Tick Tock, the Publishing Clock

On August 18, 2010, Charlotte wrote, I was wondering if you could give us a breakdown on how long it takes you to write an average novel, from the inklings of an idea to the first draft to the printing to promotion, etc. What takes the longest? Do different books take significantly different amounts of time? Do you have deadlines? Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo?

I’ve never tried NaNoWriMo. I don’t think I could win, because I’m not focused enough in a first draft. If there were a NaNoRevMo for revision, I could do it. I can sit still for hours to revise.

How long it takes me to write a book depends on the book. Some are a lot easier than others. The longest (about eight years) was Dave at Night, but I didn’t work on it regularly (I wrote Ella Enchanted in the middle). The longest book that I worked on steadily was Fairest, because I couldn’t get the point of view right. Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg took about nine months, quick for me. Most of my Princess Tales took only a few months, the longest  six, and the shortest, The Fairy’s Mistake, an amazing eight days! I was so happy! That one started life as a picture book, which was rejected by a zillion publishers. My editor for Ella liked it and asked me to turn it into a short novel and write two more – the beginning of the series. When I expanded it I already had the story and knew exactly what I was doing.

I don’t think the books that took the longest to write are the best, just the hardest. Some authors are much speedier than I am, and some are much slower. They’re not better or worse writers; their methods are just different.

My books germinate, naturally, in notes. I start by speculating about what I might like my next novel to be. Often I reread some fairy tales. I keep a running list of ideas for future books, and I revisit that. I write more notes about the ideas that interest me – where I could take each one, what might happen. I continue with notes and trying out ideas until something clamors to be written. Even then I’m not sure, though, and I write more notes, until a beginning emerges plus a vague notion of the direction of the story and some of the characters. Usually I have a sense of how the story should end, nothing specific, and nothing that can’t change.

I start writing. When I’ve written three pages, I always think, “I’ve written one percent;” at thirty pages, I think, “ten percent,” which is ridiculous because the book may wind up longer or shorter than three hundred pages and because I know I’m going to cut lots along the way and fill lots in. But the percentage thought encourages me.

Lately I’ve been trying to write straight through, but in the book I’m working on now, a second mystery (how I did this is itself a mystery), I wrote 150 pages without introducing any suspects. Naturally I had to go back.

Eventually I’ve got a first draft. Revising is usually quicker than writing the draft, a few months tops. Then I email the manuscript to my agent and my editor. That part is different for me than for writers who are just starting out or for writers who don’t have a book under contract (meaning that a publisher has committed to publishing the book). In that case, assuming you have an agent, you’d send the book to her, and she’d send it to editors she thinks would be right for it. But I’m not going to get into that unless you want me to in a future post.

A novel takes about a year from submission to publication. Now we get into publishing. I’m involved in some of what happens and have a rough idea of the rest, but I’m not an expert. For an expert, you might like to read Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. There may be other great books on the subject, but this is the one I know. April, I think you know all about this, and you may want to add some remarks too.

So I submit the manuscript and start biting my nails immediately. After a day or two of no more nails without any word (a ridiculously short span of time), I’m sure my editor hates the book. But I’m not going to go into this either unless you ask me to, and then I will.

After a few weeks, Rosemary, my editor, sends me an editorial letter by snail mail along with the manuscript on which she’s written her initial edits. That’s how she and I work together. Some editors do a lot of the initial book discussion in a phone call or a meeting. An editor may not mark up the manuscript at all at this point; she may just suggest the direction the writer should take in the revision. I prefer to see edits. If Rosemary says my main character needs to be more likeable, I want to see the places where my main isn’t or I won’t get it.

When I’m finished with the revision I email it back. After she goes over it she sends me a blessedly shorter letter and her second edits. If things are looking pretty good after that round, she gives the manuscript to the copy editor. If it’s not yet in shape, there’s another cycle of revision between us before the book goes to the copy editor.

While all this is happening, internal publishing stuff has begun, and the internal side continues until publication. First of all is the decision about when the book will come out. Publishers have seasonal lists, meaning the cohort of books that will be released in summer, fall, and winter. There used to be a spring list, but now it’s called summer, at least at HarperCollins.

Deadlines are attached to the list decision, and this is unknown territory for me, except that if I were very late with a revision the book might have to be pushed back to the next list. I assume the deadlines have to do with when the manuscript goes to the copy editor and is returned, when the cover art is commissioned and finished, when the design decisions are made.

Back to me. The copy editor sends me the manuscript by email with e-edits in the margins and in the copy. I think the edits are in a Word program, but I don’t know. I print out the manuscript and write my responses in ink and mail them back the old-fashioned way. This is not because I’m a technology-challenged dinosaur – it’s just what I’m told to do. The copy editor and I go back and forth twice, I think, before the book emerges as galleys.

It becomes galleys after the decisions are made about type and the design of the page. Is the book typeset at that point? I don’t know. Once the book is in galley form, electronic editing is over. Changes are made on the physical page again.

The first iteration of the galleys is called first pass, which my editor sends to me, and I make my changes, and they’re incorporated into second-pass galleys. The book is in good shape by now, and many writers don’t look at second-pass galleys. But I do, because I’m a chronic fiddler. I don’t look at third pass, and I don’t know if there is a forth pass.

First-pass galleys are bound into the Advanced Reading Copy, the ARC. The ARC is a paperback book even though the real book will be released in hard cover. HarperCollins’s ARCs have the cover art, although not all publishers do this, I think. For A Tale of Two Castles, which will be out in May, the ARC has just been produced, and I got a copy in the mail last week. The cover art is also not the final version, but it’s close. I celebrate when the ARC arrives, because it’s the first time I’ve seen my manuscript in book form.

The ARC is a big marketing tool. It’s sent to reviewers and to important people in the world of children’s literature who can help the book. It’s sent out even though it still has mistakes, and readers are warned that some of the copy may change.

Other things happen behind the scenes. There’s a decision about the size of the print run (the number of books to be printed initially). A publicity and marketing plan are developed. The book is integrated into the programs that the publisher uses to market and promote every book. Editors present their books to the in-house sales force, the people who will sell it to independent and chain bookstores. Sometimes a book tour is organized.

Oh, and the book is printed! Then it’s sent to distributors, who receive the orders and fill them.

After all this – and I’ve probably left out a ton – it’s a wonder that the process takes only a year.

There isn’t really a prompt that goes with this, but I hate to end without one, so here are two:

•    You all know that Ella Enchanted was my first published book after nine years of rejection for everything else I’d written. What you may not know is that Ella was the first book my editor ever acquired, which made it special for both of us. Write a first-person account of a fairly new editor meeting his or her first writer and taking him or her to lunch. My editor and I did get along, but make these two fail to. Make the lunch a disaster.

•    Now indulge in a little fantasy. Write from the point of view of a newbie author meeting his or her editor for the first time. Make it go marvelously well. If you haven’t been published yet, make it a dream come true. This is one time you can indulge your Mary Sue and let her shine.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. "I start writing. When I’ve written three pages, I always think, “I’ve written one percent;” at thirty pages, I think, “ten percent,” which is ridiculous because the book may wind up longer or shorter than three hundred pages and because I know I’m going to cut lots along the way and fill lots in. But the percentage thought encourages me."

    This part is great advice. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by the daunting task of starting a novel, especially not knowing when it will end, but giving yourself a rough estimate and percentages is encouraging! Thanks!

  2. I always love hearing insight into how you work. Working from notes is not a common thing I hear authors say, but I think it comes closer to what I do as well.

    I was also surprised to hear the "passes" are still in hard copy! They were when I was in educational publishing for textbooks, but that was almost 15 years ago.

  3. Wow, thank you for this! I've always wondered what happened after you finished with your initial drafts, and though I had some idea, it wasn't clear. Thank you so much!

    @Chantal – I agree, that was definitely encouraging. I do that a lot, break things down, tell myself I'm this far done or only have this much left to go. Even if it's just an estimate, or it really isn't that much to go by, it helps. Also, this may sound weird, but I found the fact that after only a couple days of waiting you think your editor must hate your manuscript encouraging as well . . . I've always wondered how I could manage to be patient enough to have a book published. Thank you for that!

    I have just one question . . . how exactly do you get an agent? I've never been able to find out quite exactly how you get one, although lots of authors talk about them. What am I missing?

  4. Thanks for the post! Someday I would like to get published and it's good to know how the business works.

    Jenna Royal- I've done some research on this before and basically to get an agent you can use a book I believe that's called The Writer's Market that will have listings of agents, how they like to be contacted, and what genres they accept. There may be a few other things, I'm not sure since I haven't looked myself, but I think those are the important ones. Then you send the agents that you think would like your book a query explaining a bit about you and your book. After that you wait and wait and wait for a response. A lot of times there will be no answer, or if there is one, it's a rejection. Agents are hard to get. If they accept you, then that's great and it's on to the next step!

    I'm writing a novel right now and I feel like the characters are beginning to blend into one another and there not as unique and different as real people are. Or that they are too much like me. I've tried character interviews before, but sometimes I feel like when I write, I just skip over the stuff I put down for them before. Does anyone have any advice on that? Or if there are some posts you could direct me to that would be great.


  5. This was quite interesting. The publishing world is a strange and mystical place I enjoy peeking into from time to time.
    I am a terribly impacient person. That being said waiting for any sort of response involving writing is the worst form of torture for me.

    If anyone wants to try to find a publisher/agent I would suggest searching the "Writer's Market" its sort of the Yellow Pages of the writer's world. It lists lots of big and small publishers and lots of agents, their submission policies, genres they do, expect response time, ect. I think it's a pretty nifty book.

    Ms. Levine, this brings me to my question: do you think its possible to publish a manuscript without an agent's help(while not self-publishing)? Do you think its good to get an agent? What your whole take on the agent thing, because I am young (still a teen) and don't have a lot of money so I'm wondering if I'm missing out by not trying to find an agent. I shopped a completed manuscript that I have around to smaller presses (though not vanity presses) a few months ago, but am now taking a break to do some serious revisions. Once the revisions are done and before I start my long trek to again try and get my manuscript accepted by a publisher, I'm not sure if I need/want to find an agent this time. Opinions…
    Thanks for this post, 'twas very enlightning/interesting.

  6. Oops sorry for the double post, I meant above that I shopped my manuscript around to smaller publishers, not presses, I don't know if there's a difference, but just wanted to make myself clear. Thanks. 🙂

  7. Thanks again for an honest and encouraging post! I think it's very generous that you answer these questions in such detail. Your posts are truthful and don't make the writing and publication processes sound easier than they actually are, yet you're also always encouraging and motivating.
    I've read too many Q&A's with authors that really discouraged me. They would wax eloquent on how RARE it is to get published and how low one's chances are, without any real advice or encouragement to those who are serious about trying!
    In contrast, I've found your blog and books sharing your experience and knowledge to be very helpful 🙂

  8. Wow! The publishing world is pretty complicated! I've been following a lot of different blogs that talk about how books are published, but it's nice to see the whole process written in black and white, from the author's standpoint. Thanks so much!

    I'm a very slow writer, mostly because I've been trying to balance school and writing, and also my artwork since I do quite a bit of that. So it's difficult for me to find time to really sit down and work. Since NaNo ended, I haven't gotten the chance to write at all because of schoolwork. I'm hoping to get some decent editing done over Christmas break.'

    @Grace, from what I understand, you don't necessarily need an agent in order to get published, but a lot of the bigger publishing houses don't look at manuscripts unless they've been sent to the editor by an agent. The agents act as a sort of filter for the publishing houses, so as to weed out the manuscripts that aren't ready for publication. But some of the smaller publishing houses do accept submissions without agents.

  9. Grace and Silver the Wanderer–Good advice about agents.

    Jenna Royal and Grace–An important thing to be wary of is agents or agencies that charge a reading fee. Reading your work should be free. The IDIOT'S GUIDE I mentioned in my post has a chapter about agents. See if your library can get the book for you.

    Grace–"Press" is fine for "publisher." It's an alternate term.

    The Girl in the Other Room–Thanks for the info. I'll keep it in mind in case I finish my first draft by then.

  10. Sorry if this is posted twice, but I commented and I don't see it now.

    Anyway, thanks for the post! It's really interesting and since I want to get my books published someday (or at least try) it's a good thing to know.

    Jenna Royal- I've read before that the Writer's Market is a good resource and it has a lot of good things in it for writers like Grace said. Then you query agents telling them a little about yourself and the book. You can look online for good query formats. Then you wait for a response. That is, if you get one. Sometimes they won't reply and you just take that as a rejection. Hope that helps!

    I have a question. Sometimes when I write I feel like my characters start to blend into one another or turn into a clone of me. I've tried to do the character profiles and interviews before, but when I write, it's like my mind puts all of that aside and does its own thing with the characters. Does anyone have any advice for sticking to the character you originally made or could direct me to some posts about characters? That would help a lot. Thanks!

  11. @ Grace and Elizabeth – Thank you so much! I will look up the Writer's Market and see what it has to say. Thanks for that. 🙂 Also, Ms. Levine, I will look for the IDIOT'S GUIDE, too.

    @ Elizabeth – I know what you mean, about your mind taking off on its own. It does it to me, too. Usually, I like how it does the work for me, but sometimes it doesn't do what I want it to. You might have done this already, but I would suggest that you try giving each of your characters a specific habit, trait, or interest that is pretty obvious, to help keep them acting true to character. Also, there's a post from June 23, 2010 about character originality and there's another about Mary Sues on . . . September 29th, I believe, which touches on characters being like their authors. Also, if you look on the post labels, there are a few different links to character posts. I hope that helped!

  12. In regards to your 1 percent/10 percent encouragement, I kind of do that. During NaNo especially I'd tell myself my goal for the day was about 2,000 words. But that was intimidating and I'd get writer's block. So I'd tell myself, "I can do 500 words," and just reach that goal four times. 🙂

    @Erin Edwards
    The place I used to work at still wrote their marks on hardcopies too, but made the actual corrections on the computer later. I think it's because you can catch things on paper that you don't see on the computer screen.

    @Jenna Royal
    As to getting an agent, first you need to finish your manuscript and revise it until you can't make it any better on your own. Then you mail a query and a SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope) to some agents. You'll either get a form rejection (cross them off the list and go on to another agent) or they'll ask to see some of your work. You can find agents to submit to by looking at literary agent guides like this one: http://www.amazon.com/Guide-Literary-Agents-Chuck-Sambuchino/dp/1582975868/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1291965914&sr=8-4

    What Silver the Wanderer said is exactly right. Also, I've been doing some research lately on whether an agent is necessary or not for my own reasons… and I've come to the conclusion that yes, they're almost mandatory. Though you can get published at a reputable (but small) publisher without one, since you're a teen, you'll have a hard time of it. Also, the publishing industry is changing so much right now that the houses are making their contracts more complicated to keep themselves from getting cornered in the future. I'd really recommend a pro's help. Your job is to be the best writer you can be. Trying to become a great writer and a great lawyer (with great contacts in the industry) is a lot to be putting on your plate. And you don't have to worry about not having money. Almost all reputable agents won't charge a cent until after your book is sold, and then they'll take only about 15%. Well worth their service!

    Your chances of getting published are very low. But if you're serious about trying, aim to become a better writer and produce an excellent story. The better you write, the higher your chance of getting published. Best of luck! 🙂

    This is already getting long, so I'm going put my experience in a separate comment.

  13. Unfortunately, I can't really say much about the process because I didn't work in fiction. I also worked for a private company where the CEO and his handpicked team members decided what books they wanted to publish (topic, style of presentation, format, etc.) and found writers who could fulfill those assignments.

    Very little happened without his approval (from cover to content) and we gave automatic rejections to any queries from writers that were sent to us. So, the process was pretty different than what you describe in this post.

    The only thing that might be similar that you didn't already cover was that we had internal due dates.

    We had a tight schedule of when the manuscript had to be received from the author (which is when the editor would do the major editing in Microsoft Word), then sent to production (to be typeset and put into Adobe InDesign, then printed for proofs). There would be several rounds of the associate editor (head of the project) and the production editor (assistant) making proofs.

    In the mean time, the art department (with some help from an acquisitions editor) would be finding internal artwork, getting it approved, make the cover, getting that approved, etc.

    Eventually the manuscript would be printed again (once corrections were made) and they'd be called "boards." These are the final copies of the manuscript—to appear as it would in the book—and there better not be any mistakes!

    But just in case, editors would pore over them again, and get a second set of associate editor eyes to double-check the first as. editor's work (this is also when the index is made… someone has to read the whole book and find all the keywords and their page numbers, and then read it all again to make sure they didn't miss something).

    We didn't have bound copies to read. Everything was on US Letter or Tabloid (11×17) sheets of paper. We usually kept chapters clipped together, since it was a pain if all the pages spilled. 😛

    Once each page was approved as mistake-free, the files would be sent to typesetting to be made into PDFs. Then those would be sent to the manufacturer for printing! That process takes quite a bit of time, too, especially if it's printed overseas (much cheaper than printing domestically, but takes months instead of weeks).

    Hopefully that answers a few more questions… 🙂

  14. Hey, thanks for this post. I always think I'm among the slowest writers, so it's nice to see an average time-frame for other people.

    I have a question, if you don't mind…?
    So I tend to get overly obsessive about my stories–or, more accurately, my characters. For example, I have been vomiting up increasingly esoteric facts about the same fictitious people for over a year. I can tell you everything from their childhood hobbies right down to the shoe size for even my most minor characters. Whenever I write (whenever I think, really), it ends up being superfluous conversations between them or them just doing everyday tasks. And nothing happens. They all have their own flaws and friends and jobs and niches in their world; they could all continue the way they are right now, like a literary perpetual motion machine that never goes anywhere. If this isn't to vague a request… help?

  15. @April: Your comment was really insightful. You've basically answered all of my questions, so thank you.=D

    I feel like a bit of an idiot though. While writing has always been my dream like everyone else's here, I've never read too deep into getting published. Sure have to check out the Idiot's Guide. And indulge in the Mary Sue.=)

  16. It seems to me that people don't take teens seriously and/or are more critical of their work. I would like to try, but the only way I really see is self-publishing. Do you have any suggestions or tips for getting published as a teen? Thanks!

  17. As I am a teen, I feel like I don't want to be published until I am older. I feel like to make a story truly amazing I will need more experience than the sixteen short years I have had. I honestly wouldn't take teens too seriously if I was in the editor's shoes. Mainly because they really would be more naive and such. You could probably depend on an adult to give the results you are looking for in a writer and in the story. Of course I have never been close to being in an editor's shoes so that is just my opinion. I think one of the reasons Eragon was so amazing (although I could never get through the third book!)is beause he wrote it when he was my age. Of course he was homechooled and he was practicaly in college as far as classes go and from something I read about him it sounded like he didn't really have a life of your average teen. So again just my opinion…

  18. Jenna Royal- I read the June 23 post and I think that will help me some so thank you!

    Alexandra and Jill- I know what you mean about being a teen and not being taken seriously. I'm a teen too. 🙂 I suggest just keep writing until you think you're ready to get published. I don't think there's any age you should decide to go for because your writing may not be any better than a few years ago or could be ten times better than yesterday's. There are quite a few teen authors out there so don't feel discouraged. I read once on an agent's website that she got a query from a teen and thought they were an adult until the teen told her after a phone conference. It didn't matter to the agent because the book did seem so good. So, my point is it doesn't matter how old you are if you're writing is good enough.

  19. April–Thanks for all the great information. I'm glad you mentioned the many things an agent does besides finding a home for a manuscript.

    Ruthie–I've added your question to my list.

    Alexandra–I agree with the thoughts above. In addition, it will be easier to get short work published than a novel. If you google "young writers," you'll find a lot if possibilities. I haven't explored them, and I can't recommend anything in particular, but you might like to take a look. Also, there's New Moon, which publishers girls aged eight and up, but many are high school age: http://www.newmoon.com/magazine/. This site I can recommend. And The Louisville Review, http://www.louisvillereview.org, has a Children's Corner for poems. The poetry in the fall issue is very sophisticated and written by teenagers. The content in the rest of the journal is at an adult level. Tip: they don't get enough submissions from young writers, so they're eager to hear from you. Last, the major virtue a writer of any age has to cultivate is patience, patience with the writing and with getting published.

  20. what a great tip about the percent thing!

    i had a question about tone. i understand that there are different tones out there- for example, Rick Riordan has kind of a funny-yet-serious-the-main-characters-have-a-sarcastic-sense-of-humor-tone in most of his writing, while Christopher Paulini's characters may be sarcastic or humourous, but the tone of his writing is much more serious and metaphorical. Obviously you don't want to put multiple tones into a book unless you are writing from different perspectives, but how do you feel about switching from one tone to the next as you swap stories? does every writer have a "set" tone that they are best at writing in and therefore should only write in that tone?

    also, i don't agree with the fact that teenager's writing isn't as good as adult's and therefore shouldn't try to be published. i agree that sometimes you need to mature in your writing, but again citing Christopher Paulini- whether he was a representative teen or not, his books are obviously pretty famous. i think that you should always try no matter how inferior you think your writing is. i mean, who better to understand teen characters (should you choose to write about them!) then the teens themselves?

    i hope that didn't come out lecture-ish, i was just explaining my point of view. 😀

  21. Maddie–You can change tone from piece to piece. I think you can even switch within a work, depending on what's going on. It's good to have a range, and one story may need one mood, another another. I say, go for it!

  22. I'm a teen as well, and I had also hoped to see more on publishing… although my ultimate goal is to become an editor.
    One more question… do you think it would be easier to become a published writer if you were an editor, or vice versa? And, is it possible to obtain an agent/editor/publisher without actually meeting them in person?? I'm a small-town girl and have heard that to get into the writing industry it's best to be in NY, pretty much the heart of it all.
    @Alexandra– the book The School Story by Andrew Clements that actually inspired me to try and become a writer! I know it's a juvenile book, but it's worth looking into and (at least I hope it is) factual? (There's another question for Gail!)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.