The Numbers, or, How Writing a Book Is Like Giving Birth

Numbers 7/52

Before embarking on a second career as a writer, I was a software engineer. I majored in applied mathematics in college. Obviously, I enjoy using the analytical parts of my brain as much as the artistic ones. So now that both BE A CHANGEMAKER (my young-adult nonfiction) and MY DOG IS THE BEST (my fiction picture book) are in copyedits, I thought I’d reflect a little on some of the behind-the-scenes numbers involved in these 2 very different creative endeavors.

I knew when BE A CHANGEMAKER was acquired that it was going to be a lot of work in a short period of time: I’d sold it on proposal as a 20,000-word book that would take me 1 year to write, but they wanted at least 45,000 words in 5 months. I was open with the publisher that I wasn’t sure if I could do it (I’m a SLOW writer), but that I would give it my best shot. I dove in and started researching like crazy.

Almost immediately, life threw me a curveball, and I lost pretty much the first 2 months to an unexpected surgery, recovery, and ensuing complications. Things began to look pretty hopeless. Because of the time constraints, I was already drafting on the fly, sending it to the acquisitions editor, and incorporating her feedback as I went along. I became a much faster writer than I ever thought possible, but I still couldn’t quite get there in time. The editor and I strategized on what the highest priority pieces were and what could be left for later. TKWhen I submitted the “final” draft on the original deadline, the manuscript was a not-entirely-off-the-mark 42,200 words, but with 10 known holes left as TK, “to come” later. I continued working to fill in the TK pieces while the manuscript moved on to a full developmental edit round.

Since it had already been through 1 round of editing and the feedback I’d been getting was that it was in pretty good shape, I wasn’t expecting the developmental edit to be overly difficult, even though I had less than 2 weeks to do it. Wowzers, was I wrong! The marked up document I got back from the developmental editor (a different person) had 570 insertions, 414 deletions, and 339 comments, most of which were something along the lines of, “Can you please add x here?—where x was a quote, an exercise, an example, etc. They were excellent suggestions, and I knew I’d have a much better book to show for it if I could do them all! No TKBut try though I did, I still couldn’t get it all done in time: I just needed a few extra days. Luckily, the publisher was willing (bless her!). So, less than 3 weeks from receiving the revision letter, I returned a clean manuscript that was nearly 60,000 words, with 100% of the TKs removed and developmental edits accounted for. Phew!

During those weeks (and, to a lesser extent, the months that preceded them), I definitely questioned both my sanity and my career choice on more than one occasion. I told myself if I survived this experience, I would never, ever write another book like that one. Afterward, I walked around the house like a zombie for a few days, barely able to function, let alone dig out from under the piles of dirty laundry and unpaid bills that had accumulated. All of this couldn’t possibly be worth it, right?
Couch potating

Then a marvelous thing happened. Just like the pain of childbirth fades instantly when you hold your newborn child, I soon forgot the 10- to 12-hour days, the missed meals, the cramped EVERYTHING. The manuscript was accepted: I had done it! Unicorns and rainbows, kittens and puppies, walking on sunshine—that was me. I’d brought to life something that never would have existed without me, and I was on top of the world.

Then I moved on to completing the author questionnaire about who might like the book, review the book, use the book, etc., and THE BOOK started to become a real thing in my mind, a real thing that real people would really read! Recently, the publisher sent me the cover proofs… with my name on them! And now I’m thinking about blurbs and preliminary marketing ideas. I’ve got that floating-on-air feeling again, that hopeful exuberance that comes after an offer. Maybe, just maybe, someone out there will read my book someday and it will matter to them. What was I ever thinking? Of course it was worth it, every single minute! As Adora Svitak, one of the amazing teens I interviewed for the book, said, “It’s good to push yourself. When you really go all out for something… it’s the best feeling in the world.” She is absolutely right about that. I can hardly wait for my next opportunity to do it all over again!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, MY DOG IS THE BEST clocked in at 96 words, and I just found out it went straight to copyediting with zero revisions necessary. As you can probably guess, that feels pretty darn good, too!
smiley face stress ball

Laurie Ann ThompsonLaurie Ann Thompson’s debut young-adult nonfiction, BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS, will be published by Beyond Words/Simon Pulse in September, 2014. She also has two upcoming picture books: an as-yet-untitled biography with Schwartz & Wade/Penguin Random House and MY DOG IS THE BEST with Farrar, Straus, & Giroux/Macmillan. Please visit her website, follow her on Twitter, and like her Facebook page.


Filed under Editing and Revising, Editor, Happiness, Writing and Life

17 responses to “The Numbers, or, How Writing a Book Is Like Giving Birth

  1. Achieving THE BOOK = Awesome!
    Zero revisions for MDitB = WOW!
    Rainbow unicorn graphic = Mandatory for all Emu posts starting now.


  2. Christine Hayes

    Laurie, you are a rock star! Thanks for reminding us that the tough parts are worth it, and that they don’t last forever.


  3. Wow! What you did sounds impossible to me. You obviously work well under pressure. And I think you deserved a “no revisions” break for your picture book 🙂


    • When I was in college, my mom bought me a towel that said, “I thrive on stress.” At the time, I thought that was silly: who needs stress? But now I think there’s some truth to it. I do work well under pressure… for a while. I hit my limit a lot sooner than I used to, and it takes me longer to recover. Self-care has become a necessary piece. 😉


  4. Joshua McCune

    Near the end of revision 4, my editor emailed me with something near congratulations… asked me for a two day turn around on some minor stuff. I was on the moon bouncing with them unicorns. An hour later I get an email telling me I needed to rewrite the ending. The moon exploded.

    But then two days later came and we were off to copyedits and everything was rainbow unicorns again. Though a small part of me does keep expecting to get an email requesting one more revision. Lol.


  5. It was really fun to read about your process and timeline, Laurie! Thanks for sharing.


  6. Congratulations, Laurie! How fabulous that your PB required no edits. I’m wondering now if there’s a 96-word stretch anywhere in my book that got off without any edits. I don’t think so.

    Congratulations also on finishing the almost-impossible project. I’m in awe of you for pulling it off, and can’t wait to read it.


    • I doubt there was a 96-word stretch in my YA that got off without any edits, either, Tara, and I’m in awe of your fast-drafting process! It actually makes me nervous that the PB didn’t get any revisions. There’s that niggling little voice in the back in my head that asks, “Is it really as good as it could be?” For the YA, I’m really thankful I had an awesome editor who pushed me to my very limits to make sure the book is really the best I have to offer.


  7. Lindsey Lane

    Whoa…that was intense! But clearly, you were up for the challenge. Bravo. And really, the 96 word PB was a gift for all that work. Love that!


  8. Wow, Laurie. You’re a machine. I think it’s so cool that you are inspired by the teens you interviewed! I can’t wait to read your books.


  9. Pingback: What a year! » Laurie Ann ThompsonLaurie Ann Thompson

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