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From Concept to Completion: Writing and Publishing a Book

By Becky Simpson

I always wonder about the creative process when I hear other makers discuss their work. I’m fascinated by the inspiration, but I often think to myself, “How does it actually come together?” I want to know about the rules, patterns, and formula. Without that context, I may be inspired, but I don’t know how to act on it.

I‘ve written and illustrated two books. Both are heavy on the illustrations and light on words. They’re the kinds of books publishers call “Gift Books.” That doesn’t make me a publishing expert, but I’ve learned a lot along the way and I want to share it with you in case you’re thinking of going down the same road. Here’s how an illustrated-gift-humor book goes from “That’s a fun idea” to a cohesive, colorful 150 pages.

CLEAR CONCEPT

In any project, the most important thing is the concept. I know this goes without saying, but I still had to say it. (This is an article about book writing, so my hands were tied. I hope you understand.) Your concept is the heart of your book. It’s the crust to your pizza; the Justin to your NSYNC.

Once you have a general concept, it’s time to refine. I like to go after the niche markets. It’s a lot easier to sell a book to a publisher when the answer to “Who would receive this book as a gift?” is so clear that a child could answer.

My first book, I’d Rather Be Short, is a list of 100 reasons why it’s great to be small. Each page has an illustration above a sentence like, “It takes less time to shave your legs.” (In case you’re wondering, I’m 5 feet tall.) My second is called The Roommate Book, and it’s fresh off the presses. It encourages readers to make the most of roommate life by way of a bucket list, quizzes, pie charts and more. Both are exactly what they sound like: a book for short people and a book for roommates.

ORGANIZED BRAINSTORMING

After you’ve refined your concept, you can figure out how you’ll express it. In the early stages, I like to give myself plenty of time to explore different ways to flesh out the theme. I’m a big fan of keeping an idea notebook. When we give our ideas a place to live, they make guest appearances more often. It’s a lot easier starting a project (and being excited about it) when you’re bursting at the seams with ideas.

In my notebook for The Roommate Book, I catalogued anything that came to mind that was related to the concept: quotes, inside jokes, and drawings were all fair game, even if they seemed dumb at first. I also jotted ideas on notecards. They weren’t developed, just “anything goes” kind of stuff.

The notebook and notecards helped me see the book zoomed in and zoomed out at the same time. I was able to pick up on the patterns that would later become chapters. Once I was able to group them together, I taped them on my studio wall in columns and rows so I could easily rearrange them and keep an eye out for new ideas that would fill the gaps. I used this same approach as I planned the five collections on my online store, Chipper Things.

OUTLINE

After I had one million or so ideas in some semblance of order, I was ready to create an outline for The Roommate Book. Pitching a book is like pitching anything else: You want to make it easy for the publisher to say yes. You get to that yes by explaining your idea as clearly as possible. I and my agent, Laurie, wanted the proposal to include a detailed outline and a complete sample chapter.

The outline explained what would be on every single page. It included the opening paragraph of each chapter, bullet points, and the number of pages for each topic. Here’s an example from the quiz chapter, Personality Types Revealed:

  • Clean Freak vs. Good Enough (2 pages)
  • What’s your (indoor pet) spirit animal? (2 pages)
  • How handy are you? (putting together IKEA furniture, fixing
    creaky door, fixing Wi-Fi, cooking, plumbing, etc.) (2 pages)
  • What kind of houseplant are you? (2 pages)

For more tips, see “How to Get a Book Deal.”

STARTING THE BOOK

Book deal acquired! Time to sleep in, eat cake for breakfast, and really let your hair down for a couple of days. Celebrate the milestones. Then get back to work.

Starting is intimidating. While the outline does provide a solid roadmap, it’s still just an outline. It gives the answers without knowing how to actually solve the problem. It’s like saying, “Make this page explain F̅Δs cos θ = ΔE.”

“Sure, no problem...” (insert nervous laugh).

Once The Roommate Book outline was finished and I was crippled with indecision and self-doubt, I started with the easiest pages. “Easy” meaning, whatever I thought was the highest return on my investment. In my case, it was the hand-lettered quotes.

As I was chipping away page by page, new ideas came to me and some old ideas started to feel cheesy or forced. In Bossypants, Tina Fey says that she learned from Lorne Michaels to put off tough decisions until you actually have to make them. This is because they usually work themselves out. I found this to be true as I turned my vague ideas into concrete pages. I had this mantra while working: “If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.” (This is also a page in the book.) The reality is that nobody was making me do this. It was my idea, so I could make up the rules.

When I completed (or even just started) a page, I’d print it out and tape it to my studio wall. It helped me to see the book more holistically: how the colors looked together and my text-to-picture ratio. Probably most importantly, it enabled others to provide feedback.

After creating each page (mostly by scanning then working on the drawings in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator CC), I plugged the pages into Adobe InDesign CC. The publisher’s designers put the actual book together, but I used the InDesign mockups to digitally organize and show them the progress. Seeing all the pages in a single PDF let me experience the pacing and tone flow. Were the text and images too compact? Was there enough breathing room? Did it feel chaotic or disjointed?

To my surprise, seeing it this way actually assuaged most of those fears. The hodgepodge of ideas—“A Case For Blanket Forts” spread proceeding the “Party Themes” spread, proceeding the “How to Build a Cheese Plate” spread—came together nicely. Each chapter is a diverse collection of words and pictures all living under the same roof, with the same theme.

EDITING

The last step is editing. Sometimes you end a sentence in a preposition. (Get it?) That’s when your editor comes in to save the day. If you’re lucky, you have an editor as good as Patty (shout out to Patty!), who gives you total creative freedom while ensuring the book becomes the best version it can be.

TIMING

It usually takes a year from the time a book is complete to when you see it on shelves. Pub dates are strategic. For example, a book about love might come out in time for Valentine’s Day, while a lot of other books are released before the holidays because that’s when people are ready to buy. I’ve been working on The Roommate Book for the last two years and now it’s finally released. It’s in stores! Folks can buy it and hold it in their hands! While the date may seem arbitrary, it’s not. It’s the perfect gift for graduates and college-bound ladies. Andrews McMeel (my publisher) I agreed on a deadline that would align with these events. In addition, I asked my editor if we could set soft, incremental deadlines so I could make sure I was on track with their expectations.

FINAL THOUGHTS

There isn’t a single correct way to put together a project like this. It’s a puzzle. Some start with the border while others start with the sailboat in the middle of the picture. Books are fun because you not only experience the confidence and satisfaction from completing such a large volume of work, but you also experience that confidence and satisfaction over and over in small doses every time you finish a page.

It’s a labor of love. Because I know I’m spending hundreds of hours on it, I ask myself what concept (and what process) will most enrich my life. What will be the most fun but still challenging? Don’t work only toward the finished project. Work toward a process that’s sustainable over time, because the good news is that every time you finish one thing you’re proud of, it makes the next thing a little bit easier to start.

And when you feel overwhelmed, which you will, remember Anne Lamott’s advice:

“Left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe.”

NOTE: The order of events are slightly different depending on if you already having an agent and if you’re seeking an agent. To read more about acquiring a lit agent and other steps in the publishing process, read my Medium post here.