Thursday 21 July 2011

From Concept to Copy - by Mary Hoffman

(via all sorts of other C-words, like Contract, Cover, Copy-editing, Coffee and Confusion)

Today we have a rare guest post as I'm honoured to be a stop of Mary Hoffman's blog tour for the launch of David (4th July, Bloomsbury - buy it!). This puts Mary in good company as the only other guest to date has been a pirate. And even then he was hijacked, he wasn't really a willing guest. Sadly, Mary, the pirate was not Johnny Depp. Or actually, I don't know - he might have been. I've not seen him.

But to the point. David is Mary's latest stand-alone historical novel and its ravishing. It follows the scurillous and exciting story of the model for Michelangelo's statue David - a character whose real name and history are unknown, so there?s plenty of scope for conjecture and imagination. As always, Mary's historical research is painstaking to the point of agonytaking and the book is beautifully atmospheric and vivid as well as exciting. Hey, there's sex and intrigue and spying and violence and art. What's not to like?

I'll hand over to Mary now, who explains the process of getting David from an inspirational spark to a book in the shops.


In April 2006 I put this idea among a bunch of others in a document I prepared for my agent about possible further titles for Bloomsbury:

"The Real David (or The Boy David): Who modelled for Michelangelo's David? No-one knows so I would invent the story. He would be caught up in the rivalry between M and Leonardo."

At this stage I had written The Falconer's Knot and had the second half of a two-book contract to fulfil by writing 'something similar'. In the end, Bloomsbury chose Troubadour to complete that contract.

So that was some time after what I call my 'light-bulb moment'. That's the point where you get one in a whole sea of ideas that you think might turn into a book.

First books virtually always have to be complete before you submit. You can get away with a proposal and sample chapter when you have a few books under your belt. When you have a lot, just a proposal will do. If your Neilson figures are spectacular, you can probably just  write half a sentence and get a contract.

What happened with David was that I wrote a proper proposal for it. In August 2008 on a train journey from Edinburgh to Oxford I wrote the full proposal for what became just 'David' and it won me a contract to write the book. 

It contained phrases like 'Absolutely nothing is known about who, if anyone modelled for the David....This provides a perfect blank canvas for a novelist'. And 'What I propose is a colourful adventure story set in the turbulent years of the end of the fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth in Florence'.

I wrote the proposal on 2nd August, sent it to my agent on  the same day. She forwarded it to my editor on 4th and got this the next day 'This proposal looks fantastic! Will be in touch'.

Although we agreed the advances in September, the signed contracts didn't arrive till mid-November. That's the book which has just come out this month in the UK and that was its real beginning.

City of Ships
I had to write that first, because I was already contracted to do that before starting on David. This is how writers like to work: one book about to come out, one being written currently and a contract under their belt for one or two more books.

Calendars, Carrara marble and the Computer
 Research begins on the computer, my trusty MacBook Air laptop, with the much reviled Wikipedia. I think people who pooh-pooh Wikipedia completely misunderstand it. It is a brilliant first port of call for dates, links and bibliographies. That's while you are constructing a timeline (essential) for the background (if you are writing historical fiction) and a calendar of what actually happens in the period taken up by your novel -  both the real and invented.

I belong to the London Library - I'm a Country Member, which means they post books to me. The annual fee is horrendous and you pay postage for the books on top of that but not only do they have almost every book I want to consult (another C-word), my membership allows me to read academic articles online which before just tantalised me with an opening paragraph.

The Carrara marble didn't enter the picture till quite far along but I like to have an object in my study that focuses my mind on the book in progress. I bought a small white cube of marble in a shop in Pisa on the same trip when I visited  Carrara and saw the white scars on the mountainside from which the block that became David was excavated.

Coffee and cats
I am not a great believer in writing Rules; I prefer to think in terms of things that facilitate my writing. Two of the things that help me write. Black, freshly ground coffee and three Burmese cats, who are part of my family.

Chapter by Chapter
Once I start to write I try to keep at it steadily writing at least one chapter a week? it used to be two but by rate of strike has gone down as I've got older and Social Networking has got more distracting. So between 3,000 and 8,000 words a week, the further on in the novel the more words per day. But these are all going to be pretty much usable words because this is the D1 and I submit the D2.

As I'm writing I print out each chapter to put in a D1 cardboard wallet file. I also read it aloud to my husband, which is a great way of catching mistakes. Deeply frustrating for him because he asks 'what happens next?' and I don't know!

Once the first draft (D1) is finished I trawl through the whole thing again, using the printed document, picking up inconsistencies, correcting typos and checking timelines, etc. Sometimes I can find a glitch that means re-writing a  whole section - aargh! I write corrections on the D1 and transfer to a new D2.

This goes off to editor and agent usually simultaneously and electronically. I am always too close to the deadline to give it first to my agent to submit to my editor.

If I were to offer writing advice to anyone, in a single word, it would be the one above - consequences. Remember that however complicated your plot and varied your cast of characters, every action and incident had a consequence, even if it isn't revealed till much later.

The consequence of sending off a book is that you will get a response from your agent and editor.  I submitted David by the end of July and I knew my publisher was going on holiday in the second half of August so if I was lucky I'd get David reaction before she left.

It just so happened Bloomsbury were giving a belated launch for Troubadour, when it came out in paperback, on 5th August last year so I met my editor at the party. By then I knew my agent loved it but I was on tenterhooks ages for my editor's reaction to say something. Then she said she was halfway through and loving it! By a miraculous coincidence, this was exactly a year after she had said the proposal looked fantastic!

I did get the proper email before she went away so really only about 2 weeks' wait this time with a preliminary halfway approval after a week, so a much quicker result or consequence than usual.

Cover visual
This came in September last year and though I am now used to it I was a bit shocked by it at first; it wasn't the 'real' David!

Readers think, quite mistakenly, that writers choose their own covers and make decisions about when to change them etc. But of course this is done by the publishers' design team and the approval of the Sales and Marketing teams has far greater weight than that of the author.

I have had several covers in the past showing scenes that not only did not occur within the book but could not have happened! And there is one American cover I hate so much I have to keep it hidden on my shelf!

But friends have told me that the cover for David works well and has good 'pick-up-ability' so I am content.

Copy-editing and corrections
These can seem to last for ever! I now get joint editing/copy-editing from two people and these suggestions came just before I left for a long weekend in Venice mid-November.

I did these edits by 28th November then had an hour-and-a-half's phone call at the end of January to tidy up remaining points. On 2nd February I was still arguing one half sentence with my editor!

The bound proof copy came on  February 17th and the page proofs on 23rd. I had to correct these and get them back by 21st March . But I was still checking how one main character's name should be spelled right up to Easter.

Proof copy
Increasingly these days potential reviewers get a proof copy or bound proof of a book to read well before publication (see above). It will have some editing done but not be the finished version. On one never-to-be-forgotten occasion, I received a proof copy from America that had been set from an electronic of the un-edited D2! Characters' name were different and people were thanked in the acknowledgments that in the end did nothing.

I hope one day it will be worth a lot of money on eBay!

This means two things. [Or three - I wrote about a different kind of copy last month in How to Speak Publisher.] Firstly, material that appears on the back cover or jacket-flap, describing the book and its author. You should get to check all this and I did. Best too if the author reads all 'copy' for press releases, catalogues, Amazon etc. etc. If you don't, you will get emails from sharp-eyed fans telling you there is a mistake. (In one bit of catalogue copy, I was described as having only two children when I in fact have three!). And secondly - the finished copy! You usually get one in advance and then the rest of your free copies a month before publication. Holding that finished copy in your hands is the second book-end, the closing bracket that forms a pair with your 'light-bulb moment' when you first had the idea.


And with that exhaustive tour, I think we can say goodbye to C and move on to D...

Thank you, Mary, and best of luck to both you and the lovely David! David is a wonderful book - I think it's Mary's best, so you should buy it.

1 comment:

  1. How very helpful to have such a detailed outline of the process. Thank you. And I'll have to add David to my to-read list!