We’ve all met them—the people who, on hearing that you’re a writer, say, “I’ve thought of writing a book, too!” They’re adorable. Precious. But you can tell that they (like most people) have no clue what happens between “I have an idea” and “Come buy my book.” Even to active writers, the process can be a bit like sausage making. Pig goes in the front door. Sausage comes out the back. Things happen in between.
Turns out that a lot happens in between that idea and the published book. A lot of work, sure, but also a lot of life. And that’s what makes every process—and every book—different. I compiled this list of twenty steps for everybody who’s asked me “So how did you get your book published?” But it’s also for everybody who’s ready to give up at step 2:
- Have an idea. It’s a breathtaking idea. Behind your children, it’s the most exquisite, perfect, extraordinary thing that’s ever come from you. Your idea is the sun, radiating blinding perfection in every direction. In fact, the radiance is so bright that you can’t make out any details. Who cares? They don’t matter. The whole gleaming finished thing is distant and beautiful and just so, so, brilliantly perfect.
- Write the words. Agh. Words are NOT perfect. They’re ordinary and clumsy and don’t radiate much at all. Little flickers from time to time, but mostly not. You keep pushing them together, though, until you get to end. And it’s okay that it’s not completely perfect yet because you’re not finished. It’ll come.
- Get an agent. Remember that scene in Little Women where Jo ties her handwritten manuscript up with a bow and sends it to a big-city publisher in New York? Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore. Publishers don’t read manuscripts that wash in with the daily post. No, you have to scrape and hustle and pitch and plead and get an agent to like your work, agree to represent you, and then the agent is going to scrape and hustle and pitch and plead to get a publisher to read it. Because efficiency. Anyway, I got lucky, and found a terrific agent who loved pages that aren’t even in the book anymore and was willing to wait for me to finish it up.
- Admit defeat and hand it over. At some point, you have to stop revising. Even though you can tell it is NOT the sun, radiating perfection in every direction. Right now, it’s just…a work product. And a pretty lumpy one, at that. Maybe if you just…oh, never mind. Write the email. Hit send. Put your head down on your desk and cry. Let your husband take you out for sushi because he’s super excited and congratulatory, and then mope your way through dinner like a put-upon teenager because you feel…defeated. Like you’re admitting that the best you can do is not that good after all. So right here I’m just going give a shout-out to every artist who’s slashed a painting or broken a sculpture. I feel you.
- Have the agent say, “I love it!” (Bless her heart.) “Now revise.”
- Move to Saudi Arabia. This will turn out to be time-consuming. And content-rich. Planned Novel #2 will slide to the #3 slot and material from this experience will take over #2. (You can also call this step “life happens,” plug it into your own set of steps, and plunge both hands into whatever it is.)
- Start a blog. This will take up fully half of your time. But it will also get you into an expat anthology book. (Once Upon an Expat, on HuffPo’s list of Top 10 Expat Books and available on Amazon!)
- Keep revising. Also start work on newly numbered novel #2. Carefully archive all thoughts and work done on the former novel #2.
- Move home. Also time-consuming. Less content-rich. More life happens.
- Receive email from agent saying the book is SOLD. More sushi. The check for the first half of the advance almost covers the sushi. Be afraid if you do the arithmetic you’ll discover that you’ve earned about 3 cents an hour. Well, given that’s it’s only half the advance, 1.5 cents might be more accurate. For your sanity, you’re basing your assumptions on the full amount. (“Advance” refers to an advance against royalties. They won’t be paid out to you until you’ve earned enough royalties to pay back the advance amount. If things go really well, you might get an adorable li’l check a year from now.)
- Have the purchasing editor say, “I love it!” (Bless her heart.) “Now revise.”
- Approve cover art, back cover copy, interior design
- Get this picture when the author review copy arrives.
- Proofread; make minor revisions.
- Proofread; but FOR THE LOVE, DON’T MAKE REVISIONS.
- Make peace with imperfection. So it turns out that the only perfect things are imaginary. A future family or career you only dream of. The child who hasn’t been born. The book you haven’t written yet. Or do we just have the wrong idea of what perfection looks like? Maybe “perfect” just means “longed for, sacrificed for, and real.”
- Sell this sucker.
My mom likes the book. My husband, my friends. My agent, publisher, early reviewers. Many readers will, I’m sure. But others won’t. I’m acutely aware of its flaws, as I am of my own. But my imperfections, and the fact that some people don’t like me, doesn’t keep me from going outside. It’s the lessons of Step 19 that will get me through Step 20. And back to Steps 1 and 2 on the next one, and the one after that. So I gotta go now. I’ve got a lot of work to do.