The People Behind the Story

One of the biggest thrills as a writer is that first time you see your name in the table of contents for a magazine or anthology, or on the cover of a book. When I sold my first story, back in 2007, it was like making it to the big leagues. I knew I’d never be a major league baseball player, but I’d done something of the equivalent (in my eyes) as a writer. Seeing my byline along with my story was a joy.

As writers, we are the public face of our stories, book and articles. Credit for success accrues to us, as does criticism for faults and failures. That is fair, and as it should be. If we have the audacity to think our words might be enjoyed by others, we have to be able to handle the results, good and bad.

They say writing is a lonely business, and when the writer is sitting down pounding out words, that is mostly true. But the road from idea to publication, at least for me, is anything but lonely.  Behind every story that sees publication are people besides the writer who help to make it happen. These people are often in the background, and their names rarely appear on the byline along with the author’s. But without them, I couldn’t do what I do. Who are these people? They probably vary for every writer, but for me, they include 5 groups.

Other writers

I find it hard to talk about the process of writing (and the struggles therein) with my family and my non-writer friends. I think there are two reasons for this. First and foremost, I don’t want to bore my family and friends with writerly problems that probably seem esoteric to anyone but another writing. Second, unless you are a writer, it is hard to understand the struggles. My experience has been that non-writers generally fall into two groups: (a) people who think writing must be easy, and if they turned their hand to it, could churn out a best-seller between cups of coffee. And (2) people who don’t write because they find it daunting and terrifying.

Other writers, however, are a different story. While I may not always discuss the specifics of every story I write with other writers, I often will talk to them about the struggles I happen to be having. For me, my writer friends often take on the role of a hitting coach or fielding coach in baseball. Instead of helping with footwork, or batting mechanics, they help get me out of my head, and approach things from a new angle. On more than one occasion, a conversation with another writer about the mechanics of the job have helped me move a story forward. That is a big help, and often goes unacknowledged. You don’t see these writers’ names on the byline, although I do try to acknowledge them elsewhere. If it wasn’t for there help, I might have never made it through the struggle.

A small group of my writer-friends, and occasionally, my writer’s group also act as my beta-readers. The feedback I get from them on my stories is invaluable. Every story that I’ve written that has gone through beta readers has come out of the other side of the process far better because of the keen eyes looking over my work and making useful suggestions.

Editors

I’d say that 40% of my stories accepted for publication have required work with the editor to get them into shape to really make them publication worthy. This includes my first story, as well as later stories. For instance, my story, “Flipping the Switch,” which appeared in the original anthology Beyond the Sun (edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt) last summer required quite a bit of work with Bryan to make it publication worthy. The result was a story that I think was much better than the one that I turned in

Sometimes editors suggestions are small, but make me, as the writer, look better. The first story I sold to Analog, “Take One for the Road” (June 2011) had a reference to “night owls” which then editor Stan Schmidt suggested I changed simply to “owls” as the phrase “night owls” was redundant. A small change, but an improvement.

Not long ago I had an article published at 99U called “How I Kept a 373-Day Productivity Streak Unbroken1” My editor at 99U, Sean Blanda made a key suggestion–generalizing some of the points in the article and calling them out explicitly–which vastly improved the article. Indeed, that article became the most-shared article I’ve ever written with something like 5,000 shares on social media. The feedback I received for it was overwhelmingly positive. And I credit that all to Sean’s suggestion.

And let’s not forget the copyeditors who catch the small typos, spelling errors, and who find inconsistencies in usage in the manuscripts and cleans them up so that the finished product looks professional. No matter how many times I proofread, I miss things, and I’ve come to believe that there is diminishing returns to this. But the copyeditors make sure that I look good, despite myself.

Artists

I have been fortunate to have artists render scenes from three of my stories. I am always blown away by the results. Artists are acknowledged for their work, but I still think they become part of the team that make the story better. They provide a unique window into the story that my words alone can’t do. For that, I am grateful to each artist who has taken more words and turned them into something amazing.

Production people

Readers see the results of the work of many people: the writer, the editor, the artist being the three most visible. Behind the scenes there are a lot more people helping to bring the stories to life. There are editorial assistants (like Emily Hockaday at Analog and Asimovs) who walk newbie writers through the process of reviewing galleys. There are managing editors and people in contract departments who handle the business end of the process, issuing contracts and payments.

There are the production people who layout the magazine, or the book, who make it available in various online formats, who merge in the artwork, and in short, who make it look like what you see on the bookshelf, newsstand, or how it appears when you download it to your e-reader device.


Without any of these people to help out along the way, none of my stories would see the light of day. Writing might seem like a lonely business, and certainly, sitting at the keyboard and getting the words down can be lonely at times, but I tend to find I am surrounded by vast team of people all of whom are cheering along for my success, encouraging me, making me and my words look good. They all deserve credit in the process. They are the people behind the stories, and without whom there would be no stories.

As the public face of the stories, it is the writers who receive fan mail, or criticisms along the way. I think it is important to acknowledge to readers and fans that there are a lot more people behind the scenes that just the writer. The best qualities of the story are because of this team of people behind the story.