categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Let’s say you have an idea for a nonfiction book, whether it’s a memoir, an extended personal essay, journalism, or something else. It’s hard to get started, isn’t it? Or if easy enough to get started, hard to keep going. Part of the problem is knowing where to start, and after that, where to go.
Or you’ve finished a draft of a book and the chaptering came willy-nilly as you composed. There are holes in the narrative or in the stream of argument. The sections are of all sizes and methods and shapes. There’s no sense of progression, or if there is, the progression seems to stutter.
Or say you’ve written four essays on a related theme. Growing up in Nigeria, for example. Or your life as a teacher and coach. Or in my case, more than 20 years ago, on my adventures in nature with my then girlfriend (now wife) Juliet.
Or take it a little further–you’ve thought quite a bit on your subject and have some preliminary chapters put together and you want to go ahead and pitch your book idea to editors or agents.
Or back up a little: You haven’t written much at all, but you’d like to explore the possibility of writing a book on your subject of choice.
In each case and many others I advocate the annotated table of contents. It’s a simple thing. You give your book idea a title, if it hasn’t already got one, and then you decide arbitrarily on a number of chapters. Ten or fifteen or twenty–doesn’t matter. Then you make yourself a table of contents, each chapter with a title of its own followed by a two-or-three line description.
One exercise I give to writers who haven’t written much is to think what book they might write in an ideal world, one in which they had all the time and money and talent and skills they needed. What would be in chapter one?
Sometimes you can’t quite answer that, but you know that such-and-such an event or idea must be in the middle. So start there: Chapter 7: We begin to breed dalmations. And fill in the annotation (which amounts to a descripton of the contents of that fantasy chapter), as best you can, several sentences or more. Chapter 7 should begin to suggest what should be in chapters 6 and 8. So fill those in a little, too.
If you’re the one with the four related essays–declare them chapters. Where would they each fit in the greater story that links them? What chapters are missing, and what would be in them? Your lines of annotation might grow to include research notes, and maybe passages and portions of what you will eventually write–sometimes, the annotations can grow into chapters, practically on their own.
If you’re ready to try a book proposal on editors or agents, an annotated table of contents is a very helpful item to include. Your writing samples will prove your skills, and your pitch will lay out the nub of your idea, but the table of contents will illustrate the shape of the proposed project, make it possible for potential supporters to picture it whole.
My first book, Summers with Juliet, came about because my friend Betsy Lerner (who at the time was an editor and is now my agent), read four seemingly unrelated essays I’d written in grad school and noticed that all four had to do with a life in nature, and further, that all of them involved Juliet, something a little different. Betsy suggested I put together a table of contents. The pieces I’d written all fell into the middle of the portrait of a future book that emerged. I’d met Juliet in the summer, so that must be chapter one. We’d gotten married in the summer, eight years later, so that must be the last chapter. I let chronology rule, and filled in the blank spots with chapters that filled in what was missing, this summer, then that.
Always, the best thing to do is start writing. The annotated table of contents can help. The next thing is to keep going: pick a chapter that’s gone unwritten, and get to work.