What Happens When You Write A Book, Part I
T-minus 10 months until my book is published and I am officially transformed from nerdy reader to nerdy writer. (February 6th, 2018! Prepare to party down!) This is enormously exciting to me and about four other people, most of them related to me. But I thought y'all might find a short history of my path to publication interesting, because one thing I have learned since obtaining my book contract is that many, many people dream of writing a book. Or an article. Or a blog. Or even a tweet.
And why not? Is there anything more sublime than a perfect sentence? (Okay, maybe a few things.) But you know what I mean: the feverish hiss of intoxication you feel when you're stringing together a garbled hash of verbs and nouns and adjectives and somehow it coalesces into a thing of exquisite beauty and you stare at it, amazed that such earth-shattering profundity could have emerged from your own mind. And then, in the next breath—because you are a writer—you sink into an abyss of self-loathing, convinced the heap of word-vomit you just produced is possibly the worst writing ever to darken a page. Unless you are a world-class narcissist, this is an inescapable part of the creative process, or so I’m told.
So once you’ve created your masterpiece, what happens next? Based on my personal experience, the process is daunting. This is true whether you a) self-publish, b) publish with a small press, or c) traditionally publish with one of the Big Five (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and, uh, the other one. Hachette!) There are advantages and disadvantages each way, but I’ll speak to traditionally publishing, because that’s what I did. Once you’ve edited, and revised, and been savaged by beta readers, and revised again, and hired a professional editor, and revised again, and been savaged by your writing group, and revised again, then the next step is to be rejected by literary agents.
Yes. If you want a publishing house to look at anything you’ve written, you must be represented by an agent. You might think this means you send the masterpiece to an agent for consideration, but no. Agents reject you on the basis of a one-page letter, called a query letter. In this letter, you must somehow entice the agent by describing both yourself and the plot of your epic work in such a manner as to stand out among the hundreds of similar letters they receive every week, without committing some unrecoverable query letter faux-pas, such as sounding too familiar, too desperate, or too weird. (For example, it is bad form to compose and send out a batch of these emails late at night after you’ve had an Ambien. Speaking for a friend here.)
In my case, I won’t say how many agents failed to respond to my initial attempts at a query letter, because that would be embarrassing. Let’s just stipulate that it was more than a few. But I persevered and eventually produced a letter that didn't frighten people. And then I eventually wrote a letter that somehow produced some offers from agents, and then I signed with one I love.
After more agent-directed tinkering with the manuscript, the next step, generally, is to be rejected by publishers. I got lucky and signed with an editor I love very quickly. This is not always the case, though: it’s common for the agent not to be able to sell the manuscript to anyone. It’s not enough to be compelling and well-written; there’s also a component of luck. And timing. Books are often rejected for reasons completely outside the author’s control, such as similarities to another book on the editor’s list, or a book with the same theme that didn't sell well a few years ago, or maybe somebody on the marketing team didn't think a book about an orphaned misfit at wizarding school would have any potential. In my understanding, the decision to make an offer on a book starts with the editor, but also has to gain favor from the publicity people, the marketing people, the head editorial people, and maybe the janitorial staff. Anyone in the chain can torpedo the deal.
Moving on. If there’s an offer, you’ll be presented with a contract: 30-some pages of dense legalese and incomprehensible financial jargon. You'll joyfully sign it. Then comes more editing. (And sometimes a title change. This turned out not to be my forté, since I came up with about 500 rejected titles.) Then the fun stuff starts. The publisher gave me something called a style sheet, which I found hilarious: it’s a long list of bizarre nouns pulled from my manuscript. The significance of these words eludes me, but I like reading them. Here’s a sampling:
Bink and Gollie
Bonfire of the Vanities, The
C. S. Lewis
Four Seasons Hotel George V
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
Louisville Cement Company
New Yorker, the
Queens Road West
Rage Against the Machine
Sun King, the
The Screwtape Letters
White Hog, the
(Intriguing, no? Okay, even I have a hard time imagining what kind of book would combine these words, and I’m the one who wrote them. And yes, I realize a lot of the words are related to bourbon, but I think we can all agree that bourbon is an essential plot lubricant in any truly great novel. Plus, I am from Kentucky.)
Along with the style sheet comes the first of several rounds of proof-reading; first a review of the copyeditor’s work, and then another review after the novel has been typeset. The publisher provides samples of the interior layout: the chapter headings, the font, the way scenes are separated, etc. And—most exciting—the art department people start reading the book in preparation for the cover design. This is a matter of great anticipation among authors, who invariably morph into tortured artistes when it comes to a visual representation of their magnum opus. Except me. I am sure I will love whatever they come up with for The Queen of Hearts…stay posted.