Jaed Coffin drew a diagonal line on an easel pad and called it the spine. That’s the idea of identity, he told a room of writers at a presentation Friday. Coffin drew a wavy line that curved along the diagonal one, and called it the narrative.
Then he shaded in dots where the lines intersected. “Every time your narrative crosses the spine is a moment your reader is committed to your story,” Coffin said during his presentation The Indecent Proposal: How to Sell a Book in Fifty Pages.
His session was among the 18 of 22 Faculty Presentations that have already occurred since the Stonecoast MFA summer residency started. I’m seven days into it.
Earlier that day, we had our second poetry workshop with Joy Harjo, who’s among the faculty for this half of the residency.
The first day was amazing. Harjo gave us an in-class writing assignment to either talk to or riff off our obsessions, the thing that comes up a lot in our poems. My obsession was the city. When I read my list of things I’m drawn to in urban settings, Harjo noted that everything I listed were sounds.
On our second day with her, each person brought in a poem from a poet we considered to be our poetry ancestor. I brought in Sonia Sanchez’s poem “Ballad”. We went around the table, invoking the voices of our ancestors.
Harjo’s fascinated by dreams and what they tell us. “The dreams have been my teachers since before I was born,” she told us. “There’s a lot of material in them.” She suggested that, if we really wanted to get intense with our dreams, then we should wake ourselves up around 3 a.m. to record them.
“A poem is an energetic system,” she said. “It’s very important, when we’re working on a poem, to pay attention to our dreams…that’s our library in a sense.”
That’s how we start every workshop session, which results in Harjo’s wise words echoing in my head throughout the day. When a workshop member asked what if you don’t dream, Harjo suggested taking a natural supplement. “If you’re not having dreams,” the instructor said, “vitamin B will trigger them.”
And that’s how it’s been these seven days—writers having deep discussions before the dew dries on the grass. So you can see how there’s so much to take in. Add both the faculty and graduating student presentations, and I’m convinced I need a second head to hold everything I’ve learned this residency.
After staring at the schedule, I settled on Jaed Coffin’s presentation on preparing an effective book proposal that delivers and sells the idea, that shows an agent/editor the writer understands his/her story, and gets them paid. According to Coffin, a pitch should have three parts: an A, B and C.
The “A” is the writer’s basic story. “In memoir, I think of this as your most raw experience,” Coffin said. On what writer’s should consider, he said, “It’s the elemental experience you triumphed [or] overcame.”
The “B” is your story’s story, which puts the situation/experience in context. “Often times, this larger story that deals with your experience deals with place, setting, era, epoch, region and issue,” Coffin said.
Then there’s “C”, the transcendental story. According to the instructor, it’s the synthetic effect of both “A” and “B”. “This,” he said, “is where the conflict and tension emerges.”
Using his own autobiographic books—A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday—Coffin filled in the template with his experiences.
With A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, the “A” (basic story) was the biracial American kid becomes a monk. “A simple, fundamental experience,” the instructor said. “We all have narratives with which we tell our lives.” On what writers should consider, Coffin added, “What story am I trying to tell about my character, that fundamental nugget.”
The “B” (context of situation/experience) is that his story happens in his mom’s Thai village. “There’s that one thing that tweaks the story to where they’ll be conflict,” the instructor said.
Then there’s “C” (transcendental story): the “fact I was a monk in my mom’s village complicates our idea of what it means to be American,” Coffin said.
The process was the same for Roughhouse Friday. The “A”: there’s a bar in Juneau where guys fight. “There’s something kind of charismatic about bar fights,” the instructor said. “No one looks away from a bar fight.”
The “B”: most of the guys in the bar are of Tlingit and Haida ethnicity. “Suddenly,” Coffin said, “the fight begs the question, Why?”
The “C” answers that question: the guys fight because of their ethnic identity and their cultural history. This also adds to the discussion on what it means to be American. “Somehow the merging of my experience and identity come to this larger thing,” Coffin said. Without that “larger thing,” the instructor noted, the book doesn’t have staying power. “If you just want to talk about your experience, that’s fine,” Coffin said. “But I don’t think your book will last.”
Another thing that guarantees staying power is what’s called “the spine,” which Coffin defined with an excerpt from an email his editor sent him. “It’s the thing that you keep coming back to,” writes Rebecca Saletan, of Riverhead Books. “Make a lot of digressions as long as you keep coming back to the spine.”
Coffin elaborated. “No narrative is a straight line. Good books tend to meander,” he said. “Good writers always have a good sense of the spine. That’s what keeps the reader engaged.”
Among Coffin’s examples of text with “a good sense of the spine” is Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is chronicles the struggles of the Lees, a Hmong family from Sainyabuli Province, Laos, and the misunderstandings that arise between their culture and the health care system in Merced, California.
What makes books like The Spirit Catches You successful is the “take away,” what Coffin noted makes the reader pass or recommend a book to someone else. The instructor added that most writers don’t know what the “take away” of their books are yet. “The take away is something you have to earn,” Coffin said. “I can sell a ‘C’”—the thing that’s constructed in the mind beforehand—“but I can’t sell a take away.”
When submitting a proposal to agents, the instructor noted, writers will need three things: an overview, chapter summary, and writing sample—a framework that goes against conventional wisdom, which required a longer list of items included in the proposal.
Coffin recounted a story about the mistake he made earlier in his writing career. He submitted a 140-page proposal that resembled a press kit, which included a market analysis. He advised both nonfiction and fiction writers against this. (While his presentation was for nonfiction students and the rules for other genres are slightly different, he noted that his framework also applies to fiction students.)
On bypassing conventional wisdom, Coffin said, “If you can hook an agent in five pages, to hell with a market analysis.” Chapter summaries should be no more than 15-page chapters, he noted. “Every chapter summary should have an event,” Coffin said. “A physical action should occur.”
And for nonfiction, he noted, a writing sample should be 25-65 pages. Coffin said, “No one wants to buy a 1,000-page manuscript from a no-name author.”