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Sunday, January 23, 2011

It Takes a Village to Make a Book

Imagine you've spent years laboring over your novel. Your publisher is waiting. Your agent is waiting. Your spouse is waiting. You finally send the first 80 pages to your agent. Next thing you know, your agent is standing on your doorstep. And the news is not good.

This, according to a recent article, is what happened to Tom Franklin when writing his bestselling novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (described in the article as "an ultimately sweet tale of two half brothers--one white and one black...a crime novel with a little mystery thrown in, a meditation on race and relationships, and a character study" titled after "the way children in the South learn to spell Mississippi").

To me, Franklin's process is a story of the village it takes to make a book--which includes an agent's tough love, a publisher's patience, a spouse's wisdom--but which begins and ends with a writer's absolute persistence and willingness to:
chuck stuff out
move stuff around
plow ahead
find and refind that knife-edge balance between trust in self and trust in others regarding one's work
..and then, if necessary, do it all over again. And again. And... .
And delivering the manuscript, in some ways, is just the beginning. Myriad minds, hands, and hearts engage with a book as it moves through the publishing process: being edited, copyedited, designed, typeset, proofread, indexed (if nonfiction), catalogued, sold in, printed, bound, shipped, and published. Every book, successful or not, embodies this massive exertion of time and will. Hats off to the writer, and to the village.


  1. Nice post, Toni. And you might add: It doesn't get easier. The book I am now working on--probably about my fifteenth collaboration, if I were counting--is turning out to be my most challenging ever, with multiple revisions driven by the two authors, the in-house editor, suggestions from several astute readers, etc. It's maddening and exhilarating--and I hope it will pay off in the end!

  2. I often think that stamina is one of the most important traits of a writer. Writing a book can be like running a marathon -- which is why it's good to have mileposts to help measure your progress, people cheering and handing you little cups of juice along the way, and a great big FINISH LINE banner at the end.

  3. You're right, Nan. Encouragement means so much. In the acknowledgments of my first book, I thanked all the people whose question, "How's the book going?" actually helped it go! As for "little cups of juice," I'm not a drinker, but more than one writer has had cups of stronger stuff to thank (or not) for getting to the finish line (or not)!

    Karl, your project sounds fascinating. But reading about all the feedback and revisions, and suspecting that the deadline has not, alas, been similarly revised, I felt a surge of terror right up there with the exhilaration--but maybe that's just me ;-). Eager to hear more about it.