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A year and a half ago, I sold my first two books to a publisher. People asked, mostly:

  1. What’s the title? Oh, awkward, we’re retitling it so I don’t know yet!
  2. What’s the cover? Oh, oops, so I won’t see the cover until closer to the release.
  3. Is it written? Yes! It’s already been written and rewritten but it will be rewritten again because that’s just the way of things!
  4. What’s it about? Idk climate justice and sexuality and rising seas and aerial silks?
  5. When can I buy it? Maybe in like two years?!

Well, here we are! Maybe-in-like-two-years-ish after you first asked these lovely questions and I gave you these flustered responses. And my answer to all of these questions is roughly the same.

Let’s talk about why.

HOW TO EDIT A BOOK

Okay, so let’s say you wrote a book.

Wait. We’re all in a writerly mood, so let’s use a metaphor. Let’s say you invented a bird instead.

You’re pretty excited about your bird, so you give him a name. Reginald? Perfect.

You think you and Reginald could really go places, so you decide to pass Reginald off to some friends who also enjoy inventing birds. “That’s a very good bird,” they say. “You should show Reginald to an agent.”

So you prepare your query letters about Reginald (“Reginald is a fine bird, dynamic and blue and ready to take on the world”) and agents agree! Reginald needs to make a name for himself in the world. Your agent tells you, “You know, birds with hats are doing very well these days. Could Reginald wear a hat?”

A hat?! It’s brilliant. Let’s give him a hat.

You and your agent decide to see if any publishers are interested in Reginald. Ding ding! Someone wants Reginald! What a big day! So your brand new editor gives Reginald a long, hard look and says, “I love what you’re doing here, but I have some ideas to make him better.”

You, as the bird inventor, are thrilled. Your editor has been at this a lot longer than you, and she has a keen eye for what really makes a bird shine. You’re eager for her feedback.

She says, “I can’t help but notice Reginald has both a beak and a mouth.”

Ouch. Good catch, editor. You’re embarrassed you didn’t think of that one. Okay, so let’s get rid of Reginald’s mouth.

To be sure, Reginald looks more professional now. Still, you feel a twinge of unease—wasn’t Reginald’s joyful smile part of what gave him character? Still, you put your head down and keep listening to your editor.

“I wonder,” your editor says, “if Reginald’s body could be less lumpy. See where his torso doesn’t connect with his wing?”

Yes, you think, feeling pouty. That was a stylistic choice.

Nevertheless, you respect your editor’s intuition, so you adjust Reginald’s lumpy, disconnected body.

“There,” you say. “He’s not lumpy anymore.”

“Oh my,” your editor says. “But now his feet are not connected to his body. And also his wings seem to be sticking straight out. And also I can’t help but notice that his torso is still not connected to his wing…”

You wish you could ignore your editor, but unfortunately, she’s making very good points. So you heave a sigh.

“Reginald,” you say, “we’re going to fix you once and for all.”

Once you’re done, you stare at Reginald. Unfortunately, you know the truth.

You’ve made things worse.

Reginald is not ready for the big, wide world.

Quite a long time has passed since you and your agent and your editor started working on Reginald. Some of your friends’ birds have already been released into the wild. Is it because they were better at listening to their editors? Better bird inventors? You feel like a bit of a fraud.

“I think,” your editor says kindly, “that perhaps you ought to really dig deep and ask yourself what Reginald truly wants to be.”

You feel very tired of looking at Reginald, but you sit down with him anyway. “Reginald,” you say, “how do you feel?”

“Ah, Reginald,” you say. “I’m sorry.”

So you think hard about what you want Reginald to stand for. You carefully observe other birds that have recently been invented and ask yourself, What’s working here? What’s not? You brainstorm a plan with your agent and your editor. 

And then you begin to fix Reginald yet again. This time, you go slower. You try to listen to Reginald as he tells you what he wants to be. You think about his silly little smile, done away with so long ago. Your editor was right—birds probably can’t have both mouths and beaks. But what did that smile stand for? When you erased his smile, did you also erase his happy-go-lucky attitude? Perhaps Reginald can do something else to convey his joy. Aha! He’ll wave to us.

Oh, things are going very well indeed.

You get to his feet. They don’t make sense. They simply cannot support his body weight. Let’s make them flatter.

Now, his body. A bit boring, isn’t it? Let’s give him a bit of decoration.

Once you’re finished, it’s finally clear.

“Reginald!” you say. “You were a penguin all along.”

“Oh, Reginald,” you say, “you card.”

As it turns out, the publishing industry, much like the bird inventing industry, moves slowly and unpredictably. I have the immense good fortune of working with an editor and an agent who are determined to help me make my book the very best it can be. So, unfortunately, my book will not come out in the spring of 2020 like I once thought. But it will come out, and when it does, it will be the best version of that story I can tell.

Thank you to everyone who keeps asking about how the writing is going. Your enthusiasm means a great deal to me, and I’m looking forward to a time when I can finally answer your questions this way:

  1. What’s the title? AMAZING.
  2. What’s the cover? LOOK AT IT.
  3. Is it written? I HAVE WRITTEN IT EIGHT TIMES AND NOW YOU MUST READ IT.
  4. What’s it about? CHECK OUT THAT GOODREADS DESCRIPTION WHOA.
  5. When can I buy it? LIKE RIGHT NOW.