May 16

Next update June 6

This week: a look at the final stages of publication!

Okay, I know I’m a day late with this update. But I was early with the last one, so now we’re even, right? No real reason to be late, though there is a lot going on in my life. Spurs are in the NBA Conference Finals (and hopefully headed to championship #5!); golf season is in full bloom (though it never really ends in Texas); I’m working hard on book 3 of my Chaos Born trilogy, and I’ve just received the uncorrected galley proofs for book 2, The Scorched Earth.

What’s that? You don’t know what uncorrected galley proofs are? Perfect, because that’s what this post is all about – how a manuscript goes from the author’s computer to a bookshelf near you. There are a lot more steps than people realize, and a lot more people involved than you might think. But hopefully you find it interesting.

So let’s start at the beginning: I – the brilliant author – come up with an idea for a book. If I’m lucky (and so far I have been), I can get my agent to get me a contract and an advance based on that idea. Because I’m established, with numerous titles to my credit and a bit of a proven track record, publishers are willing to give me an advance before they see a final manuscript. I’ll be honest – that isn’t the case for many writers, and it may not always be the case for me. But for my last few projects the contracts have been signed before I actually start writing the book, meaning I get an up-front advance from the publisher.

Obviously there are a lot of benefits for me in this system. I get some money right away, so I can cover my living expenses while I work on the book. I also know there is someone who will want my novel when it’s finished, so I don’t have the stress of wondering if my writing is all going to be a waste of time (in the financial sense – I don’t think writing is ever a waste of time in the creative/developing your skills sense). Most importantly, at least for me, the contract gives me deadlines. I have to deliver the manuscript by a certain date in order to keep getting paid. Nothing motivates a lazy writer like a deadline!

The standard contract usually offers staggered payments for your advance. Typically you get some money when you sign the contract, some more money when you actually deliver the manuscript and final payment when the book is published. Later on, if the book sells enough copies, you can get even more money, but first you have to “earn out” your advance. Basically, that means if I get $10,000 for my advance, I have to sell enough books to earn $10,000 in royalties before I see any extra money. (On the bright side, if I don’t sell enough to earn $10,000 in royalties, I don’t have to give the advance back.)

So, once the contract is signed and I have my delivery date for the manuscript, I get to work. I sweat and slave at my computer until I turn my ideas into something worthy of showing to the public – sort of. This is what most people call a first draft; I really wouldn’t want this version of my novel to go out to the public. This is where the editors and publisher come into the picture to help me turn my work into gold.

Once I’m finished, I send the first draft to my editors, who work for the publisher. At this point I’m still working in a purely digital format; in my case I use MS Word to write my novels, then I just e-mail the word doc to my editors. Right now I’m working with two editors - Tricia Narwani at Random House in the US, and Michael Rowley at Random House in the UK. The editor’s job is to read through the manuscript and help make it better – the editor DOES NOT go through and look for typos, grammar and other things like that. That comes much later in the process. Tricia and Michael are more like “first readers” – their job is to give me feedback on the story and characters. They let me know if something works or doesn’t; they let me know if there are problems that need to be addressed. They give suggestions of things that will make the book better, like delving deeper into a character’s motivations to make them more understandable/sympathetic, or maybe giving more background to clarify how/why my world is as it is. The editors are an invaluable part of the creative process – if you want to write a great novel, you need someone else to help you smooth out the rough edges.

It usually takes a couple months (or more) for the editors to get back to me with their comments, suggestions and feedback. As an author, this can be frustrating because you’re eager to find out what folks think. But most editors have multiple books on the go; I’m not the only author they work with. So we have to be patient and give them time. The wheels of publishing move slowly, and that’s a good thing. I’d much rather have something take longer and be done right than get a rushed, inferior product.

Eventually, the manuscript is returned to me (still in digital form) with all the comments from the editors added in. Now it’s time to begin the rewrites. In my case, because I work from very detailed outlines, I usually don’t have a lot of rewrites to do, but there’s always something. I go through the manuscript and look at the comments form the editors. These comments are always notes and suggestions – I’ve never had an editor say “you have to change this”; they always give me their opinion about why something should be added, deleted or rewritten. Most of the time I agree with the suggestions, but sometimes I don’t. In these cases we will talk about it and come to a mutual decision on what to do; in many cases they are happy to leave it as is once I explain why I did something. In other cases, once I speak to them I realize why the reader might be confused and I come up with a way to fix that.

The process actually doesn’t take that long; I can usually finish up the rewrites within a week or two at most. Once I’m done making changes, I send the manuscript back to the publisher again (still in electronic form), usually with my rewrites highlighted or tracked in the document in some way. At this point the manuscript goes through a style edit. The style editor checks for grammar, punctuation, spelling and other technical details. They look for things like awkward phrases, passive voice, toward vs towards, or British vs American spellings. (That’s a major issue for a Canadian educated writer; we jump back and forth a lot.) They also make sure all the names and dates and chronology of my story are correct. (You’d be surprised how often an author makes small changes during the creative process that slip through the cracks, like a character suddenly being a year or two older/younger, or mentioning something that hasn’t happened yet because you rearranged the order of the chapters.) Style editors also make sure that unique things to my world are consistent. For example, when referring to the religious monks are they “the Order”, “The Order” or “the order”? Is Chaos Mage capitalized? What about other titles, names, etc? All of this needs to be internally consistent, and that’s what style editors check for.

As before, any changes the style editor makes are tracked in the document, which is then sent back to me so I can review it. I can accept or reject the changes, though if I reject them I usually give a reason why. Again, almost all of the edits are things that improve the manuscript, so I usually let them stand. Once I sign off on these changes, I return the manuscript (still in a word doc) to the publisher again. But we’re not done yet!

The “final” version of the manuscript is still in a word doc format. It has to be converted to the font and style that will be used for the actual printing. To do that, they need to print out a hard copy of the manuscript in the font, size and paging that will be used for the actual novel. This is called a galley proof. (That’s where we are at now with book 2.) During the printing process, it’s possible for mistakes to creep in: words or lines can be left out or repeated, or other small errors can crop up. So once the pages are printed, a copy is made and sent to me so I can go through and make sure it looks right. But I’m not the only set of eyes on it at this stage; they also have two proof readers going through to make sure the printed version matches the final electronic version exactly.

With all this, you might be surprised to learn that mistakes still creep in. People will find typos in a book and complain that nobody was checking it, but I think they fail to realize how difficult it is to catch EVERYTHING. It’s easy for a word or character to get missed because we are talking about HUGE numbers. The word count on The Scorched Earth is over 125K. That’s over 700,000 characters. Even if we are 99.999% accurate, that would still leave 7 mistakes per book. Of course everybody strives for perfection, but inevitably once you get tens of thousands of readers looking at the book someone will find something that slipped through. So if you’re one of those readers who complains about the one or two minor typos you find in a novel, you should realize that it’s amazing you don’t find more!

After the galley proofs are approved, the book is put into a bound format called an Advance Reader Copy, or ARC. ARCs are soft-cover volumes with a generic cover: they usually have a simple pattern and the name of the book and author. These are sent to reviewers and other folks so they can get an early peek at the novel. ARCs are kind of cool, because they aren’t available to the general public – you usually have to be an industry insider to get them. But there are copies out there; sometimes publishers will give some away to lucky fans at Conventions, or readers in things like the Amazon Vine program will sometimes get them.

The ARC copies usually come out a month or so before the final product. The final version, with the fully corrected print and the final cover and some reviewer quotes on the back, is then printed up and shipped out to stores, who usually get them a week or two before the official release date.

So there you go – from first draft to bookshelf in several not-so-easy steps. In case you’re wondering, this whole process usually takes 6-9 months. So by the time the book comes out, it’s been a long time since I actually wrote it. In fact, I’m probably well into my next project, which makes it hard for me when fans ask very detailed questions about the story. In their minds it’s fresh, but for me it’s old news – I’m already focusing on something else. So don’t be surprised if an author gives you a blank stare when you ask about that specific sentence on page 137.

Okay, I guess that’s it for this update. Go, Spurs, go!

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