Novellablog: Kid Editors: Because the kid in the room understands your book better than you do.

Remember that post I wrote about how I can’t be trusted to edit my own stuff? Well, last week it was time to send The Kairos Mechanism to the last and most critical set of readers before I send it to the critmate who’s acting as uber-editor. These are the Kid Editors: Emma, Luci and Edie, Mason, and the newly-deputized Julia and Talia. Their mission: make sure I’m not going to embarrass myself by putting this book up in front of the world.

I’ve written about the Kid Editors before, but in the interests of cataloguing all the ways in which I’m trying to make this book shine without the benefit of my blue-pencil-wielding editor at Clarion, it’s well worth revisiting these amazing kids and what they do. Especially since, day before yesterday, I had a conference call with Emma.

If you happened to be following me on Twitter on Wednesday, you might have seen me tweet the following:

“I have nightmares where, in 10 years, I submit a MS to Emma (in her new job as Most Senior Editor at the Hugest Publisher Ever) & she says, “Kate, you know how much I want to work with you. But…tell you what. Let me give you some notes and I’ll look at a revision.”

I was mostly joking, of course. I love talking to Emma. But I wasn’t kidding about how tough she is on my work. She will tell me—and has, as often as it’s been necessary—when she thinks I’m being lazy, being obtuse or confusing, or (yes, it’s happened) swearing too much in a particular manuscript. On one occasion, after a lengthy explanation on my part about what I was getting at in a particular scene, Emma replied by asking, “How important to you is it that I get all that? I just thought that part was exciting. The rest of it—does that really matter?” I had to think about that. And then I had to answer honestly: “Nope.” But then, we’ve also had similar conversations where she’s listened to my explanation and then demanded I clarify it. She’s a sharp like that.

Right about the time I wrote my last posts on the Kid Editors, I sent a set of questions to each of the (at the time) four of them. Here are Emma’s responses. These are from December, and Emma was twelve.

K: What do you like about being a beta-reader?

E: I love being a beta reader for very many reasons. Reason A- It makes me feel important, and like I am helping make the book better. Reason B- I love to read and if I can do that and help you then it is double awesome. Reason C- I want to be a professional beta-reader someday!

K: Is it difficult to do? How is it different from just reading a book?  

E: It is a little more complex than reading a book normally, because you are reading it with a critical eye, and always have to be thinking. But it is more rewarding than reading an actual book because you have feel like you have some say in what goes into the finished product.

K: What can a writer do to help you give her good feedback? Do you like to have questions in advance? Would you rather just read the book and have the writer send questions later, so they don’t influence your thoughts while you read the book? 

E: I like knowing a little bit about what you are curious about but not specific questions before I read, then I like talking to you after I read and telling you everything I noticed, and then answering the more specific questions.

K: What steps do you take after you’re finished reading a book–or while you’re reading it–to decide what you like and what you don’t, and what you think the writer still needs to work on?

E: Quite honestly, I don’t take notes while I read even though I should…I just think about the things and sometimes read what you send me again, so that I can notice the specific things more.

K: Do you feel comfortable telling someone (for example, me) that you like or don’t like a particular aspect of a book? Is it hard to do? How can the writer make you more comfortable about giving negative feedback? 

E: Since I know you, and I’m not an extremely shy person, no it does not bother me. I like to think of it as constructive criticism, disagreement leads to better discussions and in the end, a better book!

K: How do you involve your parents in your reading? 

E: As you know, my parents are almost as invested in this as I am, and like me are dying to help you write more books, so they usually read them too!

K: Any other thoughts you’d like to share? 

E: You know that nothing makes my day more then receiving a new book from you to read.

This time, partly in response to Emma’s comment above that she preferred not to read with specific questions in advance, when I sent the Editors The Kairos Mechanism, I had only one specific question. I asked them: if I had ten more pages to spend expanding or adding anything to this story, how would you like to see me use those pages?

Wednesday night we spoke by phone. Emma’s first comment, right out of the gate, was, “It’s so short.” I suppose it’s better to leave readers wanting more than wishing you would get on with it, so I decided to count this as a positive.

Other comments:

She asked for more reminders about what’s come before. Not so much a re-hashing of the story, but reminders about the town, Natalie’s family, what certain terms (introduced in The Boneshaker or The Broken Lands) meant. Despite how much she loved The Boneshaker, Emma had forgotten many of the details. This was eye-opening. Possibly I’ve forgotten how most people read; my husband, with whom I discuss books and reading and details more than anyone else, not only reads books several times, but he memorizes details. And frankly, so do I. I’ve always tended to feel my eyes glaze over when books in a series stop to re-hash what’s gone before. I wonder if I’ve never had a real sense of how people really read related books. My critique group had asked for some specific reminders, but what Emma wanted went a bit beyond that.

She asked for more description. Interestingly, the place she specifically wanted more was a place where one of my crit mates had specifically wanted me to cut back. I mentioned this to her, and she protested loudly. Even more interestingly, the reason she wanted more in this spot was not that she felt the story needed it, but because it was a section of the story related to Simon Coffrett, a mysterious figure in the town of Arcane. Emma has a particular interest in Simon, because there are so many unanswered questions about him, and she wanted as much information about him as I was willing to give, even if it meant slowing the story down a bit in that spot.

This was also particularly interesting to me because in another book Emma read for me, one in which I had two characters exploring a really (I thought) fascinating underground city, she really gave me the third degree about keeping things moving, adding action, adding tension, etcetera. Granted, there is a difference in scale; in The Kairos Mechanism we’re talking about turning two pages into three, and in Wild Iron we were talking about cutting back what ran twenty pages over the course of about two hundred and fifty. Still. Interesting.

She pointed out a few missed opportunities. She wanted more description of the mechanism referenced in the title, and thought I’d missed an opportunity to bring Natalie’s love of machines—a very important part of her personality—more fully into the narrative.

She thought I’d also missed an opportunity to allow Natalie to behave unselfishly at a critical point, and to take an action that she takes anyway for the sake of protecting someone else rather than herself. The scene, according to every reader including Emma herself, works just fine as written; Emma’s suggestion, however, adds a nice layer and requires one sentence of revision. Nice.

Certain places where she was confused or had questions were really fascinating. Some of them would involve spoilers to explain; others were more like questions about backstory—where certain characters came from, whether I planned to bring them back. I take this as a positive, too—the whole point of this project is to give me a chance and a way to return to characters I love outside of the big, overarching narrative of the hardcover releases.

The best compliment of all: she claims she’d like to marry one of the new characters. That is a satisfactory response, I think.

And then, the final question: ten pages, Emma. Assuming I haven’t spent them all fixing the stuff you’ve given me to fix, where do you want more story?

Emma was quiet for a minute, and then said she’d rather I kept those ten pages and put them toward a story about Jake Limberleg (the villain of The Boneshaker).

Duly noted.

3 Comments

  1. Wonderful! I have two excellent beta readers living in my house, but my teenage daughters will grow up some day. Their comments are always helpful!

  2. I found your post very interesting. I am trying to find a way to set-up my nephew (who’s 12) as a test or beta reader. Do you have any recommendations? Thank you.

  3. Hi, Christa. Wish I had a better answer for you–writers find their betas in all different ways. Mine were all the result of someone reaching out to me in one way or another, and my decision to ask them to read was based on those kids demonstrating a real understanding of my particular kind of storytelling and a very strong ability to read and comment critically. More importantly, they were the result of our having built a relationship. There’s really no way to set that kind of thing up, unfortunately.

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