, Nick and I had to rework our outline, which hasn’t changed in a year. This was no easy task – the outline we used to have was really, really, really rough. Beyond that, it needed a rundown of what in every chapter, including the reference guide. No easy task, considering we’d never exactly narrowed all that down.

Basically, all that stuff needed to be thought out and made up. So we set to doing that. And then editing it. And then re-editing it.

All told, printed and formatted properly, the book proposal represented about a week and a half’s work and came out to be 48 pages long. It includes the 10-page proposal, which is all original content we created in that time frame, an outline (six pages) and two sample chapters comprising another 31 pages and roughly 4,000 words, half of which was written in that time frame.

What’s great about the whole situation is that we busted out a substantial portion of the book under the gun, and it came out strong. For one, that means if and when we do get picked up by a publisher, we can smack this whole project down relatively quickly – which would be nice because we’ve already been sitting on it forever and I’d like to see it published. And the proposal and the full-tilt writing schedule we put in to create it has reignited my interest and excitement about the project in general. It’s a good idea, the content is good, and writing it is going to go well.

Fingers crossed. Waiting to hear back or start the cycle all over again. But at least the work’s done.

Again with the waiting. Meanwhile, on to the next project: Script Frenzy. More on that in a day or two.

Check out one of the sample chapters: Chapter 3: Thank God for the Brutal Death of Delbridge Langdon III

Not enough wonder in ‘Wonderland’

Johnny Depp's yellow contacts are the high end of the Mad Hatter's madness. Here’s how it breaks down: Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland” is fraught with insanity. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” contains almost none.

Without all that illogic and craziness, Wonderland has no soul. The characters lose their intrigue, their menace, their magic – and their entertainment value. Burton’s “Wonderland” contains only overbearing plot and Johnny Depp, in his wholly sane and diminished portrayal of the Mad Hatter, otherwise known here as The Character Burton Wishes The Story Was About.

First, the plot. Carroll’s story subsists, as we’ve mentioned, on insanity – and therefore Alice is tossed from situation to situation as she tools around Wonderland, basically getting into trouble before being led or chased to somewhere new.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton instead thrust upon Wonderland an extremely recycled story of good ruler/bad ruler, in which Alice (Mia Wasikowski) is, for reasons never even mentioned, Wonderland’s prophesied warrior/champion/Aragorn/Luke Skywalker.

All the standard inhabitants of Wonderland have been searching for Alice since she first arrived in Wonderland when she was young – no one else, the film suggests, actually lives there. Now 19 and poised to be married off to an irritating British lord, Alice’s need for escape takes her down the hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and back to Wonderland, where she’s immediately recruited to fulfill said prophecy. It seems the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken power, and she’s mean. The Wonderlandians would much rather the White Queen (Ann Hathaway) was their ruler. Alice gets to fight a dragon to enact this political change.

None of the ins and outs of this prophecy, Alice’s previous visit, her assumed specialness, or the antecedents of this apparent rebellion are ever discussed. Okay, fine, it’s a children’s movie – whatever. But the end result is not a whimsical albeit dark reimagining of an insane and vibrant world; it’s instead just a far-too-long stop-by-stop tour of an extremely boring Wonderland, in which Alice meets flat character after flat character, who each direct her to her next destination.

Each scene and character is lifted from the original work, and with its weirdo storyline it’s somewhat apparent that Burton’s “Wonderland” is meant to function as a sequel to Carroll and Disney’s 1951 cartoon adaptation. But it’s a sequel that the film itself concedes is a nearly exact replica of Alice’s earlier trip and story (except, you know, the dragon-slaying sword-finding bits). Where Carroll has Alice dealing with crazy, unique and interesting characters, all of Burton and Woolington’s characters are stripped clean of distinguishing traits outside of those rendered in CGI. They are plot devices and nothing else, pushing us toward the supposedly thrilling foregone conclusion.

As overbearing as the plot is Johnny Depp as the orange-haired, white-faced Mad Hatter. Most notably, and most disappointingly, he’s about as far from mad as Depp has gotten in years – especially under Burton’s control. And he has almost as much screen time as Alice, though there seems to be no discernable story reason for this Depp-glut.

The Hatter serves mostly as Alice’s biggest guide. He’s also, for some reason, an understated Alice love interest, freedom fighter and backstory relayer.

All the characters are painfully tame (the Cheshire Cat [voiced by Stephen Fry] has the sole function of appearing in scenes to fill them out), but none moreso than Depp. He appears in much of the plot but never adds anything to the story whatsoever. Lift him from the movie and it would truck along just fine without him, with his plot-device roles fulfilled by any number of other supporting characters. He’s an empty suit, hat and wig in every conceivable way.

There’s no aspect of Burton’s “Wonderland” that gives us the impression the story needed retelling here. We get nothing new from the Burton perspective, or his cast. The script is a pitiful clone of other, much better quest movies. Even the CGI look of Wonderland itself isn’t as lush or interesting or weird as, say, “Avatar,” or even many video games, despite the fact that Wonderland should offer no end of ideas for demented, fantastic things at which to look.

At every turn, with every expectation, “Wonderland” falls well short. The movie is unnecessary, disappointing, and underwhelming – another new adaptation Burton just didn’t need to do.

On D+8, I finally bought deodorant

Somewhere between Flagstaff and Los Angeles It had been a little better than 10 days since I’d actually owned roll-on human-style antiperspirant. In the meantime, I’d borrowed liberally from Caitlin M. Foyt’s unscented unisex Ban deodorant to avoid being likened to some sort of barnyard animal.

My lack of procurement of what many consider a basic staple of personal hygiene is indicative of the mass of chaos days D+3 through D+7 had been. We hit the ground running on the apartment search upon arriving in Los Angeles. Starting Sunday, D+3 or three days after D-Day, the day of departure, for you lay people, we were scrambling for somewhere to live. It was about two hours after our arrival in the city after 3.5 days of driving.

We finally signed a lease on D+12, after much chagrin in the looking. After scouring Craigslist, the easiest of Internet classifieds to peruse, we had finally taken to just wandering streets near where we wanted to live, scanning for ubiquitous FOR RENT signs. (Read and see more on the Great L.A. Apartment Hunt of 2010 on caitlinmfoyt.com.)

Scenes from Los Feliz Location was our biggest issue. For my part, I hate driving, so a walkable neighborhood is a huge selling point for me. Los Angeles is a driving city, complete with terrifying traffic, so having home around the block from groceries, restaurants, coffee shops, drug stores, movie theaters and bars is very important to me. In fact, it’s much, much more important than the apartment itself. I’m prepared to live in any manner of rat-infested earthquake hazard if only I don’t have to drive.

Fortunately, the pickier of the two of us prevailed and we found a nice apartment in the location I wanted. Roughly 40,000 thrift stores later, we’ve started to put together what looks like a real-live apartment living space, with only a few pieces of garbage-quality furniture. The worst of it Caitlin is in the process of refinishing or otherwise making cool. Side effect: I now have a better geographical knowledge of the immediate area than I ever have anywhere I’ve lived.

Los Feliz from our building's roof Meanwhile, the ordeal of L.A. has been punctuated quite well by spectacular weather and the easygoing, active atmosphere I’ve been craving. Hanging with high school friend and Nick Hurwitch-roommate Josh Kade, Caitlin and I attending inside the first 10 days two separate art shows, which brings my total art shows attended ever to four. I’m excited about this development.

And so far the living is easy. Caitlin remains the intrepid job-hunter, but her prospects are getting better every day, so I haven’t lapsed into that mild financial panic that I can feel creeping in. We still have money saved, one must remember. We have planned for this contingency.

But already I’m writing more, thinking about writing more, excited about writing more, seeing possibilities for the betterment and extension of writing, and that’s exactly what this is all about. Close proximity with Nick has reignited many various projects we’ve been back-burner-ing for the better part of the last year, not the least of which is THE TIME TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO TIME TRAVEL, a hopefully hilarious pop-culture/fiction/reference guide to theoretical science and made-up experience in temporal relocation. I’m currently rereading old chapters, dressing up our outline and writing the book proposal. With a little sweat, the first query letters could be going out as early as the beginning of next week.

My head’s also buzzing with a few new ideas. I woke up the other idea in the new IKEA bed I built awash with all the important details of a new unaffiliated short story, which I hope to write within the next few days (along with 90 other things I keep slating for myself to accomplish). It shouldn’t be long and it’s literary and it’s deep and I hope it’s as artsy as I’m imagining it to be, because I sometimes have a tendency to write nerdslop rather than art.

I also have to report that living with Caitlin is just as phenomenal as I predicted. She’s the best roommate I’ve ever had, and her cooking kicks ass, despite her self-deprecation. I very much appreciate that.

Apartment 211To be noted: The many (many) purposely discouraging reports of the supposedly “higher cost of living” in Los Angeles are exaggerated. Cost of living isn’t at Southeast Michigan standards, to be sure. But anybody thinking about moving out here shouldn’t be discouraged by the mostly older people who look at you with slight disappointment or perhaps annoyance and who almost always intone in that same condescending way, “Well you know – the cost of living out there is a lot higher.”

A lot is a relative term. It’s a city. Adjust cost estimates accordingly. But don’t let anyone scare you – we’re doing just fine on one relatively low income for the time being. The situation is hopefully temporary, but even if it wasn’t – we’re under our own steam and nobody’s crying “Iceberg!” just yet.

This is Hornshaw, D+24, 13:14 PST.