Friday, September 28, 2007

A Pantser Speaks: Writing the Book Proposal

How cool is this? The blogosphere puts us all within only a couple of degrees of separation.

On September 8th, I posted The Pantsers' P.O.V. in response to a A Question for Pantsers by C.S. Harris, who wondered how seat-of-the-pants authors write book proposals. I posted a link for "To Outline or Not to Outline," an Internet Writing Journal article by Timothy Hallinan. In it, Hallinan described the writing process of a writer who doesn't like to plot his books ahead of time.

Within a few days, Tim Hallinan himself contacted me. I wrote back to him, and he offered to send me an article on how he writes book proposals.

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Tim Hallinan's A Nail Through the Heart (William Morrow, June 2007), first in his new Poke Rafferty thriller series, was a July BookSense Pick and has garnered high praise. Kirkus Reviews calls it "ultimately enthralling"; BookSense calls it "first of a truly remarkable series"; NYT bestselling author John Lescroart says, "Hallinan's a writer's writer, and this is great stuff"; NYT bestselling author T. Jefferson Parker calls the book ", bold, disturbing and beautifully written."

Tim's bio on the book flap states:

Timothy Hallinan divides his time between Los Angeles and Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand, where he has lived off and on for more than twenty years. As a principal in one of America's top television-based public-relations firms, he represented programs sponsored by many Fortune 500 companies and pioneered new methods of making television programming accessible to teachers. He also taught writing for many years.

I am thrilled to present Tim Hallinan as my first guest blogger. Welcome, Tim!

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I can't outline. For one thing, I don't think that way. I think that plot is what characters do, not a box to squeeze characters into.

For another, the one time I tried to write a novel to an outline, it bored me silly. I wasn't having fun, and I think that fun is one of the kinds of energy that finds its way onto the page. So I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer who comes up with a basic situation and a handful of characters and then lets the characters lead me through the story.

So how do I write a book proposal?

One answer is that I actually don't. I write series novels, which makes things a little easier. The publisher is invested in the idea of the series continuing, so they usually accept a truncated outline, which I'll describe in a second. But I've sold the first book in both of my series by writing the whole damn thing and then submitting it. And I wish I could write them all that way.

However, the way contracts are written, the first payment on books three and four is signaled by acceptance of a proposal. So this is what I do.

I figure out my basic situation and who the main characters might be. Then I write four or five chapters (say, 10,000 words) to make sure I actually want to write it. (I don't want to be stuck for a year with a story that's going to die on me.) By that point, I've created some momentum and I usually know where I'm going, at least through the first major reversal in the book. I write a proposal to that point and then generalize on where I think it's going from there. I throw in anything and everything that's both plausible and (in one way or another) exciting. THIS IS NOT AN OUTLINE. It's something like, "But Poke finds that the best intentions can have unforeseen consequences . . ." and then throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Then I share it with a few people and add any good ideas they have. After my agent says it looks okay, I send it to my editor.

And then, when I write the book, I pretty much forget about it. I figure that no editor will question whether I stuck to the proposal if the finished book is better than the proposal. So far, I've been lucky and I haven't had one sent back.

Hope this is helpful to someone.

Tim Hallinan


cs harris said...

Very interesting! Thanks, Sphinxy.

Lisa said...

This is very interesting AND it is helpful. Thank you Sphinx and Tim!

Charles Gramlich said...

That's pretty cool. And yes, not much distance online between people. I enjoyed Hallinan's commentary. It gives me hope for myself since I generally write the same way. I do sometimes have a general idea how things will come together at the end, but it isn't very detailed.

Bernita said...

~grovelling on knees~
Thank you.
That's the way I write.

Sphinx Ink said...

C.S., I know deep in your highly-organized, efficient plotter's soul, you're thinking, "How on earth can a writer be productive working tha way?" At least now you know how us pantsers operate. Some of us, like Tim, are even successful!

Lisa, I'm glad you enjoyed the article and I know Tim will be also. I hope you've checked out his website and blog via the links in my original post.

Charles, good to know you enjoyed the article and you as well as Tim (and other authors such as Tony Hillerman and Jo Beverley) are proof that pantsers can not only be published, but also excellent writers.

Bernita, I can't lay claim to the kudos, which should go to Tim. I do hope you've checked out his website and blog and left a message for him there with your praise. I know he'll be pleased. Thanks for commenting on my blog.