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."