So You’re Selling A Manuscript…

paper-stackA few of you have asked me about the emergent book behind Drive All Night and how the idea evolved to its present form. Well, the timing couldn’t be better.  At the end of this coming weekend, I’ll be be casting off a new proposal into the sea of literary agencies.

First, let’s jump half a year back in time.

When I left my fulltime copy production job in Boston to go work in the White Mountains for autumn, I didn’t know that Drive All Night would take over my life by early 2013. A germ of an idea – talking to Millennials – was planted somewhere under the backside of my brain, but it was just that: an idea. I didn’t even have a title in mind. After spending too many sentient months in an office, eyes red from staring at a computer screen, my immediate goals were as primitive as they come. I wanted to get sweaty, run around with my shirt off, guzzle a beer under the sun, and work a set of muscles other than my fingers. And for my first few weeks in the north woods, that was all I did.


576327_10100694067679659_1977284003_nOnce November rolled around and the first snows began to blanket New Hampshire, I had begun to outline the thesis and logistics of Drive All Night in their earliest incarnation. Having time to enjoy a stripped-down version of life in the outdoors allowed me to distill the concept into a collection of journeyman-style interviews that I could actually present to a publisher and say, “By the way, would you mind giving me about $10,000 so that I can spend the next year writing this?”

In case you’re wondering what a book proposal entails, here’s a rough breakdown of what you’ll find inside most large envelopes addressed to a publishing house.

  1. Title Page
  2. Table of Contents
  3. Overview – A 1-2 page summary of what your book is about.
  4. Author Bio – Self promotion. Why are YOU the ideal person to write this book.
  5. Audiences – What kind of people will plunk down $15-30 a pop to read your book.
  6. Comparative Titles – How is your book different from the market competition.
  7. Marketing – List the ways you’ll promote your book. (This is the fattest section.)
  8. Chapter Summaries – At least 1-2 paragraphs per chapter synopsis.
  9. Sample Chapters – Throw in 1-3 full chapters to loosen the publisher’s purse strings.
  10. Delivery – Estimate the book’s final wordcount, supplemental materials (illustrations, graphics, etc) and the time you’ll need to complete the manuscript.

Of course, the toughest task of this whole process is finding an agent who believes in your voice and ideas. And in the weeks leading up to Christmas, that’s what I set about trying to accomplish. On occasional visits to Boston, I took several authors whom I had met through magazine assignments out for drinks and discussed the process. I combed online literary journals and even message boards, assembling a list of agents who might be drawn to a project like Drive All Night. By the day I found myself snowshoeing out of the White Mountains with a backpack full of primeval-smelling clothes, returning to the city for deep winter – I had sent my query and proposal to almost thirty agents.

Some of the responses rolled back within days. You can usually tell the verdict by the way each letter begins. If it starts with “Dear Writer” or my personal favorite, “Hello there” – it means your introductory letter didn’t cause any eyebrows to arch. A more personalized response indicates that your proposal was viewed with at least one set of human eyes, which is a major breakthrough.

Almost all of the direct letters I received seemed to say, “We like your writing style, we think this idea is interesting, and there’s an audience for it. But the vehicle you’ve chosen for the story seems…questionable.” They had a point, I realized. Because something I neglected to tell you all – in any earlier posts or the informational sectons of this blog – is that Drive All Night was going to involve me walking from Washington DC to San Francisco in the course of a year.

usaPeter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America had branded a strong impression upon me that year, and I had thought, “What better way to meet all ilk of young people than simply walking everywhere?” The idea made a lot of sense to me in the moment, before I started thinking of Drive All Night from a more pragmatic perspective. It wasn’t until I was receiving rejection letters when I stopped and realized, if I stubbornly chose to pursue Drive All Night this way, the book would take almost two years to live and write, cost over $30,000, and put me in the path of very real dangers like speeding trucks, nonexistant sidewalks, and deranged souls who spend their nights trolling roadside campgrounds with machetes.

I might have felt amenable to all those factors, but for any sensible publisher – my early vision of Drive All Night was too risky an investment.

Instead of crying into a fistful of crumpled rejection letters, I focused on the silver lining. The door to further conversation with at least one agent was essentially open. I just had to figure out how to make Drive All Night fit through the frame. And one windy afternoon in early January, stuck in traffic on I-93 near Somerville, the epiphany came: in the form of a grimy long-distance bus, belching black smoke as it passed me and the other vehicles stuck by the carpool lane.

a.baa-The-Bus-In-Your-HomeNot only would traveling by rusty, forlorn cattle carriers like Greyhound make Drive All Night more irreverent and economically feasible, but it would be a more social means of travel than walking. After all, America is one BIG place. And between every town or city, there lies untold miles of cornfields, forests, and desert. None of which are ideal places to encounter Millennials in the prime of their life.

When I finally gathered the nerve to approach one of the more receptive agents I had corresponded with to discuss the revised idea, I was jittery. This new vision of Drive All Night made sense to such a stronger degree than my primary pitch, I didn’t know what I’d do if the agent I had queried found it worse or laughable. But after several email exchanges, the agent – whom I’ll call “Alanna” – and I arrived at a promising precipice of “Let’s work on this.”

So – aside from launching – I’ve been spending the last month “working” intensely on the new proposal for Drive All Night. This has involved researching and writing different sample chapters and remodeling almost every section completely. But the intent of the book – profiling Millennials who have achieved happiness on their own terms, in tough times – has remained the same throught this entire journey. And that’s something I’m deeply grateful for.

Convincing someone else to fund your own project is always a dodgy venture. In almost every case, compromises have to be made. What matters most is whether the person backing your material can recognize and identify with its central thesis. In theory, if they’re giving you money, they will. But creative partners don’t always see eye-to-eye. Ultimately, mutual understanding is what keeps the compromises from becoming concessions.

I’ll be sure to keep everyone here updated on the status of Drive All Night the book. Right now, I’m squeezing out the last paragraphs of Sample Chapter #2. From there, it’ll be several hours of saucer-eyed editing, proofreading, a preemptive swig of whiskey, and finally, proposal submission via Gmail to a list of waiting recipients.

Check back soon for news, and for this weekend’s Millennial interview. And as always, thanks for swinging by!



One thought on “So You’re Selling A Manuscript…

  1. Rebecca Fraser-Thill

    I enjoyed reading your account of this process and commend your perseverance. I, too, am working from book proposal, to blog, back to book proposal. I started my proposal five years ago, talked to some agents and getting similar feedback to yours – “good idea, good writing, there’s an audience…” – but I kept being told I needed to have a platform (i.e., get a blog going). After wrestling an intense fear of failure into some level of submission (at least enough to finally start the blog…) here I am. I’m meeting with another agent in May, and need to finish up my proposal this month. So I’m right there with you. Here’s to it working out for both of us! Cross-promotion, here we come! Best of luck.


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