It’s often said that writing a book is like giving birth. While I have done one but not the other, I can confidently say that one major difference between the two experiences is that the gestation period of the latter is more or less reliably nine months.
I thought it might interest unpublished writers to get a sense of how long it took my friend and client Fiona Higgins to move from first drafts to published book with her novel The Mothers’ Group.
Two years ago: Fiona sends me a draft of the novel she has been writing. I am astounded. All I’d been hearing was how she hadn’t been getting any sleep due to her new baby. What I didn’t know was that Fiona was using the sleepless hours making notes and inventing characters and plotlines for a story about six very different women who are all the mothers of newborn children. Some of us might have settled for a hot cocoa and a bit of telly. Fiona is not one of those people. It took her about one year to get to this point.
Reading the draft, I see immediately that it has loads of potential but needs more work. I respond to the draft with a range of suggestions ranging from minor to substantial. She knows the drill: we went through exactly the same process for her first book, a memoir.
18 months ago: Fiona sends me a revised draft. She is a dream client in that she is open to discussing ways of strengthening a manuscript. Note: I do not mean that she automatically agrees with everything I suggest! She takes suggestions (not only from me, but a small group of trusted readers), sifts them to find common themes, thinks them over, and addresses them in her own way with any changes that she makes.
This is a stronger manuscript, but I still feel it needs more work.
At this point, Fiona is probably starting to question whether or not I know what I’m talking about.
I have to be careful now not to push her too hard. The fact is that the eventual publisher will want to shape the book further, and I can see that there is still room for strengthening more detailed aspects of the novel. But that level of detail is a job for the publisher, not the agent.
15 months ago: The third draft incorporating further revisions arrives via email. This version I feel is ready to send out.
May 2011: Before I can do that, two things happen. First, Fiona sends a further revised manuscript based on reaching out to various experts representing characters or action featured in the book (a lawyer, a doctor, an ambulance driver) who advise technical changes for accuracy.
Second, Fiona gives birth. Yes, she has been pregnant throughout the revision stage, and goes into labour conveniently after finishing the revisions.
June 2011: I send it out to a shortlist based on publishers (or editors in US parlance) whom I think will like it. Acquiring books is largely a matter of personal taste, so it’s inevitable to get a couple of quick rejections en route to establishing a group of extremely interested potential publishers. This is a dream for author and agent alike.
July 2011: Allen & Unwin is the successful bidder. They schedule the book for April 2012.
October 2011: Fiona responds to a highly detailed editorial report from an Allen & Unwin editor. This report focuses on the details. It is rich with questions, suggestions and constructive feedback, a testament to the enduring value of a great close editor.
November 2011: The final manuscript goes into production mode – copyediting, typesetting, proofreading. The cover is developed from a dozen initial rough ideas into one that everyone, including the author, loves. (NB that result is not always the case. Authors should be aware that the publisher has final say over covers – much like a President’s veto power over Congress.)
December 2011 – January 2012: The cover blurb is one of the last things to be finalised before the book goes to the printer in mid-January. Allen & Unwin’s sales reps work hard to sell-in as many copies as possible to booksellers, who must order copies for their “stores” (quotation marks indicate not all stores are made of bricks and mortar) around three months out from publication.
January-February 2012: Books arrive in the warehouse to be distributed. Marketing and publicity efforts are well underway with long lead-time publications (eg women’s magazines) and advance reading copies to booksellers.
March 26, 2012: The Mothers’ Group arrives in stores. Happy publication day, Fiona.