No, not marriage. But something very like, for a person in my profession, given the time commitment implied. I'm trying to describe the scope of a new book idea -- a project that could consume my life for at least five years -- to a potential publisher. The point of the book proposal is to awaken the publisher's interest, elicit a promise of publication, and secure an "advance" sufficient to cover research and living expenses for as long as it takes to write the text. ("Advance" is short for "advance against royalties," which means that the dollar amount advanced to the author at the outset must be repaid to the publisher from book sales before the author can receive any further income.)

The challenge of writing a good proposal is to frame the story and make its significance come real before conducting the several years' worth of research required to tell it in full book-length detail. I'm talking about nonfiction. Novelists don't write proposals. They need to write entire novels before publishers will pay attention.

In preparation for this proposal, I have read a dozen books, toured the Web via "Google Scholar," interviewed a few people, and made one preliminary visit to the Harvard University Observatory, where the action takes place. I've also talked up the gist of the idea in conversation so often that the characters already feel familiar. I like them a lot, which is good, because if things go well I'm going to be living with them for the foreseeable future.

How long should a proposal be? "As long as it needs to be," is the general rule. I wrote a fifteen-page version in the summer that fell short for several reasons. Friends and family members who read it failed to grasp the nature of the work the characters were doing, or get a good sense of who they were, or how the astronomy of that period (late 1800s to early 1900s) fit into the larger picture of American society. When I say my preliminary readers failed to understand, I mean I failed to explain.

Now I have thirty pages. The proposal is much stronger, but not just because it's longer. The months I spent thinking about it helped me find the story line, whereas before I was sketching a series of situations. As my agent, Michael Carlisle, reminded me when he urged putting aside the proposal for a while, "Sometimes writing is about not writing."

Final Leap

Everyone I know mourns the loss this week of astronaut Neil Armstrong. Those of us who saw the live broadcast of the first Moon landing have stood straighter ever since at the mention of his name. Armstrong carried out the combined missions of an explorer, a dare-devil, a visionary, and an emissary for the human race without ever raising his voice or taking credit for accomplishing his almost impossible mission. John Noble Wilford, who covered the Apollo program for The New York Times and wrote the page-one obituary that appeared on Sunday, tells one of my favorite Armstrong anecdotes in his book The Mapmakers. During the world tour following Apollo 11's return to Earth, the three-hero crew dined with the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street. Armstrong proposed a toast that night to John Harrison, the 18th-century English clockmaker whose perfect timekeeper solved the age-old problem of finding position at sea. Armstrong praised Harrison for initiating the navigation innovations that made space travel a reality.

Since Harrison figured as the hero of my book Longitude, I loved learning that Armstrong held him in such high regard. I, too, had lifted a glass to Mr. Harrison on numerous occasions.

In 2004, in preparation for a tenth-anniversary edition of Longitude, my publisher, George Gibson, asked me to suggest some appropriate person who might write a preface to give the book a new dimension. I immediately thought of Armstrong, though I doubted I could even get a letter to him, let alone win such a favor from him. By happy coincidence, James Hansen had just completed Armstrong's biography, First Man, and Hansen's agent approached my agent, Michael Carlisle, for help finding foreign publishers. A path of communication opened.

Following instructions, I wrote an e-mail message to Commander Armstrong that passed through several insulating layers of people. I wasn't given his direct e-address, nor did I expect a direct response, so, when "N. A. Armstrong" appeared in my inbox a few weeks later, it stopped my breathing. "Thank you for your kind note," he wrote. He said he had read my book, and, given his feelings for Harrison, "would be honored to submit something for your consideration as a preface."

It was a trifle for him, but the biggest thing that ever happened to Longitude.

A statement released over the weekend by Armstrong's family urges his many admirers to think of him every time they look at the Moon, where a crater already bears his name.

The coming weeks will see many tributes and salutes to his memory, though he helped plant the best commemorative himself, on the lunar surface -- the small plaque that says, "Here men from planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind."