Virgin Birth (The Making of a Book), con’t

Note: This is the second part of a series of blog entries between now and the end of the year, in which I talk a little (or a lot) about how Tinsel got made. You can read Episode 1 (“the Idea”) here. Today’s entry is about writing the proposal. If it bores you to absolute tears, skip it. When I was most miserable working on Tinsel, it helped me to read other authors’ blogs about how they did their books, and no detail was ever too small.

Episode 2: I Propose!

So. I’d opened my mouth and put the idea out there. Editor and agent were interested in this: A nonfiction book that would be a journalistic social study on the impact of Christmas on the American economy and psyche. (But funny! And yet serious!)

2004463246062841703_rsNow I had to write a book proposal. This was the summer of 2005. I remember promising that I would have a draft of the proposal ready for my agent to look at in a month or two — by early fall at least.

I didn’t.

Let me say this: Even writing a fucking blog item about how to write a book proposal is a chore, at least for me. There’s something about “speculative” writing that just eludes me. It’s the language of what will be, based on half of what you may now know. Maybe it would be easier if I’d spent all these years writing market strategies or grant proposals. Certainly it would have been easier if I’d built a career out of freelance magazine writing, where all you do is write extremely precise, confident letters in the language of pitch-and-propose. I have been trained to write for publication, with the pub date being RIGHT NOW! PANIC!, resulting in something you can hold in your hand hours later. This provides the wonderful, if possibly delusional (we have so many readers!), rocket fuel that makes a newsroom a busy, high-pressure place.

Also, for many years, all my story pitches to my excitable Washington Post editor, Henry Allen, have gone something like:

Hank Stuever: What about something on blue tarps?

Henry Allen: Yesssss.

Which is a long way of saying that I made something that should have been easy — a 20-page proposal — a lot harder, simply by psyching myself into a brain freeze.

How I (finally) went at it: I worked from the basic idea that Christmas is at once America’s favorite moment and also its biggest mindfuck. Yet, I didn’t want a book that would assault Christmas (which would be stupid, and has been done) or mock it (ditto). Still, I wanted it to show Christmas as it is lived – not in gauzy, quaint Hallmark imagery but in the realm of the new normal, out there in the malls and box stores.

images-1Evening-by-evening, weekend-by-weekend, I started educating myself about Christmas. I read bits and pieces in books by historians who’ve done some of the best work on the subject: Stephen Nissenbaum and Karal Ann Marling at first, then others. I began paying deeper attention – for the first time, really – to the sky-is-falling, no-it-isn’t retail journalism that shows up every day in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.

I sought out any journalistic narrative work on Christmas: Had anyone ever done a book (or even a long magazine article?) that focused just on one family’s experiences with the holiday year-in and year-out, tallying all their purchases and dramas? (Not that I could find, not so much. Almost all nonfiction about Christmas is categorized as history or memoir.) I also did some casual sniffing around the academic research – most of which falls within the areas of economics or mental/social health. Found a hilarious paper published in a psychiatry journal that strongly discouraged having Santa Claus pay personal visits to hospitalized schizophrenics. (Ya think?)

evil santa!!

I also looked critically at the mountain of holiday themed pop-culture and literary material. Holy shit. The movies and TV specials alone could be a 500-page book. One guy, Jody Rosen, wrote a book (and a pretty good one) just about one song – White Christmas.

images-3I took a real long look at the weirder writing that’s been done on the subject, starting of coursesedaris_urinal with David Sedaris, the category killer, whose Holidays on Ice has sold a squillion copies. Please note that all editions of this book are small enough to be stocking stuffers.

From there, the holiday memoir genre falls off and gets deeply unfunny and cliché.

Christmas ’05 itself came and went, and once again, my boyfriend Michael and I failed to do much besides string some lights on the balcony, show up for and happily partake in his family stuff in Maryland, and give one another presents. My family doesn’t get together for the holidays (but we keep in touch — we do love one another, honest). I’d stopped sending all my friends my weird little clip-art Christmas ‘zine that I used to make and photocopy every year. I realized that I might not have enough love for the holiday to sustain myself through the experience of writing a book about it.


I also doubted my ability to write a book at all, about anything.

But I kept coming back to the real reason I wanted to do the project: all the subjects I do love writing about intersect with Christmas. Suburban lifestyles, over-the-top behavior, consumer madness, huge displays of religiosity. And things like family dynamics, the good times and bad, the shopping malls, the loss of innocence, the sustainability of human/consumer want, and the ookiness and zaniness of family relationships. I began to see that a book about Christmas would actually be about of 21st-century America in the almighty exurbs.

images-4Great. Which exurb? I went overboard researching and hunting for a place to move and report the book. I read a lot of demographics and data about exurban communities outside Atlanta, outside Charlotte, outside Denver. Then I thought about the Kansas City ’burbs. I read store directories to shopping malls (old malls and new malls) and Census data and other demographic studies. I was drawn to the suburbs on the northern edge of Columbus, Ohio – there was a huge new outdoor mall/mixed use development, and a lot of malls in the city that had seen better days.

My original idea was to tell the story of Christmas in America through the prism of two malls: one mall that was in decline, and the “new” mall where everyone now went. (Or in Chris Rock’s description: “The mall where the white people shop and the mall where the white people used to shop!”). My goal was to focus intensely on the lives of a few families who shopped at either mall, or both.


With a novel, you’d have most if not all of it written before you pitched it to an agent or publisher. But unless the proposed nonfiction book is based on material that’s already in hand (such as a magazine article in which merely a fraction of the good stuff got published), the writing is largely … pretend. You’re proposing. You’re dreaming big. You use what you have thus far and insist on your vision for discovering and delivering the rest. You’re afraid of it being too light, too trivial, and THEN you worry that it’s too dry, heavy. Then you do laundry, watch TV. Finally you go to Barnes & Noble and look at all the dumb books out there and think, well how bad can mine really be?

images-5My agent, Helpful Heather, sent me copies of two successful proposals from her authors: One was Jeff MacGregor’s Sunday Money. The other was Eizabeth Royte’s Garbage Land.

MacGregor spent a year in an RV following the NASCAR circuit for a true outsider look at the sport and culture, without sneer. Royte’s book was a textured but hardcore exploration of trash, waste, recycling, landfills – crammed with information and anecdotes from throwaway America.

images-6Both proposals intimidated me in all the right ways. They were concise, sharp, entertaining, and sure of themselves. Publishers paid good advances for them and excellent books resulted, books that delivered on their authors’ original proposals. Heather also felt they were the right length – 25 or so double-spaced pages; long enough to tantalize and short enough for busy editors. I’m a Catholic-school kid all the way: show me an example of good work and I will set about emulating it while also trying to subvert the form.

In late January, I wrote a rough draft of my proposal trying to focus my ideas and ambition for the book. Heather read it and didn’t think we were ready to show it to an editor. She had a lot of suggestions and edits. I started on another draft and re-sent it to her a week or so later. She liked it much better. It was titled Xmas: The American Way of Yule.

I just re-read it last night — 3-1/2 years later. In some ways, it’s exactly the book Tinsel wound up being:

“… to move to a community and tell stories about people trying to once again achieve their ideal Christmas. My sense is that their stories will be both hilarious and melancholy. When held up to examination, Christmas challenges the logic of all common sense. People know this. They know that stuff won’t make them as happy as they hope it will … they know the “true meaning,” and many try to live it. But then ‘Xmas’ gets in the way – an irresistible force. … It is my plan to accompany some of these Christmas dreamers as they live it, shop for it, loathe it, adore it, pray for it, and pay for it. …”

The title (“Xmas”) was deliberately provocative, meant to suggest that the Christian meaning had images-7long been mowed over by the retail holiday; the subtitle (“The American Way of Yule”) is a play on Jessica Mitford’s landmark 1963 book about the funeral industry, The American Way of Death, a muckraking journalism classic. While I proposed looking closely at the economics of Christmas and its impact on global trade, I was most interested in proposing a story, rather than an exposé.

Most of my proposal was about a cockamamie personal adventure, and I wrote it that way: To move in late summer 2006 to a “Midwestern”-ish city (i.e., Columbus) and partake in whatever came my way. (I had not yet met and fallen for sexy Frisco, Texas.)

Once there, I proposed, I’d acquaint myself with the community and look for families or individuals willing to let a writer follow them through the holiday season. I thought the book should have three to five families or character-situations in it. For some reason (15 years of feature writing?) I wasn’t too worried about finding the actual people. And for several pages I explained how the story would focus on two shopping malls as a center of the action – one mall new and shiny and hip, and the other mall on the skids.

I wrote some about the tone I thought the book should take. Re-reading the proposal now that it’s over, I think this is the part of Xmas that was most off-base. I envisioned something far less intimate than the book wound up being. The writer who wrote the proposal had not fully opened his mind (or heart) to what was ahead. Nothing in this proposal anticipates the complexity of the stories that would come, nor the enormity of the overriding subject (Christmas), nor the difficulty in telling it.

I guess that’s what prevents me from posting the entire proposal here and letting everyone read the whole thing. It’s just … off. It’s about a writer at a vulnerable spot. He’s trying to talk himself into believing in the book and trying to get others to believe in it too. He’s mostly tap-dancing, instead of doing the really hard work he is both hoping to do and dreading at the same time.

images-9Most laughable about my proposal is that I promised the reporting would wrap up (so neatly!) in early 2007 and that I would somehow magically crank out a first draft in about six months, by July 2007. My final act of hubris was estimating that my manuscript would land exactly and cleanly at 80,000 words. (Another hah-hah.)

Here’s what did work about it. It made me want to write the book.

I look at this 22-page proposal now and think: If I were an editor at a publishing house, I would buy this book. (I also think: What a load of crap.)

In any case, on April 11, 2006, ten months after I’d first talked about the idea, the following went out on Publishers Marketplace, a web site that reports new book deals all day long. I’d proposed, I’d got an offer, and we had a contract:

>>Washington Post “Style” writer Hank Stuever’s XMAS: THE AMERICAN WAY OF YULE, chronicling the lives, debts, and desires of a group of suburbanites during a manic holiday season, to George Hodgman at Holt, by Heather Schroder at ICM (world).

Next: Frisco.


  1. Suzanne on August 20, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Love it…eager to get my copy of Tinsel. Also, it’s interesting to learn about this process which I knew nothing about. Thanks.

  2. Tricia on September 15, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    Love this post, if only to discover that I’m not the only writer in the greater Washington area who feels clueless until a deadline forces me to be otherwise.

    (Also, the book sounds great.)

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