Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Timeline of a Book Project--How Long It Can Take, What to Do at Each Stage

D.W., a reader from the West Coast, emailed me this week with some great questions about the timeline of a book project and how a writer can best assess her needs for feedback at any stage.  D.W. just read my new book, Your Book Starts Here, and is working on her first manuscript.  "Thank you for your wonderful book on getting published," she wrote. "It has been the biggest help.  But I have a couple of questions."  And she listed them:

1.  At what point do I spend the money for a professional editor?
2.  Does one wait until they find an agent and let the agent guide them or should it be done before the agent sees the work?
3.  When does one get their work copyrighted? Is that part of the work an agent helps with also?

D.W. is right to ask these questions.  Books have particular timelines, and they need different things to help them grow at different stages.

For many years--and the last eight books I've published--I've worked with a successful timeline for building a manuscript and moving into the editing, then the submission process.  Of course, it varies with each new book, because books, like babies, have their own plans.  Some take a lot longer than you expect; others are very fast because you've done so much of the "gestating" before you put fingers to keyboard.

Writers know that a lot of book writing happens solo.  You, your words, the dream worlds you're occupying, are not shared with others in the beginning.  No editors are involved because there's not a lot to edit yet.  This is as it should be.  You're gestating something very fragile, easily destroyed by other eyes.  I love the support of other writers and creative artists, including professional editors, during the writing journey, but if I share my work too early, their voices blend too easily with my own and confuse me.

I need time to listen to my own thoughts, let my own ideas emerge.

Unlike other creative artists who give themselves this important time to explore and "birth" their idea before sharing it with the world, lots of book writers have publishing in mind immediately.  I know very few new artists who paint with the goal of a gallery, few beginning musicians who are composing for that recording contract.  But writers tend to be motivated by the starry dream of seeing their name on the cover of a published book.  Or by the hopeful royalties that will let them quit their day job.

Give yourself the dream time, first.  Books aren't that different from paintings or a musical composition or a dance--there needs to be open, goal-less space in your timeline.  Space for just writing, for exploring your book idea, before you imagine an audience.

Truthfully, you must enjoy a dedicated one-to-one conversation with your book, before you are able to produce a publishable manuscript.

The essence of your book, the story only you can tell, comes from the unstructured part of the creative self.  This part loves the dream time of incubation.  Go into it and live in it for a while.  You'll gradually get a sense of what your book is really about.  Its voice is unique to you; you must have time and interior space to find it.

That the first successful step on the timeline:  to have a chance to explore.  A sabbatical from the goal of publishing it.  For this stage, I advocate the "island writing" method promoted by writers like Ken Atchity and Natalie Goldberg, where you allow yourself to scribe a collection of random scenes or ideas, then begin to structure them.  You allow yourself to be in the "process" of writing your story, exploring it and getting deeper into your material.

Moving into Conversation with the Reader
But at some point, you do need to think of the book as a "product" as well as a way for you to personally explore ideas and images.  At this second stage, welcoming the reader into the conversation is essential.

This is where we begin to work with structure.  The book moves out of the dreamy place forever--and we structure the islands so that the reader can actually understand the dream too. 

I find we cycle back and forth between these two stages--dreamtime and structuring--as we create the manuscript.  For instance, we may run into an obstacle or a big question--and we're not sure how to proceed.  So, it often helps to return to the exploration of the material, do some research or create a collage--a wonderful exploration tool used by many professional writers--to see which direction is best.

This two-part experience takes however long it takes.  I always advise getting a lot written before structuring, then pull the bits and pieces (islands) together into a rough draft before editing too much.

When It's Time for Editing Help
With my first books I didn't worry about when to bring in an editor.  I didn't need to hire one, because back then (the 1980s) publishers had in-house editors.  Part of my book contract was assistance from an editor.  They were trained to help me see the forest instead of just the trees, the whole book instead of just my individual words.

This doesn't happen as often anymore, except at some small presses.  Agents can help a writer with editing, but rarely the early stages of editing--only the final polish.  So it's up to writers to decide when their manuscript is holding together well enough to warrant an outside editor.

I encourage writers first to learn some editing skills and try to edit their own material.  How do you do this?  Take writing and editing classes.  Learn the areas you need better skills--characters, for instance, or dialogue or balancing your information with enough illustration (anecdotes) if you're writing nonfiction.  Study good books to see how those writers did it.  Read (a lot!) in your genre.


When I've polished as best I can, I work with my writing partner, my writers' group, to see what else needs attention.  I learn my blind spots as a writer.  Many things I'll be able to fix myself if I can see them. 
Then, when I've done all I can, I find a professional editor for hire, someone who is not familiar with my every word and can give me a clear perspective that peer reviewers can't.  I work with a professional editor for each book I publish.

Again, writers ask:  Don't agents give this kind of help?  Some do.  But only after the manuscript is very clean (well edited) or the subject matter is so compelling or the writer is so famous or well-connected, it's worth the agent's time to dive in.  Most agents I've known will not take on a manuscript that hasn't been through editing.  And usually, you only get one chance with an agent, so it's best to take care of the editing yourself, before you approach an agent.

Before Submitting--Do You Need to Copyright Your Manuscript?
Some writers feel it's important to register their unpublished manuscripts with the U.S. Copyright Office (click here to find out more).  For me, in all my years in publishing, I've found that few people steal other writer's works.  Of course, there are exceptions, but the reality is that publishing is a very small world, especially with the internet.

I've been happy to just add a copyright notice on my works that go out to readers either electronically or in print, just by writing (c) [year] [my name] and All rights reserved on the bottom page of the story, article, essay, column, or manuscript.  This serves as a warning and has protected me well without the hassle of registering the work officially.

Publishers take care of this process, as well as getting the book its ISBN, etc., and if you self-publish, you'll be guided by the online printer as to the steps to register yourself.

These are the different stages in my book writing timeline.  Be comfortable at the stage you're in now, give it the time it deserves before moving too fast to the next.  Your book will benefit.  

Your Weekly Writing Exercise
1.  Brainstorm on paper a possible timeline for your book project.  Ask questions like:
*  Where am I now in the process, based on what I just read?
*  With my work, family, and other obligations, how much time can I devote to my book each week?
*  Where would I like to be with my book in a year?
*  What editing skills can I learn in the meantime?  What is missing in my editing toolbox?