Wintertime in Nashville

After a compelling prologue, the next section of the narrative nonfiction proposal that I recommend is an overview.  While the prologue is the SHOW—a representation of how the final manuscript will read—the overview is the TELL. This is the section in which the writer explains to the readers of the proposal (an editor, a marketing director, a publicity director and a publisher) why this particular story is:

  1. a unique addition to the subject arena,
  2. appealing to a critical mass of targeted readers,
  3. promotable for multiple media outlets, and
  4. commercially viable with major upside potential.

Rather than throw out a bunch of rules for the overview, I thought I’d give one a try myself.

First, a little background.

One of the things I love about my choice of career—the one I love most—is the opportunity to dream up books that have not yet been written. I get ideas for books reading the newspaper, sweating on an elliptical machine, in the shower, even while listening to my daughter and youngest son play house. If it’s a good one, I’ll write it down somewhere and let it simmer. I have scraps of paper in a file called “ideas.” If I can’t stop thinking about one in the file, I’ll pull it out and take it to the next level.

I’ll scour the industry for a writer out there who would be the perfect match for the subject. If she’s un-agented (there is a gentlemen’s agreement in publishing not to poach other agents’ clients), I do my best to convince her to take on the project. I then help her create a proposal. Once we both think we’ve done everything we can to make the proposal perfect, I put on my agent hat and sell the project to a publisher. The entire process from idea to sold project can take anywhere from six to eighteen months.

Among the hundreds of books I’d love to see someday be written and published, there are a few that torment me. I can’t convince the right writers to take on the projects.

And the project at the top of this list is WINTERTIME IN NASHVILLE.


“I think I would have probably drunk myself to death if I hadn’t got into something creative…I always felt like Nashville saved my life. It seemed at the time to my parents and my peers that I’d lost my mind.”

WINTERTIME IN NASHVILLE is a timeless story about an artist.

A boy is born to a respectable military family.  His father is a Major General two star in the United States Air Force, a veteran of World War II, the Army Air Corps, and Korea.  And at a time when most women get married and settle before turning twenty years old, his mother doesn’t.  She’s made her own way and earns a degree from a small liberal arts School in Northern California, Pomona College class of 1933, just the kind of strong willed woman for a dashing flyboy bootstrapper.

After courtship and marriage, the mother gives birth to the boy in Brownsville Texas, 1936.  The family avoids the peripatetic military life and settles in quiet San Mateo, California.  It’s a conservative home and the boy is instilled with a duty to living up to what he should be…what his parents’ think he should be.  He walks the line, sets the right example for his brother and sisters, and even attends the same college as his mother.  At Pomona, he stars on the football team and is nationally recognized as such by Sports Illustrated.  He’s Phi Betta Kappa and awarded a Rhodes scholarship.  A Master’s degree in literature is his from Oxford University in 1960.

Now with his academic ticket fully punched, like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather before him, he is expected to serve his country.  He comes back to California long enough to marry his high school sweetheart. Then he joins the Army.  He trains as an Airborne Ranger but decides to follow in his father’s footsteps and get his wings at flight school.  Stationed in West Germany, he flies helicopters and volunteers to serve as an early “advisor” in Vietnam.  His request is denied.  His wife gives birth to a baby girl in January 1962.

Now a Captain, he’s on the easy track to Major when his commission comes up in 1965.  His orders are to move back to the United States and teach literature at West Point.

Instead, the twenty nine year old resigns his commission.  He’s decided to move to Nashville, Tennessee.  He’s going to be a songwriter.

“Kris let me read a letter from his mother in the studio one day, not long after I met him. And the letter in so many words said, ‘You are disowned. You’re no longer my son. You gave up your Rhodes scholarship, you gave up your education, your career, everything else that was planned for you. And you’ve gone to Nashville to be a bum and hang out, trying to be with like people like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. And don’t ever knock on my door again.’”

–Johnny Cash

WINTERTIME IN NASHVILLE is Kris Kristofferson’s four year journey from outcast to inimitable contributor to the great American songbook.  Like Bob Dylan’s CHRONICLES VOLUME 1 and Patti Smith’s JUST KIDS, WINTERTIME IN NASHVILLE takes the reader through Kristofferson’s lean and mean years when no one stood behind him but his shadow on the floor.


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  1. Paul C on July 8, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Ron Hansen and Jim Shepard published a book titled “You’ve Got to Read This.” Famous writers picked their favorite stories that must be read. That letter from Kris Kristofferson’s mom should at least be in a book titled something like “You Got to Read This Letter.” All of us have read a letter or email and shown others, saying “you gotta read this.” A book of must read letters/emails with a brief story behind them could be on your list of hundreds to be written someday.

  2. Mike Byrne on July 8, 2011 at 8:56 am

    Intriguing, I already want to read the book.

  3. Jody on July 8, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    What outlets do you use to find un-agented writers?

    • Shawn Coyne on July 9, 2011 at 4:33 am

      I read newspapers, magazines, online, search academic journals and watch professional conferences that have been posted on youtube etc. I ask my clients if they know anyone. I ask my friends, fellow agents who aren’t competitive who are happy to help out (there are more of those agents out there than you think).
      The other day I got an email from someone I’ve never met. He’d read a bunch of stuff I’d written and followed my professional trail back far enough to know what kind of cold email approach might work with me. He’s written a bunch of great small pieces (500 to 1000 words) for online magazines. He put in a link to his best story. I loved it. I emailed him back and we met for coffee. He wanted me to help him place his short fiction. He didn’t think he had a novel in him yet. I spent an hour and a half with him poking and prodding until we found a big story for him to tackle. He’s back at his desk right now working it through. He emails me ideas and questions when he gets stuck. It’s fun. Hey it might even end up selling to a big publisher or I might help him publish it himself. Who knows? What’s important is that he understands that there are people in the profession who love doing this kind of stuff and they are there to help. Now when he wants to toss everything he’s done in the trash box on his computer, he can email me and see if he really should.

      What I’ve found is that most professional writers are un-agented. They’re too busy writing and finding stories to fill their particular niche. They need someone to guide them. Tell them they can write a big story, a book that can resonant with enough people to be able to put food on their table and get a chance to write another one. Then they need the agent to help them with the structure and voice necessary to convince one of the Big 6 to write a check. Or to convince them they should publish the book themselves, somehow, someway.

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