Saturday, April 28, 2007

The making of a book

Before I had ever written a book, I pondered the process. What happens after the author writes the story?

I now know that there are a whole crew of people who offer the creative input to make a book a success, and it’s kind of neat.

At every step of the way, more and more people take on partial ownership of the book. In the beginning, what I’d written was all mine. A few people had seen it and offered comments, but I’d pretty much created the initial pile of paper and words on my own.

The first person to join the project was Christopher Schelling, a literary agent who became my agent, after reading the four hundred single sided sheets I’d given him, in a cardboard box on the dining table.

He thought, “This is really good!” But it didn’t stop there. He also thought, “This sentence needs to be fixed.” And then there was another sentence in need of repair, and another, and another. He sent it back to me with notes, and he thought to himself, “I’ve helped make this quite a bit better. Let’s see what happens.”

Well, publishers loved it. That’s what happened. So (I) (we) picked one. At that point, there was me, Christopher, my mate (in person) and my brother (in his basement, on the phone.) A few days later, I thought, “I’m glad I picked Crown. They seem like they’re really going to do a good job.” And everyone else had similar thoughts, for both themselves and me.

Like a snowball rolling down a hill, my manuscript had picked up three more people, and they were now stuck to it, headed down the mountain. And when it rolled past Crown, it picked up a few more.

And it started to move faster. Rachel Klayman, my new editor, called and said, “Steve Ross, our publisher, has been talking about your book. He think’s it’s a story of inspiration and hope, and we should bring it out for the Christmas season, rather than the spring.” Clearly, Steve had stuck to my snowball. “I decided to publish it two hours after meeting him,” he told a reporter. Yes, it’s definitely his book, too, I said to myself.

So “my book” was now “their book.” But that was only the beginning. Rachel took her new manuscript home, and went to work marking things up. Hundreds and hundreds of little changes. Seeing all those changes, some would have said, “Leave it alone! Go write your own book!” But I realized that we had the basis of a symbiotic relationship. She could not create books without an author, and I could not convert my pile of papers into a book without an editor. And she proved to be a really capable one. It worked out well. When Rachel and I were done, I read what we have and thought, “Wow! This is something I could have bought in a bookstore!” It was significantly improved.

But it didn’t end there. There were assistants, folks like Lucinda Bartley, who – unknown to me – now say to themselves and colleagues and buddies, “I suggested he do that in Chapter 22,” and “that’s my sentence, there on 214.” And then it went to a legal reader, an attorney for the publisher. And she stuck to it, too. “I don’t think he’ll have any problems now,” she tells her friends. “There were a few edgy passages, but we fixed them.” And it’s going to be okay now, because of what she contributed.

And then it went to the copy editor, an un-named person deep within Random House. And it stuck to her, too. I know because it came back with a little note: “I really enjoyed working on this book.” And she had worked hard. The story Rachel and I had “finished” came back with hundreds of little changes. Periods. Commas. Italics. And little sentence repairs that once again added up to a significantly better book.

And now, it’s stuck to a whole new crew of people – the book designer – who decides how far down a page the chapter starts, and what typeface we use, and how big the first letter is. And the layout crew, who take all the words from everyone before and pour them into the book designer’s shape, adding their own little bits as they go.

So it’s a vastly more complex creative process than I ever imagined, and it’s not done yet. I had a realization: This is just like what happened when I worked as an engineer, designing electronic games at Milton Bradley. I’d go home and say, “I designed a new static protection system for Microvision!” My friend Bob would say, “I’m glad I figured out that motor control.” Scott would tell his girlfriend about building the breadboard that would soon be a custom integrated circuit. And somewhere, way up the line, there was a guy who invented the game and brought it to Milton Bradley to get the whole thing rolling.

And overseeing it all, we had the big bosses – Jim Shea, and Jake O’Donnell. Thirty years later, Jenny Frost and Steve Ross play those same roles at Crown.

So now I understand what book authors and game inventors really do. We wad some snow into balls, and toss it over the edge. And those snowballs gather tens and hundred and finally thousands of people as they roll downhill, each person proud to talk about their unique creative contribution. The publishers, the printers, the people who write the ad copy, and even the guy who figured out the just-in-time delivery system to keep the bookstores from running out at Christmas. Finally, at the end of the line, the sales people who say, “I really liked this book. You should read it!” and the readers, who do.

It’s truly something to be proud of. For everyone.

7 comments:

Kim Stagliano said...

Love the snow ball analogy. John, I have to recommend that you preorder "LOTTERY" by Pat Wood. The two of you and your books are kindred spirits, though not in the Aspergian sense. Lottery is about a cognitively challenged man who wins $12 million dollars. Pat provides a keen insight into his thought processes. I had the honor of reading the manuscript a couple of months ago. Like yours, her "snowball" is the size of a GLACIER! I hope my snowball (book) gathers as many wonderful people as yours and Pat's. Here's a link to her site.

http://patriciawoodauthor.com

All the best,

Kim

John Elder Robison said...

I did order it, actually. Thanks

Chumplet said...

This seems to be true in newspaper publishing, too. I design advertising, and when a feature page gets an award, the sales representative is the one who gets the trophy. I'm the one who came up with the colours, the words, the pictures, and put it all together after the sales rep sold the little 2"x2" boxes in the middle.

In the literary world, the whole thing seems to be in reverse. The author does a big chunk of work, and everyone else is proud to be part of the final product.

Of course John knows about Patricia's book. I'm going to have a busy summer, purchasing the books that sprang from the minds of people I'm getting to know in cyber world.

Michelle O'Neil said...

So beautifully written! Thanks for the inside peek.

Connor Glynn said...

good job john. i feel i can really relate to how you feel in your book, as i have aspergers syndrome

Sarah said...

John

Thankyou for your book.

I have been working with children with Autism/Aspergers (between the ages of 5 to 19) for 8 years. When I first applied for the job I had no experience and no idea of the concept of this amazing way of life. To say the least the people I work with completely challenged my way of thinking.. Or so I thought. In the first few years I worked out it was actually I that was challenging them by being inexperienced at the basics of their way of thinking and living. Through my own research and self findings I have now come to find a happy place in which we exist together, respecting one anothers differences and teaching eachother new things every day, albeit sometimes unintentionally! Your book was an excellent look into the actual logical thinking of an Aspergian, rather than the findings of someone who believes they know it all just by "studying" behaviours". Your account of your experiences was amazing, please continue writing, I do believe it is another one of your gifts.

Also, I believe that the few Aspergians lives that I am in contact with will benefit even further from my contact with them due to the new things I have come to consider, compliments of your writing.

Sarah, Australia.

LJP said...

Hi. I'm an Aspergian and I'm glad to have read your book. Thanks...