Author Spotlight

Taking a Literary Risk

I like to watch everyone’s eyebrows go up when I say how long it takes from the day I have a book accepted for publication to the day it appears in stores and libraries: about two years.

The first year is mostly spent revising. After acquiring the book, my editor sends me a long letter with constructive feedback on the manuscript. These are usually big-picture comments–characters who don’t seem three-dimensional yet, aspects of the plot that could use rethinking, themes to flesh out or play down. For instance, for my latest book, The Short Seller, about a twelve-year-old girl who becomes an online day trader while home from school sick, my editor suggested I get Lindy healthy and back to school sooner so I could make the subplot involving her friends more important. This took a lot of reworking and rewriting–much of the first draft took place at home with just Lindy and a laptop–but she was right (as editors usually are), and the change made for a more well-rounded story. The revised draft is usually met with another long letter, plus a copy of the manuscript with more specific line edits, and is followed by another round of rethinking and revising.

The second year (and much of the first, too) is devoted to the publishing process itself. The manuscript gets copy-edited for grammar and consistency. The designers lay out the interior and, with the marketing department, create the book jacket. (As an author, I can give some suggestions for the cover, but I usually don’t even get to see it until it’s considered done!) And the publicity, marketing, and sales teams start trying to build buzz. They send advance copies of the book to reviewers, buyers at bookstores, and librarians. As an author, I wait, I get excited, I try to build my own buzz without bugging people, and, without fail, I worry.

There’s lots to worry about. Bad reviews, disappointing sales, and, in the case of The Short Seller, being outdated. After all, two years had passed since I’d sold the book, and more than three since I’d typed “Chapter One.” The idea of a stock-trading whiz kid had actually come to me years before that, while the market was booming. But when the financial collapse of 2008 struck, I worried the timing wasn’t right. I didn’t want Lindy’s adventures in e-trading to be unrealistic, or to seem distasteful given the economic climate. Add bailouts and Madoff and Occupy Wall Street, and things only got more complicated. Who could predict what would happen to the economy tomorrow, let alone in three or more years when my book would finally be in print?

But Lindy learns quickly that a successful trader must have an appetite for risk, and so, I realized, must the author writing her story. Shouldn’t we always be challenging ourselves, taking risks in our writing, anyway? My premise was raising the stakes, but I could hedge my position by making sure the heart of the story–my character and what she wants–was authentic. I had no clue if the market would be bullish or bearish in May 2013, but I could confidently wager that either way, the driving force of The Short Seller would still be relevant: the allure of easy cash, the rush of success, the desire to prove yourself, and the panic at realizing you’re in over your head. Giving more page time to the timeless dynamics of middle school friendships (like my brilliant editor suggested) helped too.

Now that the book is finally in the hands of readers, Lindy might win or lose (or come under investigation by the SEC for insider trading…), and so might I. Maybe her trading platform will be so 2011, or maybe a giant short selling scandal will make my book fortuitously current. But I’m glad I decided to take the risk. No matter what, like day trading, it’s going to be an exciting ride.

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Elissa Weissman (Photo credit: Michael Olliver)
Elissa Weissman (Photo credit: Michael Olliver)

Elissa Brent Weissman is the author of multiple novels for middle grade readers. Nerd Camp won the 2011 Cybils Award for middle grade fiction and was a best summer novel for kids in The Washington Post. (Look for Nerd Camp 2.0 summer 2014!)  Her most recent book, The Short Seller, was a must-read in Girls’ Life magazine. Learn more at www.ebweissman.com.

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