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My Writer's Journal

A Reader Asks

"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. Read More 
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About Kids Publishing

Last Sunday I took part in TEDxArcadia at a college in the Philadelphia suburbs, a long day with 18 live presenters alternating with videos of popular TED talks from other parts of the country. One was a 10-year-old girl who had already had several books published and was making a very strong argument against traditional publishers who "don't want to work with children." Probably she's a genius, and it may well be that her work is of the highest order.

Then in last Sunday's NY Times I read a front-page article about kids whose parents are paying hefty sums to have their children's stuff published as e-books. Apparently it helps their self-esteem. My own view, and it probably won't win me any friends here, is that this is no way to become a good writer. It also occurs to me that becoming a good writer may not be the goal at all. It's just to be a published writer; maybe even a writer read by someone other than your teacher.

I've always been worried about people who sign up for workshops and come with just one really burning question: "How do I get published?" Not how do I get more tension in this narrative, how do I make my characters more believable, how much description is too much, how do I make my dialogue better? And I never have a satisfactory answer.

I have a lot of friends who are writers--published writers, some more successful than others. I don't know any who have hit the jackpot on the first try (or the second, or the tenth). Years ago a friend who worked in another field called and asked for the name of my agent. "Why do you want that?" I asked.
"Because I'm writing a best-seller, and I need to get signed up right away." I told her I was glad to hear that and asked her how far along she was with the book. "First chapter," she said. I don't know if she ever made it to Chapter Two.

All my writer friends know that rejection is the norm, success is elusive, and becoming a writer is a lifetime job. Kids ought to know that, too. Read More 
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