Best-Selling Author Veronica Roth Tells What Writing Books Is Really Like
More than 200 million Americans want to publish a book in their lifetime but most do no more than dream. Veronica Roth, author of the Divergent series, is among the few who worked to achieve her dream.
At an event promoting her new book Carve the Mark, Roth shies away from congratulating herself on her early accomplishments. She takes advantage of the spotlight to breakdown the process and in a follow-up email, Roth shares more insight into her experience.
Below is Roth’s blueprint for anyone up for the challenge of turning an idea into a book.
Overnight success takes a long time.
When Roth’s story gets shared, it usually begins with the fact that she wrote Divergent during winter break of her senior year of college. The first installment in the trilogy became a New York Times best-seller and 30 million copies of the series were sold by 2015.
Without more context, it would seem as if Roth sat at her computer, wrote a story that the entertainment industry fell in love with and instantly cemented her place in literature.
However, Roth’s interest and dedication for writing began at 12 years old.
“I was always very focused on the craft,” says Roth. “In high school I took physics in summer school so that I could take both creative writing and my regular English class my junior year.”
What appears to be instant achievement, is really a culmination of preparation and practice. For Roth, that meant 10 years of work before a fully fleshed idea worth publication, took form.
Even then, obstacles appeared. Her first manuscript was initially rejected and even after receiving a book deal, rewriting was required.
Fall in love with the process, not the outcome.
During her talk at Soho House, Roth cautions the audience on pursuing writing for anything other than the sheer desire for storytelling - suggesting that to do otherwise, leads to defeat.
“As my situation has changed, my goals have changed,” says Roth in a follow-up email. “I am less focused on ‘can this get published?’ and more on ‘is this better or more interesting than what I did before?’”
Roth uses competition with herself as internal motivation. She says “writing is about growth, challenge and change. Without those things, there’s no joy in it.”
She doesn’t romanticize the procedure. Roth readily admits to the difficulty of criticism and dismissal of one’s ideas. But says that it is vital for development because it presents a writer with the opportunity to mature. With that, she circles back to the idea that the best way to work through failure and rejection is by looking past external validation.
“If I failed -- and I did, repeatedly! -- I loved writing enough that I would just keep working,” Roth explains.
Embrace the chaos of creativity.
Where creative thinking and ideas come from is a mystery. We ask the question of innovative thinkers in the hope of uncovering a secret answer, that unlocks a fountain of inspiration inside of us.
Roth reveals her technique to be largely influenced by a desire to indulge her curiosity.
“I let myself get lost in Wikipedia,” she says in an email. “When I read something in the newspaper or a magazine that piques my interest, I take notes.”
By taking stock of her ideas and writing them down, she says it allows her the time to process what they can become. The ideas sometimes evolve into book concepts, short stories and sometimes - she’s not sure.
The next step is getting thoughts to paper. To accomplish the lofty goal Roth “does whatever is necessary to get the story done.” This includes outlining, free writing, writing out of order, cutting huge sections if they aren’t working, writing at night and in the morning. She jokes about ‘desperation’ being her only true technique.
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The writer is one of many moving parts producing a book.
“My job is to write the best book I can,” says Roth. “But all those people work extremely hard to put that book into the world and to ensure that it gets its best shot at success.”
Who are ‘all those people?’ Roth describes:
The agent: generally helps to shape the manuscript before it ever gets into a publisher’s hands.
The editor: along with the agent, an editor further helps the author develop the story. An editor also acts as a liaison between author and other people at the publisher.
Copy editors and proofreaders: make sure grammar and punctuation are correct. They also watch for consistency, both between chapters (if a character has a gun in one scene, and it disappears in the next, that’s something a copyeditor catches), and between books in a series. They create a kind of “series bible” to keep track of all the world-building rules.
Production: formats the book and inputs changes every time they’re made.
Design: creates the cover, the look of the pages and chapter headings. This most certainly shapes a person’s reading experience and their willingness to pick up the book in the first place.
Sales: pitches the book to retailers so they’ll actually carry it in-store.
Publicity and marketing: make sure people have heard about the book and consumer interest is piqued.
Roth points to additional teams in finance, audio, foreign rights and school and library marketing. While the writer might be the spark that sets up a bonfire, additional factors are necessary in order to sustain it.
The internet has answers.
Publishing a book is unfamiliar for most people and navigating the unknown, can be a daunting experience. And yet, Roth says not to worry. Help is just a few clicks away.
“Google is an amazing resource for any questions about publishing a person might have,” she says in an email. Her advice is simple, and perhaps intuitive, but it acts to squash any doubt that a more complex or expensive approach is required to understand the mechanics of book publishing.
Roth extols the amount of in-depth information found on blogs, message boards and articles. From “why do I need an agent?” to “how do I get an agent?” to “where can I submit my work?” most everything can be found online.
Research is part of the journey. A practice Roth invests in to give herself the best chance of succeeding.