To Propose or Not to Propose
Posted from the road, Jacksonville NC:
I’m reading Shawn’s Friday posts about book proposals in our “What It Takes” series. I love ‘em. They’re educational for me too. Until I read Shawn’s first post, I didn’t know what a book proposal was. Until he showed me one a couple of months ago, I had never seen one. Reading this, you may think, “How can that be? How can Pressfield have a 15-year book career and not know what a book proposal looks like?” The answer is simple:
You don’t need a book proposal for fiction.
That’s good news and bad news if you’re a fiction writer. The bad news is you have to write the whole freakin’ book. The good news is you have to write the whole freakin’ book.
There are two reasons why publishers won’t advance money to a fiction writer based exclusively on a proposal. First, fiction is dependent on so many intangibles and imponderables—character, theme, narrative, concept, mood, emotion, suspense, terror, not to mention climactic payoff—that no one can tell if a novel works till he actually reads the damn thing. The second reason publishers are loath to advance money to novel writers is (are you ahead of me?) Resistance.
I’d love to have the figures for every hundred novels started. How many made it all the way to THE END? It’s not that publishers and editors don’t have faith in writers. It’s just that they’ve been burned too many times.
I’m speaking of course of first-time fiction writers. The field is different for proven novelists with track records. Publishers will advance money to these grizzled salts based on how their books have performed in the past. If you’re John Grisham, you can get a million bucks for a story about your cat.
Personally, I think it’s a very healthy thing for first-time writers that they do have to write the whole book. The ordeal weeds out the uncommitted. I can’t remember the exact quote, but Michael Herr, the author of the brilliant Dispatches (upon which Stanley Kubrick’s movie Full Metal Jacket was partly based), once said something like, “I can’t deny that I was aware of the magic produced when the words ‘war’ and ‘correspondent’ were joined together.” (Mr. Herr said it better than that, but it was somewhere in that ball park.) The word “novelist” has a bit of that same stardust. So it’s a good thing that publishers will settle for nothing short of the whole chimichanga.
In a way, I myself was lucky in that the era in which I was first exposed to the real world of writing (movies and books) was a predominantly spec era. The 80s (and 70s) were the golden age of spec. Novelists and screenwriters took flyers. Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky, sold it, and starred in it. Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas were banging out specks and cashing them in for seven figures. There were jackpots out there. Not just big dollar scores but real hits, books and movies of quality that people were talking about. The writers’ ethos at the time was not to hedge bets or take things in sensible stages. The star writer hatched a crazy idea, wrote it up soup to nuts and sold it. One and done, cash the check.
I’m not a fan of the ego-commerce aspect of that time. In fact I hate it. But what I admire (and what was great training for me, floundering in the backwaters of that era) is the fact that writers didn’t try to cover the angles in advance. They weren’t looking to spread the risk. They bet on themselves and they rolled the dice.
It’s tremendously healthy for a beginning writer (or an old pro) to write their novel all the way through—with no guarantee from anyone that it’ll find a buyer. That’s life. That’s the real world.
The question you and I have to ask ourselves at the start of a project is not “Is it commercial?” or “Will it sell?” We can never know that anyway. The question is, “Do we love it?”
Do we ourselves, in our heart of hearts, feel so passionately about this idea that we’re willing to commit ourselves to it for its own sake for however long it takes and however much it costs?
If the answer is yes, then we don’t need a proposal and we don’t need a contract. If the answer is no, then we shouldn’t start the project in the first place.
All that being said, there is a very important argument (beyond financial survival) in favor of formally proposing a work-to-come and getting a commitment in advance, if we can, from an editor/publisher/filmmaker. The reason is for the marketing and sell-on horsepower that that editor/publisher/filmmaker can bring when the work is done and it’s time to go out and sell it in the real world. Where the rubber meets the road, we (and our stuff) need all the friends we can get, and the earlier we can make them our partners the better.
If we can pull together a fired-up team from Day One, there’s nothing more powerful.
But the gods are ever jealous; let us never forget. The bottom line is always our own love for the project and our own commitment to it for its own sake. A proposal is only a proposal and a deal is only a deal. In the end, you and I have to write the book or movie ourselves.