Friday, March 08, 2013

The relationship between Mallomars and NF book proposals

In a recent conversation with a writer, I tried to explain why a non-fiction book proposal needed more than just new information: he had to explain the significance of the new information.

We floundered around for a while trying to pinpoint what I meant.

Here's what I came up with:

Imagine that two thousand years in the future, archaeologists are reconstructing my life. I am a very very famous historical figure because I am both a human being and a shark. Everyone "knows" this because my shark image survived, as did some of my apartment and some of my writing.  (Why I am famous is left to your imagination.)

As with all reconstructed lives there are some questions. One thing though that people KNOW is I am a Zoroastrian.  They are certain of this because my writing frequently references "platform."   Historians have surmised I am a Zoroastrian because Zoroastrians place their dead on platforms (no, really!) to be eaten by vultures and thus returned to the cycle of life. What else could platform mean?

One day the archaeologists discover a cache of odd objects. Paper, bound in leather, indexed***.  It looks like a series of lists, arranged by date. Lists of things believed to be food items: pasta, coffee, creamer, Mallomars, cheddar cheese.

There are hundreds of these lists, a real find.

Historians set to work analyzing the new information.  They organize the list to see which items appear most often, and the least often. They puzzle over "lettuce" (A cache of the writings of Travis Erwin comes to light years later and that mystery is solved)

One clever undergraduate notices that periodically the lists do NOT include coffee or Mallomars. She creates an excel spread sheet to match items with dates.

It soon becomes clear that coffee and Mallomars disappear from the list for about six weeks every spring.  The dates are not consistent but the six week time period is.

The undergraduate, keen on finishing her thesis, graduating and running off to Antarctica for a beach holiday (hello, global warming) digs around diligently. She consults tide tables, weather patterns, election results, bail bonds records, astrology charts, and casting calls from Pixar Studios.

Soon she realizes the six week period is always linked to the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.

Wait a second. Isn't that the period a small sect of Christians known only as "cat-licks" called Lent, and observed by giving up things. Things like coffee and chocolate?

But we know she's  Zoroastrian, everyone knows that.

Except maybe not.

This casts a whole new light on things. It's a very SIGNIFICANT discovery because it challenges a long held belief.

And if platform doesn't mean Zoroastrian platforms, then what does it mean?  Well, that's a topic for a graduate thesis, hello Antarctica here I come.

And that in a nutshell (or a grocery bag) is what a non-fiction book proposal must explain: why this book is significant. Why it matters.

You can have the cache of grocery lists, but you have to tell me why it's significant.  You can have a great story but you have to be able to explain why it's important.  "It's my life" is not the correct answer.

This is where most personal memoir fails the "is this publishable" test: most lives are not significant. They may be interesting (or at least I hope they are to the people who lived them) but it's rare to find a memoir that includes something that is significant to a large group of people.

***no, I do not really print, index and bind my grocery lists, all reports to the contrary.


Dustyn said...

This also applies to fiction doesn't it? I mean most fiction books give at least a snippet of the main character's life. So then in a query shouldn't you also be able to explain why this life is important?

Richard Gibson said...

What, there are excel spreadsheets in the future?

Anonymous said...

I used to teach with a woman, who taught Arthur Miller's The Crucible without mentioning Joseph McCarthy. Her students were confused about why they were required to read the work. They missed the point, and she missed an opportunity to make a difference.

therese patrick, author said...

This is the most awesome blog post I've read in months, years....

I hope we meet someday. Until then,


Janet Reid said...

Dustyn, I don't think this applies to fiction at all. For fiction, I want to know about the plot, not why a character is significant.

Janet Reid said...

Yes, but Word was banned so think of it as a tradeoff.

Kitty said...

(I totally blew Lent.)

Sara said...

Thank you, Janet, for helping me see what my memoir query is missing. A thousand walks with the dogs hasn't helped me figure this out and the funny thing is I can answer the Why is it significant question. Just never thought to put it in writing.
A "Yeesh" moment.

Dustyn said...

Janet, thank you for showing me what I've been doing wrong with my query. It focuses more on the main character than what is actually happening. I mean I give an overview of what's happening, but I don't delve into the nuts and bolts of the plot. Thanks.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I thought it would be because Mallomar factories get closed for the summer, but "springtime" is too early on the timeline for that.

Is it sad that people who pave roads never have overlap with Mallomars (because asphalt plants close for the winter)? Unless they cache them in the freezer or something?

(though I guess that's regionally based as well)

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

You don't have a binder full of grocery lists? You might want to think about starting one, lest that far-future society mistakenly believe you're a Zoroastrian! Either that, or print out this post and laminate it, for posterity. :D

Janet Reid said...

Jennifer, that was one of the theories the undergrad researcher considered, but it did not explain the absence of coffee from the list.

Also, Mallomars DO freeze. Quite nicely.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh yes, frozen Mallomars are right up there with frozen Charleston Chews (which I used to buy at the beach)!

My factory hypothesis certainly doesn't hold up to the scrutiny, though it is fun to think about that strange divergence.

(giving up coffee and Mallomars for Lent is rough. Godspeed!)

Colin Smith said...

Richard: I had the same thought--"they're still using Excel spreadsheets in 2,000 years?" :)

Janet: An important qualification at the end of your post: Most lives are not significant "TO A LARGE GROUP OF PEOPLE." Not every life makes for a memoir that a lot of people will want to read, but I'm sure you agree that every life is significant. :)

Steve Stubbs said...

Your reader might try Max Gunther’s WRITING AND SELLING A NON-FICTION BOOK (title from memory). It’s old, but I know a writer who has used G’s advice to sell books with one query letter. He also warns people away from writing their biographies, unless they escaped from a Turkish prison and the book is MIDNIGHT EXPRESS.

That said, you bind your grocery lists in leather? Awesome. I send my laundry lists to for immortalization, but leather, now that’s something worth Reid-ing.

Blue Sage said...

This reminded me of the science fiction book A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller about a post-apocalyptic world with monks who worship the grocery list of a 20th century Jewish saint.

Chris Desson said...

Janet, I know this was supposed to be a learning lesson. But I actually liked the story. It was funny. If it were a fiction book, I'd read it.

Unknown said...

I love this post, and I'm super impressed that you gave up coffee AND mallomars for Lent! I gave up desserts, but I couldn't do the coffee or wine (and I drink decaf).

Rebekkah Niles said...

On further study, one grad student proposes that Zoroastrians began as an offshoot of cat-licks. She provides the evidence of the extreme profusion of widely diverse cat pictures on the internet ("cute cats" celebrating life versus "grumpy cats" to humble people), showcasing a major theological division within the ranks, and the timing coincidence of this division with Reid's lifetime. Clearly this is a follower who was living during the debate, during the time period when the two branches were still somewhat connected.

Further proof compares the similarity of the Zoroastrian habit of splicing shark genetics with human genetics, and the cat-lick tendency to eat fish during that same 6-week period. She's currently seeking a research grant to further study the immense database known as the "Interwebz" for other noteworthy similarities.