Before becoming a novelist, I was a book editor. I was the one who sent authors devastatingly long memos detailing the problems in their work. One author, in a rage, called the president of the publishing company I was working for. He was convinced that he would die of a heart attack because of all my editorial notes. Another author, on the other hand, cheerfully accepted my suggestion that his boy main character should be a girl, and then, only a month later, just as cheerfully accepted changing the girl back to a boy. (This was not my finest hour as an editor.)
A significant part of my work was as co-editor with the inimitable Paul Kropp, of a Young Adult series aimed at teen non-readers: Series Canada and Series 2000. Our authors were tops. In addition to Paul Kropp, we published William Bell, Martyn Godfrey, Marilyn Halvorson, Kevin Major, and Sylvia McNicoll, to name a few. These authors were already successfully published. They certainly weren’t writing “Hi-Low” (high-interest, low vocabulary) books for the money, and most certainly not for prestige. Rather, they were willing to generously put their talents to use in order to lure non-readers into the magic of story.
Many assume that if a book is easy to read, it must be easy to write. Au contraire! These authors worked very, very hard through many drafts. The results made it worthwhile: our titles were often the first book a teenage boy or girl had ever read. And they got hooked.
I learned a great deal about writing from these wonderful authors. I also learned a great deal from readers. To help edit Series Canada and Series 2000, I set up a “JET” group—a “Junior Editorial Team” of boys and girls. I would distribute manuscripts, which they would read and then discuss when we next met. Over popcorn and pop, they would talk about the story (often all at once, and always passionately). I would record the discussion and send the tape back to the author along with my editorial notes.
When I began writing my own novels, I longed for an adult JET group to discuss my work in draft. I had excellent editors, but I wanted to know what everyday readers thought. And then it occurred to me: book clubs. Book club members were dedicated readers. Plus, they were accustomed to discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a work. Perfect.
At my request, with each novel I wrote, my publisher HarperCollins arranged for a book club to read and then record their discussion of my manuscript. I was sent the tape. I would listen to it, weep, go to bed sick, but wake up the next morning and get to work. Chapters would be trashed, new openings and endings created. All this after the manuscript had gone through as many as seven drafts and was soon due to go to press.
Intense! My editor, Iris Tupholme, told me I was brave. Rather, I am a coward. I prefer to know about problems before a novel is published, when there is still time to revise.
When my newest novel, The Shadow Queen, was nearly finished, I once again asked HarperCollins to arrange for a book club to read and critique it. They came back with a very unusual suggestion, one that truly was terrifying. They suggested, instead, that the manuscript be sent to bookstore employees—eleven, in all: eleven Chapters/Indigo bookstore employees from coast-to-coast.
With a gulp and a prayer, I agreed.
When the written reports came in, for once I did not get sick and take to bed. That isn’t to say that there weren’t criticisms—there were, quite a few. As before, in addition to countless small changes, entire scenes needed to be deleted and new ones created. What pleased me is how many of these men and women, avid readers every one, loved The Shadow Queen, rough edges and all. I hope they love the final edition even more.