The most common red flags I see in nonfiction book proposals by otherwise qualified authors
These things aren't just unnecessary; they indicate to me that an author is still focused on meeting their own emotional needs and hasn't thought enough about their audience's.
Longtime “Glow” stans will be familiar with my basic stance on what leads talented, qualified authors to write unsellable nonfiction: their pages exhibit a lack of emotional intimacy with the people in their target audience.
On the whole, the vast majority of book proposals written and submitted to agencies every year aren’t sellable for more basic reasons than that: e.g. bad writing, bad ideas, and insufficient author platform.
However, once we get to the stratosphere—the accomplishment tier comprising most of the people who subscribe to this newsletter—editorial problems get more subtle. They’re also harder to fix, at least in my opinion.
Sure, it can be a real slog to raise one’s platform by, say, first becoming a nationally-known expert on the topic about which one wishes to write a book. On the other hand, what you have to do there is a known known, a kind of arithmetic: more bylines, more conferences, etc.
Likewise, it can take years to learn how to write with literary flair and charisma, but there are classes and books all over the place for that.
The real reason these problems aren’t terribly difficult to fix, however, is that fixing them is for the most part unchallenging to the ego. Of course it can be embarrassing and upsetting to realize that one doesn’t have the résumé or talent for commercial book publication yet. Remedying that, however, involves a process of Logical Upward Incremental Growth Iteration. And for those of us brainwashed by capitalism, nothing feels better—or more like what we’re “supposed to be doing”— than a good LUIGI.
At the advanced level, however, turning one’s unsellable nonfiction into something sellable generally requires descent. The opposite of a climb.
To get to the core of what’s not working on the page, one generally has to go on an inward journey—deep, deep into the core of one’s being and the nature of one’s intimate inadequac(ies). Anxiety. Codependence. Shame. Rejection sensitivity. Trauma. Alexithymia (a psychological term meaning “one who cannot consciously identify what one is truly feeling in a given moment”). Little-n narcissism. Longing.
Such work is pure WALUIGI: the Willful Abandonment of Logic, Incremental Growth, and [predictable] Iteration to focus on why previous growth left you looking kinda wonky inside.
WALUIGI involves taking a deep breath, temporarily declining the interpellative call of capitalism (“Produce! Produce! Produce!”), identifying whatever subconscious net one is tangled in, acquiring some kind of improvisational marlinspike, and using it to disentangle oneself, at least within the limited space of one’s book project.
WALUIGI feels rudderless. It feels uncertain. It feels too slow and like going nowhere. It feels like writhing in psycho-emotional brain worms.
In a word, WALUIGI feels bad. So much so that I have watched more than one author over the course of my career drop their publishing dreams and run away screaming (or run toward a yes-man agent and ultimate failure on submission) rather than sit in WALUIGI for one more second.
Most of the time, though, authors who understand they need to struggle with WALUIGI stick with it, and in the end, their discomfort pays off. Once they’ve disentangled themselves from their inner Emotional Bleh, readers don’t just admire their pages; they covet them. It’s easy for people in their target audience (and acquiring editors familiar with these people’s buying habits) to spot the value for them in what these authors have to say.
Are you an author theoretically qualified to write whatever work of nonfiction it is that you want to write, but struggling to make it connect? Have agents and/or editors consistently told you that they’re just not feeling passionate about or motivated by or connected to your pages?
Has someone like that told you they’re not sure how to “position this” or “attract buyers in quantity,” even though you and everyone with a brain knows there are readers who would theoretically love and/or need to read this kind of book by you?
Well, darling, that means it’s almost certainly WALUIGI time. The moment calls out for you to come to a new (or at least deeper) level of emotional intelligence, relational skill, and intimate self-understanding. Will you answer?
Since this is an impersonal newsletter, I of course can’t tell you exactly what your emotional problems are or how to begin disentangling yourself from them. (For what it’s worth, though, I’ve talked through common scenarios in many previous newsletters.)
What I’m going to focus on instead today is where exactly to spot tangles of intimate dysfunction on the page. That way you can at least check those places and see if you happen to spot entanglement.
Perhaps you haven’t gotten to the stage of querying agents and/or editors yet. You have no idea if they’re going to give you that “I just don’t connect with this” type feedback, but you do want to avoid hearing as much down the line.
Perhaps you have heard feedback like that, but you’re a concrete weeds-level thinker and have no idea where exactly you’re going wrong. You’re desperate for someone to point out some specific examples of what they mean.
Either way: I GOT YOU, GURL. I unfortunately don’t got u for any of the hard emotional work that comes after; that can only be done by you, ideally in relationship with a competent therapist, or at least a book or two written by one. But I got u at least for the initial pre-WALUIGI recon.
If any of the following elements are present in your book proposal right now, consider it a big, flapping flag that says I NEED ME SOME WALUIGI. Not all the signs are this obvious, but many are: