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The Project Book

In 2002, when Julie Powell began her Julie and Julia blog project, cooking 524 of Julia Child’s recipes in a single year, the project book was a fairly new idea. The Julie and Julia book was published in 2005, and Sony pictures made it into a movie in 2009. Today, the market is flooded with project books that cover a huge variety of topics. Just this morning I happened upon two that I’d never heard of before: The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Whole Electric Appliance from Scratch by Thomas Thwaites and The Feast Nearby: How I lost my job, buried a marriage, and found my way by keeping chickens, foraging, preserving, bartering, and eating locally (all on $40 a week) by Robin Mather. As a reader, I love project books. They give me the chance to live vicariously through another writer’s experiences.

What is The Project Book? The project book is a written record of a writer’s attempt to conquer a project. The project book can fit into a number of genres: memoir, essay collection, how-to, or self-help. In My Year with Eleanor: A Memoir, Noelle Hancock tells the story of her year trying to live out Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote, “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Throughout the course of the year, Hancock tackles a bunch of her fears and chronicles the most interesting including diving with sharks, doing stand-up comedy, and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. In cookbook/memoir/essay collection, Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch—Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods, Jennifer Reese wrote about testing the value and wisdom of cooking a variety of popular foods at home (like hot dog buns and Worcester sauce). Reese evaluated each food item based on three questions: *Should you make it or buy it? *How much of a hassle is making it? *How much does each option cost?

How Writers Create Project Books. Many writers who do project books begin their venture solely for their own well-being. Some writers create their books after the project is done. Other writers work on the project in public, via a blog or video diary. For some of those writers, the blog gets enough attention to attract a book deal. Late last year, the Penguin Group sent me a review copy of River Jordan’s book Praying For Strangers: An Adventure of the Human Spirit. Jordan began her project with a New Year’s resolution: to pray for a different stranger every day for a year. At the beginning, she had no intent to write a book. In Praying for Strangers, Jordan recounts what happened when she started living out her resolution. Some of the stories give the reader a vivid glimpse into the lives of the people Jordan prayed for. Others share the challenging events in her life or tackle a topic like “the shape of prayer.” In the last chapter of Praying for Strangers, Jordan shares her hesitation to write a book on this experience: “And the most personal, private part of my life, forever and ever and truly, is my private relationship with God and my prayer life. And here I am baring my soul on paper and revealing what I consider to be most intimate part of my creation.” (pp. 317-18)

On the other side of the spectrum, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project book began as a blog about her quest to find more joy in life by using the happiness interventions recommended by experts in positive psychology. Cami Walker’s book 29 Gifts: How a Month of Giving Can Change Your Life also began as a blog. Cami, who has multiple sclerosis, tried the spiritual practice of giving a gift every day for 29 days. Both the blog and the book include stories from readers who have also been changed by the 29 Gifts project.

Are you Ready to Tackle a Project Book?Here are some questions to ask yourself before you start working on your project book.

1. Is the project worthy of a book (or would it be a better article or blog series)? Project books recount the author’s attempt to master a skill or practice, sometimes with humorous missteps. But the best project books do more than chronicle an adventure. They also cover ideas, themes, and issues that have universal appeal to readers. For example, NPR lauded Thomas Thwaites’s The Toaster Project for collecting “ideas as far-ranging as medieval metallurgy, sustainability, mass production, and our ‘throwaway’ consumer culture.” Use the following questions to determine the worth of your potential project:

+Who is my ideal reader?

+In what ways will this book appeal to my ideal reader?

+What are 20-30 topics I can cover in the book?

2. What is my plan for completing this project? Most of my New Year projects crash and burn before January is over. Last year I vowed to meditate every morning before getting out of bed. I even thought I might blog about it. After several weeks of sleeping through my meditation tapes, I gave up. Clearly I did not plan well. Before starting your project, use these questions to create a project plan:

+How do I plan to do this project? Include information like: How many days a week will I work on the project? When will I work on it? What will I do during each time period?

+What tools, supplies, or support people do I need to make this project a success? How can I get what I need to complete the project?

+What potential barriers might prevent me from completing the project?

+How will I overcome them?

+How will I measure my progress on the project?

+Who can be my accountability partner for this project?

3. How will I record my experience with my project? In tackling a project book, it can help to have some thoughts about how you will want to write about the project. Use these questions to determine your plan:

+Will I write about the project in a private journal or will I blog about it?

+What type of a book can I imagine writing about this project—self-help, memoir, how-to, essay, or something else?

+How might my journaling or blogging translate into a book at the end of a project? (Most books that begin as journal entries or blog posts need to be rewritten to fit the book format.)

Next Steps. So are you ready to take on a project and write about it? If you’re still not quite sure, read a few project books. Imagine yourself in the writer’s place—could you do a project like this one? If not, what project would stir your imagination? Start taking notes. Who knows—the project book might be your very next adventure!

Your turn and a chance to win, Praying For Strangers. What’s your favorite project book? Leave your comment below. On Thursday, I’ll hold a drawing and give one of you my copy of Praying For Strangers by River Jordan.



7 Responses

  1. Pingback : How Are You Doing with Your 2012 Writing Resolutions? | Color Your Life Published

  2. My favorite project book is “Sweater Quest: My Year of Knitting Dangerously” by Adrienne Martini. The book humorously describes the author’s year-long quest to find the right yarns and knit an Alice Starmore Mary Tudor Fair Isle sweater. I saw the stunning result and met Martini at a “Meet the Writers” luncheon last spring. I sent an autographed copy of the book to my cousin who spins and knits her own yarns and then checked a copy out of the library to read myself.

  3. My favorite project book is The Wilder Years by Wendy McClure — a memoir describing McClure’s quest to visit every historical site related to Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the “Little House” series. She visits cheesy museums, spends a weekend with a cult devoted to living a 19th-Century existence, views “Little House” pageants and festivals, and ultimately discovers that her interest had little to do with Wilder and more to do with herself. Lots of fun to read, especially if you enjoyed those books as a kid!

  4. I haven’t read many project books, but A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs was pretty humorous. Jacobs tries to follow even the most peculiar rules of the Bible for a year.

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