Wednesday, September 23, 2009


The Shrink-meister

I wrote a week ago about how I was too busy to blog because I was in the midst of a frantic book proposal. Well, it's a week later, and I'm still in the midst of a frantic proposal: I was awake this morning at 2:30 working on character profiles. So, since this is, in its best moments, a blog concerning writers and writing, let me write for a moment about the book proposal.

Although there are many authors who are not required to do so, my book writing career has always involved a proposal. Whether in outline form, or a precis, the purpose of the proposal is to somehow convey plot and character arc that will become a 400 to 500 page book, in as short a space as possible -- one to five pages.

There is a great deal of irony in asking a writer capable of creating 4-500 pages in long form to possess the skills to condense that same story into just five pages. Those skill sets actually work against each other in some ways. For the last two weeks, I've had to put on the hat of Shrink-meister -- having a vision of something wide in scope and yet being able to refine it to a small number of paragraphs and people it with characters that we meet and define in only a few sentences.

In the end, my agents and I came up with four interesting storylines that could eventually be expanded into a series (this was a critical requirement from the publisher's side--it must be able, by definition, to expand into a series concept). Two of the stories received preferential treatment: one whole page. The two remaining concepts were each allowed a half page. By the end of last week, the submission was made and early this week we received the nod: the two stories laid out as full pages made the publisher's short list. (no surprise there--they received more ink to reveal themselves.)

Beginning yesterday afternoon, I started peopling the story concepts with characters. Creating character Bibles is one of the most fun exercises in the proposal process. I capitalized the word "Bible" because this is the one time a writer truly is asked to play God: you are inventing human beings. You pick qualities of people you know, or people you read about, or people you fear, or people you would like to be, and you put them down onto the page and you stir. You wave your wand -- more often than not a pen or pencil, or keyboard -- and what is hopefully a whole character stands up off the page, or steps out of the screen. This character will, of course, eventually change and evolve as he or she is steered through the complexities of the plot; so, you really don't have a full vision of that person yet, but what a wondrous moment to see a human being step out of your thought. It is one of the great gifts we receive as writers.

In the end, I will submit two or three pages of characterizations for each of the two shortlisted proposals. Then, it is left up to the gods of the publishing house (they wish!), and at some point I will hopefully receive a phone call that points me down a particular path. It is not always easy. It is not always an enjoyable process. But it is one I have been through many times before, and hopefully will go through many times more, all in an effort to deliver the best possible book to my readers (all five of them). So, today, it is nose back to grindstone.

on Twitter: RidleyTheWriter


  1. My publisher requires a proposal, as well. They are a lot of hard work and I never know if I'm doing it right. If you ever teach a class called Writing a Compelling Book Proposal, sign me up.

  2. I sell books before they are written, too. My process differs a bit, not much. I love it. It winnows the ideas, saves time, and garners early feedback from people qualified to give it. But, yeah, that compression process:It hurts.

  3. Five pages is really tight.

    So hard to do.

    Reminiscent of the famous quote: "If I had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter."

    I think it was Voltaire who wrote that, or maybe Hemingway, or maybe Jim Born.