3 Things to Do When the Series Parameters Are Vague at Best

What to do when the author’s guidelines offer no guidance.

Earlier this week I started working on a new project. Admittedly, I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to the guidelines when I took the job. I was in the middle of another book and I knew the dangers of losing my focus. Suffice it to say that this one was giving me fits and required all my energy. Some projects are just like that.

Yesterday, I opened the guidelines and read through them. Hmm. They may as well have said “write a book on Canada and do it in 5 chapters, ta da!” No, this isn’t about Canada but it also hasn’t been announced yet. So we’re pretending.

But all they gave me was the title and subtitle, the word count, the reading level, the number of chapters, and the special features. That sounds like a lot and I could run with this if I had worked with the publisher before. For a new-to-me publisher? Not really.

I could have taken a stab at it. After all, I turn in a chapter and an outline and rework it with feedback from my editor. But I have to admit that I like to at least get it close. Otherwise I have to rework the outline before I can really dive into the book.

I couldn’t just contact my editor and say, “Exactly what do they want?” After all, writing the book is my job. So what to do?

1. Ask for a mentor text.

Honestly, this should be your number one. My editor couldn’t give me a mentor text on a related topic because this is the first book in this particular area. But the book he sent me shows the level of detail that they want. It shows how the end the introduction and the tone with which they conclude the book. It gives me some idea how the chapters relate to each other in an incredibly broad topic. And it gives me a feel for voice.

2. Ask specific questions.

As is the case with many nonfiction titles for the school library market, this book needs to open with a narrative scene. My topic covers something like 300 years. So I asked my editor where in the timeline it should fit. Speaking of timelines, I need to create one of those too. All in all, I came up with three very specific questions.

My editor wants me to get it right with as little effort as possible. He’s also a bit chatty when he isn’t in a rush. So he gave me more info than I asked for, but I had to start the conversation. When you do this, make sure you aren’t asking “yes or no” questions. You want as much info as possible.

3. Don’t forget the big picture.

While I was at it, I sketched out a super short outline. If it was 30 words long, I’d be surprised. I bounced that off him too. This will let him know if I’m seeing the big picture.

It’s impossible to over-emphasize just how vital this is. Because if your overall focus is wrong, you are going to have to rethink the whole project. Suffice it to say, that I’ve been there rather recently.

All it took was one email and a response from my editor but now I feel like I can move forward with confidence. Between his responses and the mentor text, I know that he and I have the same goal in sight.

And that’s a whole lot better than “write a book on Canada.”


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