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Producing a Book

Volume VIII, Issue One | March 2013

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 & #151 ′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

Dottie, Ginger, Emmy Blue, Ruby Archuga,, Peppermint Patty, Phyllis, and Forrest

Fifty Years and Counting

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