Freedman's Law: Start with a good idea

So, you want to write a book. If you've never been published, that's the biggest barrier, since you have a higher burden of proof, says Samuel Freedman, an author who teaches nonfiction book writing at Columbia University. But his students prove that it can be done.

"How to" books and articles about publishing overemphasize marketing, says Mr. Freedman.

"A book proposal is not a business plan," he says, although he adds that authors do have to show that there is an audience for their book.

Here are Freedman's tips on how to get a book contract:

*Get the right idea. It should be "both timely and timeless" and lend itself to a book-length piece. "One obstacle is understanding the difference between a great magazine piece and a book," he says.

*Read. Examine well-reported, narrative nonfiction books as models. Among the writers Freedman admires are Robert Caro and Alex Kotlowitz.

*Look at successful proposals. Get them from authors and agents. "The great proposals are not about markets, they're about the power of the narrative," Freedman says. His proposals include a sample chapter, and an overview essay that outlines the book, its characters, and significance.

*Block out time for reporting, researching, and writing a proposal. "It has to be something you love and are ready to sacrifice for; otherwise it's not the right idea for you," says Freedman, who spends three to 12 months developing a proposal.

*Get an agent. Find one who has handled similar work and send your proposal.

*Build a network of other writers, who can give you feedback and emotional support.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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