By the spring of 2011, four years after I’d started the Taxi Gourmet blog, I’d moved to Berlin, I had a literary agent, a lot of good press, and a book proposal that was all bones and no soul. Short of writing the whole book beforehand, I couldn’t figure out how to tell my story, or better yet, how to sell my story. I was too close to the thing. I couldn’t find the thread. I didn’t know what to leave out or what to keep in the proposal.
My sample chapters were a disaster, too — I couldn’t find the right tone, and I had no idea how to tap into that elusive thing they call ‘the writer’s voice’. Going from blog to book, I assumed my writing should take on more depth, more substance. But when I tried to infuse these qualities in my lines, they came out false and pretentious.
If at First You Don’t Succeed, Ask for Help
Finally, after eighteen months of getting nowhere with my proposal, I decided to stop with the self-flagellation and post an ad on Berlin Scholars, a Yahoo group I belong to whose members are mostly expat academics and artists:
I’m a writer struggling through a book proposal without a deadline.
I’m looking for someone in a similar predicament who can meet weekly and swap editing/insights on our respective projects. If you’re interested, please send me an email, tell me more about your project, and I’ll tell you about mine.
Three people answered my ad. Two people stood me up at the meetings we arranged, which in retrospect was a good thing, because the one person who did show up turned out to be the most gifted, generous, and talented writer and editor I could have wished for.
Sally understood my project, and she could see through all the noise to help me find the thread in my story. We started meeting every week, exchanging our writing work — mine was the Driving Hungry proposal, hers was a gorgeous novella about a journey to a sanatorium in Odessa.
We gave each other honest, constructive feedback. Not only was I learning from her comments on my work, I was also benefiting from reading her writing, which is as evocative as it is austere. What’s more, our meetings created the deadline structure I needed — I had to write a section of my proposal every week so Sally would have something to read before we met.
Out the Door, at Last
On September 1, 2011, after six weeks or so of working with Sally, I submitted a third draft of my book proposal to my agent. She responded the same day:
I just skimmed this proposal and think you’ve nailed it… I’m sure I’ll have a few, minor comments/ suggestions but this is in good enough shape that I think we’ll be able to get the proposal out the door in the next few weeks…I also like DRIVING HUNGRY as a working title…
And this is precisely what happened: my agent had a few suggestions/red lines (e.g. she wanted a bit more detail about my emotional reasons for moving to Buenos Aires in the first place), and these took me a few weeks to incorporate into the proposal.
By October 6, my agent had sent the Driving Hungry proposal to 15 New York publishers, along with a cover letter she’d written.
Within three weeks, she told me 14 of those 15 publishers had rejected my book. (Of course that hurt — how could it not?) But there was one editor at Vintage who’d read and really loved my proposal, “And would like to schedule a call on Monday to discuss your book!” she wrote, “Any chance you might be free at 11:00 EST, 5:00 Berlin time?”
Closing the Deal
My agent and I spoke on the phone before my call with the Vintage editor, so I would know what to expect. “Let him lead the conversation,” she said, “as it’s always better to respond editorial concerns than to try and predict them.”
She also sent me a tip sheet, which besides the obvious (be reliable, agreeable, enthusiastic, prepared), emphasized that I should know who the audience for my book was, that I should reread my proposal before the call since it had been through so many drafts, and that I should have an intelligent question or two for the editor.
The editor and I spoke for one heady, nerve-shattering hour, and he had some great ideas about how to tell the story of Driving Hungry. For one thing, he thought I should incorporate more of my inward journey to create a compelling narrative arc around my taxi adventures. This made sense to me. And when he told me how much he loved the story about the Buenos Aires cabbie who insisted on driving me across the intersection and refused to take my money, I felt like he understood what I was up to.
Per my agent’s instructions, I wrote a follow-up email to her after the call with the editor, thanking her for setting it up, reiterating the editor’s main points/best suggestions, and following up on an issue I didn’t think I’d addressed very well:
The editor brought up the inevitable comparison of my book with Eat, Pray, Love. I know Driving Hungry is different, but I couldn’t really articulate how. The difference, I think, is that after many people read EPL, particularly women, they felt a need to go on a three country journey, or some kind of journey, to find themselves or figure out the missing pieces in their lives.
What I want people to take away from my book is applicable wherever people are. Yes, it took me four years and three hemispheres to figure out that the best things that happen to us are the ones we don’t engineer, but one of my goals is to tell my story in such a way that readers can understand, and in the best cases be inspired by, what I learned, without getting on a plane. All they have to do is get in a taxi. Wherever they are.
A few days went by after my call with the editor. He was pitching my book to his boss at Vintage, my agent said, and the big boss at Knopf (under whose umbrella Vintage falls) who approves every single book that gets published on all their imprints. I tried to be patient while my agent reassured me that all of this negotiation was a normal part of the process.
On November 4, 2011, I got the call I’d more or less been waiting for, working for, for four years, “I have some good news, Layne…”
When I finished jumping up and down, I called Mom and Dad, “Vintage wants to publish my book!” Mom’s first words? “Now you really have to get to work.”
How right she was.
This is the third in a five-part series about how Taxi Gourmet, the food / travel blog I created in 2007, led to Driving Hungry, the book (Pantheon/Random House, 2015).