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!