The Process (Part One)

Alex Verus #7 is underway, and about 10% complete.  The book’s coming along nicely (and currently ahead of schedule) but there’s no immediate news to share, so for this week’s post I thought I’d write about a more general topic instead.

One of the most common questions I get asked is “When’s the next book coming out?”  I always hate answering it, because when I tell people that the next book is finished, they get all excited and expect to be able to read it soon.  Then I have to watch their faces fall when I explain that it’s going to be a full year before the book hits the shelves.  (Okay, most of the time I don’t actually see their faces fall, since I’m doing it over the internet, but you get the idea.)  It’s generally not immediately obvious to the casual observer why it takes so long for a novel to go from manuscript form to purchasable book, so to try and explain it a little better I thought I’d write up the process.  If you’re interested in how a book gets made, this might give you a little idea of the nuts and bolts of the profession.  If not, it’ll hopefully at least explain why the books seem to take so long to get written.

So here’s the journey that an Alex Verus novel goes through, from conception to the bookstore.  Each step is accompanied by a rough estimate of how many months it takes.  For our guinea pig, the book we’re going to track on its course is Alex Verus #5, Hidden.

Step 1: Idea (??? months)

The little acorn from which the oak tree grows.  All writers collect story seeds, fragments of ideas with the potential to become something more.  In rare cases, they get turned into a book.  More often, they gather dust in a notebook or computer file somewhere.

In the case of Hidden, the initial idea was basic:  do something involving Anne’s past.  This was floating around in my head sometime back in 2012, before I’d even finished with Chosen.  And then it sat and waited, until Chosen was written and the Chosen edits were completed and I had time for something more.

Step 2: Planning (1-2 months)

Some writers can improvise an entire book from scratch, but I’m not one of them.  I need some sort of plan in place before I’m really comfortable sitting down to get started, and the more of an idea I have of what I’m going to write, the better.

The way in which I do plans has changed over the years.  For the early Alex Verus novels I’d draw out detailed plans on A4 sheets, with timelines and events in contrasting colours.  Nowadays my notes are much shorter and more piecemeal, shifting as the plan does.  Hidden’s notes were mostly written on a file on my computer and probably wouldn’t have made much sense to anyone but me.  From the beginning, I knew that there were two plotlines from Chosen that I really wanted to continue and develop:  Richard’s return, and the mystery of Anne’s past.  Everything else developed from there.  I began laying the details of the plot of Hidden in November 2012, and by the end of December 2012 I had a clear enough idea of the book’s early sections to start writing.

Step 3: First Draft (5-7 months)

The longest part and generally the hardest.  When I give percentage updates on my blog, this is usually the bit I’m talking about.

My Alex Verus novels are around 90,000 words in length.  Counting editing time, this means that if I average a little over 500 words a day, I can write a book from beginning to end in 6 months.  In Hidden’s case, the official starting date was January 1st 2013, and the deadline was June 30th 2013.  I made it with a day or so to spare.

With the manuscript done, you’d think that the worst was over.  It is, but there’s still a lot to do before the book can hit the shelves.  More on that next week.

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