"I would love to know some of the steps and stages you use to writing your books," a girl named Sophie wrote to me earlier today, and I thought that might make an interesting post.
It all starts with an idea, of course. Usually the idea just pops into my head out of nowhere, sparked by something I've read or a conversation I've had. Once in a while an editor actually asks me if I'd be interested in writing about a particular subject. I'm not sure where the idea for Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, came from. Someone mentioned Helen, and I wondered if she had a daughter, and when I discovered that she did--Hermione--I began to wonder what it would be like to be the daughter of "the most beautiful woman in the world."
Thinking about the idea means Googling it, getting a rough idea of the subject, checking to see what else has been done with the subject. Lots has been written about Helen of Troy, but very little on Hermione. I decided to read Homer's ILIAD, about the Trojan War. Nothing there about Hermione, not even very much about Helen, but plenty about the other players in the ancient story. I was hooked.
The serious research began. It has gone on for months, even after I began writing the first tentative sentences, feeling my way along, looking for the best way to tell the story. Sometimes I feel I'm on the right track; more often I have to back up and start again. I'm not even half way through BEAUTY'S DAUGHTER, and it's a rough slog. I keep going, even though I know I'll end up trashing most of it. I do most of my thinking on my morning walk, so that I'm ready to write when I sit down at my desk.
I hope to have most of a rough draft done in about two months. It will be hard. No days off, except when I have commitments to teach a workshop or attend a conference. I'm still doing research even while I'm writing. (Hermione decides to go with her father, Menelaus, to fight with the Trojans in hopes of getting Helen back. She knows her father will refuse to take her to the war, but she's determined. So how will I get her there? What will she do once she gets there? Who's with her? Does she have friends? Enemies?)
Each section will be rewritten several times. In July the manuscript will be sent to my editor in NY. She'll go over it and send it back a few weeks later, usually asking for MAJOR REVISIONS. I'll be in despair at first, but then I'll figure it out. Or try to. I'll probably end up having to do a complete rewrite, because anything less is just patchwork. Then I'll send the new version. Weeks later I'll get an email with a list of additional suggested changes. I'll work on them. There may be more, but we're getting there. Finally the editor and I are both satisfied.
Then the fact checker takes over. She/he will have dozens of questions, some small, some not so small. I'll try to fix them. She/he's going to have a hard time with this book, because it's all based on myth. After that, copyediting gets into it and finds sentences that don't quite cut it. I'll fix them. I"ll get a set of galleys to read for errors and hope I find them. By this time it will be 2013. The editor will send me a cover design, and I'll probably love it. There will be maps, and we'll figure out what should go on them. Flap copy has to be written and approved. An Advanced Reading Copy will arrive, the book is in the final states of production, and somebody will call in a panic because an error has been found. Fix it! Fix it!
And then it's done, on its way to being a finished book. And I've already started another one.