Evolution of a Novel

My new middle-grade novel, 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6, comes out next month from James Lorimer & Company. Just in time for back to school. It’s a comedy aimed at reluctant readers, and it’s my first book with a female protagonist: Becky Lennox. I love that girl.

Her story didn’t take a long time to write, yet it was years in the making.

If you’re a writer and you’re anything like me, you have a lot of files. Ideas, stories in progress, dead files, almost-ready files.

These last are likely to be worn, tattered and overstuffed, with sticky notes on the covers, scribbled with “reduce by 300 words” or “rewrite for American setting”.

Here is my file for 26 Tips for Surviving Grade 6 just before it was acquired by James Lorimer. That’s a lot of scribbles.

It began in 2003 as a picture book, less than 1000 words, called  Anything you can do, Vi can do better. I sent it to a few publishing houses and got back encouraging rejections, including one letter in 2005 saying, “It reads more like a chapter in a novel than a picture book.”

I made a mental note of that and filed the story. (I am terrible at submitting things.) In 2007, I revised and renamed it How to Find a Friend in Five Difficult Lessons. Eventually, I got the response, “If you would consider re-writing it as a novel for 8-10-year-olds, we would be very interested in reading it.”

Happy to be done writing

When two editors give the same advice, I listen. I plotted the rest of the novel, dreamed up more characters and adventures, and had a GREAT time writing the draft. Pure joy. I happily sent the editor  How to Pass Grade Five in Five Difficult Lessons.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, things had changed at that publishing house and they weren’t taking on any new contracts “in the current economic climate.” The back and forth with this editor, first on the story and then on the novel, took two years. That’s a long time to wait for rejection. I tried another house and was rejected far more rapidly with the note, “It’s certainly funny but not what I’m looking for.” So into the file box it went.

It might have stayed there for years, but in the summer of 2010, I got a letter from Carrie Gleason at James Lorimer & Company, responding to another humourous middle-grade novel I’d sent her a while back. She said she loved my humour but they were looking for more realistic fiction (the book I’d sent her was not). She offered to talk about making my unrealistic novel fit the bill. Instead, I asked if she wanted to see How to Pass Grade Five in Five Difficult Lessons. She did. She loved it. She offered me a contract. Fast.

We worked together to polish the book this spring. A new ending took me several rewrites (Carrie must have worried when I sent her a new “Part Five” that was almost as long as parts 1-4 put together). We upped the characters’ ages and renamed it 26 Tips for Surviving Grade Six.

It will be released next month, eight years after it began. (The novel is less than 20,000 words – that averages to 2,500 words a year. Sounds a bit slow until you consider how I completely ignored it for  7 1/2 of those years.)

I didn’t know back in 2003 what a long journey this story was embarking on, and how much it would grow over the years. If you have files of stories-in-progress and piles of rejected manuscripts, keep your faith that some of those works will find a home. It will take a lot of work and patience and you might not recognize them in the end, but you’ll get there. And it will be worth it.

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