My first book: completed

June 15 2006 | arielmstallings

Today is the day that Offbeat Bride is contractually due to my publisher, Seal Press. I FTPed the completed draft (all 60,000 words of it) last night. It was sort of anti-climactic. I had a few last minute tweaks to do before mailing it in, but they ended up taking all of about half an hour, and then I just sat there clicking around at various chapters trying to resist the urge to rewrite things. It's fine, I kept reminding myself. It's in good shape.

Still, after I sent it off I had a moment of standing in the living room and jumping up and down and waving my fists around and hollering "YAYAYAYAYAYAY!"

There were some questions after my last book post where I included a screenshot of the infamous Chapter Map about my process for how I wrote the book. If this kind of thing interests you, keep reading. If it makes your eyes roll back in your head, go look at some photos or something. I don't mind.

When I was working with Liz, my long-suffering lit agent, to develop the pitch for this book, I had to put together a faux table of contents listing all the chapters I envisioned writing. This ended up being more than just a sales pitch — it was the base of what would become the outline of the book and its core structure.

Once the book actually sold, I worked with my editor to lock down the chapters I'd be writing. She made a few suggestions for topics I'd missed (for instance, a chapter I called "That Whole Religion Thing"), and then that was it: I was looking at the outline for my book. I was no longer focusing on what the book was about in a general sense — it was time to write that shit.

At this point, I dropped the faux table of contents into an Excel document called Chapter Map.xls. This Chapter Map would become my god. I had columns to help me keep track of which chapters had been written or sent to my editor, but mostly I used the Chapter Map for my word counts.

See, as a college student I was grossly wordy. I could spin a 300-word idea into a 3000-word essay without blinking and prided myself on my neverending streams of semi-academic bullshit.

Then I became a magazine writer and slowly taught myself to tighten that shit up a bit. My first article for Lotus was a 2000-word event review, and if you don't know anything about wordcounts lemme just tell ya: THAT SHIT IS WAY TOO LONG. The party wasn't even that remarkable, and I found 2000 words to say about it. Eventually, I got to the point where I could condense rambling socio-cultural observations into tight little 1000-word Note From Lotus. It was excellent practice and cured me of my academic bullshitting.

Then I became a web writer, and suddenly 1000 words starts to look awfully long. Chop, chop, chop and after almost six years of blogging I can polish up an idea and present it bing-bang-bongo in 500 words. Tiny tasty bits perfect for on-screen consumption.

Then, then!, I went under contract to write a book. A 60,000 word book. SIXTY THOUSAND WORDS! As a college student that would have been easy for me. 10,000 words of meaning, 50,0000 words of bullshit. But after 10 years of working to tighten my writing, suddenly I had this huge wordcount to hit. Granted, I had lots to say, but the wordcount was daunting to say the least.

So I tracked my words compulsively in my Chapter Map. Each chapter had a goal wordcount (usually somewhere around 1500 words) and an actual wordcount (which ended up between 1000 and 2000 words — most chapters in the 1200 word range). This way, I could track my progress and see how many words I'd written total and what percentage of raw copy production I'd accomplished.

I watched that number like a hawk. I started writing in September with about 15% of the book already produced, thanks to the chapters I had to write ahead of time for the proposal. My goal was the finish the book in March, and I reached the half-way point in January, which is pretty fucking remarkable considering I was putting in 70-hour weeks at through most of October. How did I do it? I'm a pragmatic writer: I'm pretty good at setting a schedule, sitting down, sparking up and getting down to business. As long as I've got my favorite muses (lyric-less music, my trusty desktop, my chapter map, a little foliage), I can generally write on command. This is, after all, how I make my living.

That said, by the time January rolled around, I had a wave of terror — halfway through the book (30,000 words! Holy fuck!) and I had no idea if I was on the right track. I zipped it up and sent it to my editor to read, just so that I could have the reassurance for the second half that I was doing ok. My editor advised taking a six weeks off from writing so that she could read and I could get some perspective, so I took a winter break before diving into the second half of the book starting in February.

Technically, the book was finished about a month ago, but then I had to integrate edits from both my real editor at Seal as well as my personal editor, Patrick.

And now? Production begins. My editor is pretty much happy with the book, although she might have a few tweaks here and there. The book will go through lay-out. A Seal Press copyeditor will give it a pass. The cover will get designed (supposedly theyr'e considering this photo?) and then I get galleys back in August. I get a week to do one last review, and then BAM! It's off to the printer.

Seal will distribute all 5,000 copies to bookstores in mid-December, perfectly timed for the late winter wedding rush (Most engagements happen between Thanksgiving and New Years? Who knew!?).

In the meantime, my whore-machine is already churning. Starting next week I'll be diving into web dev plans for Obviously, I've already started my press pushes, but that'll ramp up even more next month when I take 200 business cards to BlogHer. I'm not sure what Seal's plans are, but I'm already scheming a winter book tour to NY, LA, and SF.

SO. There you have it. That's how I wrote my book. All said and told, it took a long time. I spent 18 months developing the idea with my lit agent, and then 9 months writing the book. Now there are six months of production, and then a whole lifetime for it to sink in that oh my god, I wrote the silliest book ever about ridiculous nontraditional weddings.

  1. Congratulations, rockstar of rockstardom! Reading about your process was really validating for me, especially the part about moving from the academic bulshitting of the undergrad years into writing milieux which required much more consice expression… and then back into having to write longer papers again in grad school. It was a ROUGH transition back. At first I was like, "I made my point already, why do I need an additional 500 words of fluff around it?" It turns out that extra writing isn't fluff, at least not the kind I used to write as an undergrad. It's careful explanation, justification, value-added stuff. Did you find the same thing with writing your book? I mean, I can see how points in your book could be made fairly concisely, but it's the details, the anecdotes, the Arielesque way you have of describing things that readers will enjoy, not a bulleted list on how to have an alternative wedding. I can't wait to see the finished product!

    *(See, I'm even more long-winded in my comments now…)

  2. Congratulations!

    I felt a horrible, indefinable sense of loss once I'd finished mine, strangely – as if the subject I was covering was really dead and gone (which it was). Thank God I've got a sequel out of it (to finish end Sep for Apr 07 publication. Same subject, but a prequel).

    I did Excel spreadsheets of wordage as well! I was grossly over quota, of course – my contract stated 10,000 words and 200 pics. First draft was 33,000 words; they let me get away with 15,000 and 201 pics. Shameless plug, buy it here –

    On the good side, the punters love it, I've had two absolutely dynamite reviews and one middling-to-good one (that comes from the editor of the mag I have a byline in, who never likes any of my stuff anyway, so f.him!), it's sold like hot cakes and there's the aforementioned sequel. I want to build on that with another one, and another and another, etc… and so will you! Congratulations again.

    It rocks, this writing lark.


  3. Wow, I love your pragmatic approach to writing. How very virgo! Just out of curiosity, what is your astrological sign, anyways?

    It would be awesome if you'd post a larger photo of your spreadsheet, or a listing of the columns you found useful. I'm creating a similar spreadsheet, but I know I'm missing things that would make my life easier…

    And congrats on finishing your book. You must feel a HUGE sense of accomplishment.

  4. Oh and I must say – I'm SUPREMELY bummed that your book won't be out until four months *after* my wedding in August! I could really use some help planning!

  5. Yay Yay Hooray!! Congratulations I can't wait to be the first in line here to buy your book, I just may wear it pinned to the front of my shirt for awhile pointing it out to everyone screaming 'I know her, she's my friend'!!! I am just that proud of you! (could even be a good marketing strategy) I am excited to read it, way to go girlfreeeeeend. love ya.

  6. Huzzah ariel! this makes me smile knowing that at least someone is on the right track to their dreams! congrats!

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