This year I want to read slowly. I want to savor novels, biographies, histories, picture books. I don’t want to consume books; I want to live with them.

This year I want to write quietly in my own time, off line.

This year I want to think clearly. I want to take walks, and stare out windows and grant myself the peace to pursue my ideas as far as they will take me.

What are your resolutions for the new year?

End of Summer

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Do you feel like you should be buying school supplies? Notebooks, calendars, new pencils. I still go back to school shopping with my children, which satisfies the craving, but I have a feeling that I’ll end up buying pencil cases and graphing calculators even after my last child graduates from college.

I’ve just finished the latest draft of my book, and finished a new story as well. Now, as September approaches, I feel as though I should be starting a new project–although I have a couple outstanding. There’s something about the light this time of year, a shift from head on summer intensity to a shier autumn light. The days are cool; the air is crisp. Classes are starting up again. Everything seems possible.

The publication process involves many interludes while you wait for people to read your work.   What can you do while you’re waiting?

Here are some of the activities I’ve come up with over time.

1. Catch up with friends you haven’t seen because you’ve been working.  Listen to them say I don’t know how you finish those books all the time.  Smile modestly and avoid saying–actually I’m never really finished.

2. Catch up on reading.  I suggest a long and depressing non-fiction book, which will make any of your own worries seem trivial.   Great topics for the purpose:  the East German secret police, extinct species, an ecological disaster, or doomsday scenario of your choice.

3. Clean the house and clear your desk.  Take many loads to Goodwill.  Organize the closets.  Go to the Container Store and become consumed with storage bins.

4. Exercise until your heart rate reaches the point where you forget you ever wrote a book.

5.  Clear out the 350 spam messages on your blog.  Note your favorites, like “Your article made me shiny.”   Who said computers can’t write?  Artificial Intelligence lives.

6.  Write a short story.  My favorite post-novel activity.  They are so delightfully . . . small.   It’s like returning from a hike through the jungle and up rocky cliffs.  Your feet are bleeding.  Your arm is sore from breaking a path with your machete.  Now you sit down and soak your feet and start planting moss in a hand-blown glass terrarium.

7.  Start working on all the other books you’ve been putting off.  Just kidding!  (Maybe).

The other day I told a friend I was finishing a new book.  She said, “That’s amazing.  Do you write a book every year?”

Um, no.  More like every four years!

Sometimes I think books are like other people’s pregnancies.  They go so fast.

I get the opposite response as well.

A friend saw me working in a coffee shop.  He asked what I was doing, and I said I was revising.

He looked at me with great sympathy and said, “Still?”

It’s a bit like being in your third trimester.  Oh, you’re still here!

Well, a third draft is much easier than a third trimester.  No waddling.  No restless nights.  In a lot of ways, the third draft is the best part of the process.  You’ve got your complete story.  You know your characters.  You’ve figured out what you want to say.  You’ve worked on clarity and pacing.  Now you have a chance to make subtle changes and delve deeper.   It’s pretty wonderful, actually.

Best of all, at this stage, I get to work with my editor.   My first drafts are mostly solitary.  Second and third drafts, I get to talk to my editor and my agents.  I’m not alone!

In my next post I’ll discuss what to do while you’re waiting  . . .

When I get ready to deliver (sounds like a baby, right?) I tell my editor in advance.  I try to give her a couple of weeks notice, because she’s busy and I don’t want to startle her with a 385 page book on a random Tuesday.   So a couple of weeks ago, I gave my editor a delivery date.  April 26.

Novels are big.  There’s no way around it.  Delivering a novel is not like showing someone your 14 line love poem.  Reading a novel requires setting aside some time.  In fact, I’m setting aside a whole week to read my own book, before delivering.  It will take me the week to read it carefully–and I already know what happens.

As I read, I try to catch little glitches, cut extra words, and improve sentences where ever I can.  For this reason I always do my final read through on paper.  I believe you can see infelicities on paper that you’d miss on the screen.   Reading on paper is particularly good for continuity.  Screen-pages scroll one to the next in a confusing loop.  On paper, you stop and say–wait a second–let me look again at the shape of this chapter, or the strength of this transition.  You can also catch blank pages, widows, or orphan text in a way you can’t on screen.

On paper I can mark up my text in pen.   I print single sided, in case I need to add paragraphs on the back of a page.  I write in the margins and generally get messy in a way I can’t on screen.  Track changes just can’t capture this kind of hand written work.  Maybe someday the technology will get there, but right now, track changes are clunky.  They are simply typed text in a different color awkwardly spliced.

My draft is in good shape now.  I’m not adding new chapters at this point, or moving sections around.  In the past months, I’ve read the book twice for pacing and continuity.  My goal this week is to read and mark and input corrections at a medium pace–about 100 pages a day.  On Friday I’ll email the whole thing to my editor on my self-imposed deadline.  I’m excited!

Now that I’m getting ready to send in my second draft, I feel I can take a breath and pick up the thread here!  I hope to return to posting once a week.

Do you remember those old “Prince Valiant” cartoons in the Sunday newspaper?  They’d always start with a panel called Our Story, because nobody could keep track of the plot.  Well, it’s been a while, so I feel like I should catch you up.

Where I left off here, I’d just received comments from my editor on my first draft.  As usual, these sparked new ideas, and I set out to revise and rewrite.  I spent about eight months revising, which is typical for me, and now I’m getting ready for my final read through of the book.

Readers often ask me how long it takes to write a book and how much I revise.  Every writer is different, but here’s my general schedule:

1. I spend about a year figuring out what I’m doing.  This involves a lot of writing and thinking.

2. I spend about nine months writing the first draft.

3. After my editor reads it, I think about her comments for a few weeks, and then plunge into revision.  I’ll revise for six months to a year.

4. I send her the new draft and we work together, exchanging the manuscript.  She generally marks it up on paper, which I find WAY better than track changes in Word.  This goes on for a couple of months, until we agree the book is ready for the copy editor.

This point in the process is a happy one for me, because I’ve done the hardest work.  There may be places to develop or clarify, but I’ve shaped the book.  I’ve said what I wanted to say.   If my book were a bridge, I’d say that now I’ve built it all the way to the other side.  If my book were a building, this is where I’d hoist the flag.

Dear Blog

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I have not forgotten you. I’m just working soooo hard on my new book right now. I have no words left. As soon as I send in my revised draft, I will return here . . .

Your novelist,
Allegra

I’m fascinated by great artists who take their time between projects.  There are amazing musicians who do NOT perform hundreds of concerts a year.  Brilliant writers with five year gaps between books.  Painters who produce a small body of work.  One explanation for the gaps is that the artist is waiting–and waiting and waiting for inspiration to strike.  Another is that the artist is sick / depressed / stressed / distracted / addicted / blocked.  A third explanation is both more powerful and more mundane: the artist is working, developing  a project instead of moving on to the next new thing.

For me, time to develop a project is the greatest luxury.  It’s a gift to revise and in some cases re-imagine elements of a book.  I can add new colors, and follow promising ideas where they lead.  Revision can mean the difference between a tree-ripened book, and hard green fruit.

Readers often ask me–how do you know when your work is done?  How do you know when to stop revising?  You can definitely over-think and over-revise.  You can fuss until your book turns mushy.  How do you know when to stop?   Revision works best when you have a powerful vision of what you want.  As in life, you have to maintain a strong sense of what you were looking for in the first place.   As if in life, this is easier said than done!

However, I find revision to be the most interesting part of the writing process.  The delving in, the testing and retesting, the sheer imaginative effort, the problem solving fascinate me.  It’s true that sometimes your first instinct and your first idea are best.  But often, your second and third ideas are better.  I love the chance to add those layers, to delve deeper, and think harder.  When I finish this work, I’ll send the new draft to my editor.  I can’t wait!

This is the second in a series of posts on the publication process.  I’m following the progress of my new novel, Arcadia, in its metamorphosis from manuscript to book.

After delivering a complete draft, I wait for my editor to comment. I’m lucky that my editor reads fast, so I don’t wait too long.  In this case, my editor and agent both finished my book over the Labor Day weekend.  I talked to both about their impressions.  When I talk to my editor, I take notes, and I’m careful to write down all her questions.  I’ve already done quite a bit of revision on my own, but now I’ll be revising with her queries in mind.

Even more important than our phone conversation will be the memo my editor writes me.  I like a written response because by its nature, a letter requires my editor to articulate, prioritize, and develop each point in a way that free flowing conversation does not.  This is our fifth book together, so we know each other well.  We trust and respect each other.  As in every editorial relationship there’s give and take.  I tend to agree with most points–although not all.   We talk about character development, back story, drama, pacing, all the elements of a narrative.

After I receive my editor’s memo and think hard about it, I will start revising.   When I finish my revision, I’ll send her the new draft, and then we will generally repeat the process for a second revision together!   Judging from past books, this process will take several months.  Only when we’re both satisfied, will the book will move on to the copy editor.

What I enjoy about working with my editor is the chance to discuss my work as it develops.   When I finish a draft, I trade solitude for dialog with an astute reader.

I get a lot of questions about how a book gets published–especially in this time of instant printing.   How long does it take?  What is the editorial process like?   Why is there a lag between turning in a book and seeing it in stores or on an electronic reader?  I’ve decided to post a series of notes to answer these questions.  I’ll be following my new novel, Arcadia, as it makes its way to press this year.

So the first step in publication is delivery of a complete manuscript.   In the old days, I’d print out my book and box up a couple of copies.  I’d shlep these to the Fed Ex store in Harvard Square and mail them to my agent and my editor in New York.   These days, I deliver my book electronically, attaching the doc to an email.   Email means it’s easy to send simultaneously to my editor and agent.  They can download the draft and read it electronically, or print it out and read on paper.  Often their assistants will read along with them.

Delivery methods have changed, but I still get butterflies!  I’ll be sending in Arcadia on Friday.  After that I’ll wait for my editor’s notes.  What will she say?  How long will I have to revise?  Watch this space . . .