A couple of years ago, I ran into a college friend who asked me, “Do you live a glamorous life?” Oh, right. Here’s a writer’s life:
I wrote Buster Midnight’s Café in three months and The Quilt Walk in less time than that. The Chili Queen took about 25 years. On the whole, however, it takes me about six months to produce a first draft. But that’s just the beginning of a long road to publication.
This is the how the process works. When it works.
First, there is no magic bullet. You may start a book with a rush of enthusiasm, thinking maybe this time God is going to do the typing, but that fades soon enough. Writing is a job, something you do every day. So I go to work each morning, just like everybody else. I write a page a day, maybe 600 words, sometimes more. I write every day, including Saturdays and Sundays, although I’m not religious about it. I don’t take a laptop with me on trips, which is one reason I love to travel. In fact, the only place I write is at my computer in Denver.
At the end of six months or so, I have a written and rewritten draft that I think is good enough to send to my agents. Since I am not their only client and reading is time-consuming, it may take awhile for them to get back to me. During that waiting period, of course, I go from thinking my manuscript is a masterpiece so fine that they have already sent it to my editor, to they are trying to think of a way to tell me what I’ve written is drivel. The truth is usually somewhere in between, usually closer to the drivel side.
Eventually, we will have a conference call in which they tell me the strong and weak points of the manuscript and why it has to be rewritten. My agents are unusual (and doubly valuable) because they act as first-line editors. This process is repeated once or twice more, until my agents are satisfied. Thank you, Danielle and Joanna.
About a year after I started the book, then, it goes to my editor. She will want changes, too. With The Bride’s House, she suggested I rewrite the third section. With Fallen Women, my upcoming novel, she asked for only a few tweaks. This is also the time when we talk about a title. Sometimes the title I’ve come up with is fine. That happened with The Persian Pickle Club and Prayers for Sale. Shoot, with The Bride’s House, I came up with the title before I even got the idea for the plot. Other times, my title is no good, and we have to come up with something else. Fallen Women, my upcoming novel, was originally titled Holladay Street, which was Denver’s Wild West red-light district. But my editor was afraid that, despite the spelling—”Holladay” versus “Holiday”—readers would think the subject was Christmas, not prostitution. Surprise! Some books—′True Sisters, for instance—never did have a working title. I always referred to it as “the handcart book.”
The next step is copy-editing, which happens weeks or even months later. An independent editor goes through the manuscript word by word, checking for spelling, factual errors, and inconsistencies. It’s a humbling process. Some writers see the editor as the enemy, always messing with their work. But having once been in that position, I know an editor’s job is to improve the manuscript, not make the writer feel incompetent. But I still feel like an idiot when I get the copy-edited version.
Meanwhile, my editor is working with the production people on a cover. They may come up with a choice of covers. There were two designs for Tallgrass, one of which was so outstanding that we all agreed that was it. But we don’t always agree. With Prayers for Sale, I liked the town on the cover but not the dress floating in the sky. My agent liked the dress but didn’t care much about the town. So we tried the cover first without the dress and then without the town, before going back to the original design. When I saw the cover design for Fallen Women, which I will share with you as soon as St. Martin’s lets me, all I could say was, “Wow!” It’s sensational. I have to say that while I’m consulted on the cover, I don’t hold much stock in my opinions. I tend to be more concerned about accuracy than artistic value, which doesn’t make for good cover design. The worst covers I’ve had are the ones in which I’ve had the most say.
Promotional planning begins about six months before the book comes out. There’s the St. Martin’s catalogue extolling the book. Advance Reader Copies go to bookstores, book editors, bloggers, and influential writers who might be willing to write a book jacket blurb. I get the final proofs. By then, I’ve read the book so many times that it’s stale, so I’m at the who-told-you-you-could-write? stage. (Actually, I put it a little more forcefully to myself.) But it’s too late to back out, because the publicity people have begun setting up interviews and signings, speeches and anything else they can think of to promote the book.
Everything comes to a head on publication day, two to three years after I started writing the book. I set aside four to six weeks for promotion. Then it’s back to the saddle, because with any luck, I’ve got one and maybe two manuscripts already working their way through the process.
Glamorous, right? —SD
Come April, Bob and I will have been married 50 years. Oh, I know, you’re thinking how could that be possible? She must have been 12 when she married. But the fact is I was the last of my college crowd to wed, so old that my mother kept asking, “Have you met any nice boys lately?”
Bob and I met at the Denver advertising agency where we both worked, Bob as an account executive, me as the receptionist. He changed agencies a month later, and not long after that, I joined the staff of Business Week. We ran into each the next year at the bank, and he asked if I knew how to Twist. He needed someone to pose doing the dance for a pretzel ad. Of course I could do the Twist I told him. Then I went home and phoned my brother and said, “Quick, you have to teach me how to Twist.”
It’s been a good marriage, one of the best. We’ve had our rough spots. Marriage would be dull without them. I’m not easy to live with. I have a bad temper. I’m self-centered and quick to find fault. But Bob puts up with all that. He’s supportive of my career. Not all men of my generation would be. I think about that when I see him in the back of a room, smiling as he listens to me give a talk he’s heard so many times he could give it himself.
I’m not sure why our marriage works so well, better now than ever. One reason, I guess, is that we both love being part of our family, with our daughters, Dana and Kendal, and now our grandson, Forrest; Lloyd, Bob’s brother, and my brother and sister. We share the same values and take pride in the same things. We agree on how to spend money and where to go on vacations. We both like soup, and pie better than cake. Neither of us can stay up past 9 p.m. We watch “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” reruns. More important, we agree my birthday is the most important day of the year. These things add up, you know.
We haven’t decided how we’ll celebrate this milestone. We’re not big on parties or lavish vacations. Maybe we’ll repeat our honeymoon trip. It worked the first time. —SD
The Quilt Walk Wins
The Quilt Walk, Sandra’s first children’s book, is the winner of the 2013 National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Wrangler Award for juvenile fiction. The purpose of the prestigious Wrangler Awards is to encourage writers and others “to tell the great stories of the West, both past and present, with accuracy and artistic quality.” This is Sandra’s second Wrangler. She won in 1980 in the art book category for Sacred Paint, a biography of western artist Ned Jacob.
Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.. By Anne Lamott. Riverhead Books.
I think you know that Anne Lamott is my favorite nonfiction writer. Her books on faith are irreverent, funny, and helpful. She has a relationship with God we all want. She refers to God as “Her,” although she once called God “Phil” because she asked a vendor to inscribe her bracelet with “Philippians 4:4-7. He got only as far as ‘Phil.’”
The book is titled for Lamott’s three prayers. “Help” is a prayer we all know—help, as in “helpme, helpme, helpme.” “Thanks” is another prayer that we offer up, although not as often as “help.” And “Wow” is for those special times—a sunset, a good book, Forrest’s artwork. It’s in response to a surprise gift from God.
Here’s one of Lamott’s favorite prayers: