Remembering Michiko Sakamoto-Senge

On December 10, 2023, Michiko Sakamoto-Senge launched her book, Beauty of a New Land: the Lives and Legacies of Five Immigrant Women in Canada. The launch was very well-attended and many books were sold. The love in the room was palpable. All five of the women who are represented in the book were there. It was a joyous occasion that Michiko had been anticipating for many years. Sadly, she did not have long to enjoy her achievement. She died suddenly on January 31, 2024, surrounded by her loving family.

I first met Michiko in the Spring of 2021. We were introduced by a mutual friend who thought I might be the right person to help Michiko get her manuscript into a publishable form. We met in a cafe (wearing masks, of course) to chat about what she wanted (and needed) in an editor. By the end of that meeting, Michiko had engaged me as her editor and publishing coach, and I knew I was in the presence of an exceptional woman. 

Over the years that followed, we had many meetings in cafes (and some at her house) and I came to know Michiko as a friend as well as a client. She was a delight to work with–open, intelligent, diligent, curious, and very tenacious. As we worked together to shape the book into a compelling narrative, the only thing she resisted was telling her own immigrant story alongside the other four women. (She finally agreed, but she was always reluctant to put herself front and centre.) 

As our friendship grew, I found out that Michiko was kind, selfless, unpretentious, self-effacing, funny, and immensely stylish. Not in a “look-at-me” way, but in a way that reflected her Japanese roots in the most elegant, yet practical, fashion. Her commitment to diversity and inclusivity was ongoing. She was a devoted mother, wife, and grandmother. 

Michiko’s work ethic was incredible. She read every word of Beauty of  a New Land many times; she wanted to have a perfect manuscript to send to the publisher (even though I told her that perfection was a rarity in publishing). She agonised over which photos to use in the book (always wanting to be even-handed), and she checked the copyedits and the proofs over and over, often finding mistakes that the rest of us had missed. She was incredibly diligent but always appreciative of the work of others. She learned how to navigate the publisher’s often-mystifying processes, and in the end, the book reflected its author’s beauty and grace.

Her death has saddened and shocked everyone who knew her, but I feel fortunate to have known her and seen first hand what it is to be a good human in a problematic world. I love you, Michiko, and I miss you.

Off the Page with Bevann Fox

 

 In early 2019,  the managing editor at University of Regina Press asked me if I would be interested in editing a book by Bevann Fox, a Residential School survivor, writer and artist. . The first question I asked was whether she was okay with having a non-Indigenous editor. I was put in touch with her so I could ask her the question directly. Her answer was “I’m fine with it, as long as you’re good.” Then she laughed!

 

I came to understand that this was Bevann Fox in a nutshell: direct, funny, smart. She is also brave, resilient, kind, and committed to finding ways to tell her stories.  In the report I wrote for the publisher before we started the editing process, I described  Bevann’s book, which became Genocidal Love, as “a raw cry of pain and rage and resilience.” I also said it needed a LOT of work.

Bevann had self-published Genocidal Love (under the  title Abstract Love), and it had sold well within Saskatchewan’s Indigenous communities. Our challenge now was to reach non-Indigenous Canadians. Bevann knew that the manuscript was raw (and messy), and that it would need re-structuring and re-writing if it was going to be a success in the Canadian marketplace.

Yellow book cover, of the book "Genocidal Love: A Life After Residential School" with black abstract drawing

In our early conversations, I asked Bevann to tell me if and when the process of revisiting painful experiences became overwhelming. The last thing either of us wanted was for her to be triggered by revising the book. I wanted her to feel comfortable telling me that she had to take some time to process what she was writing. I also asked her to tell me if I overstepped, got things wrong, or in any way made her feel disrespected or unheard. My goal was to retain her voice and honour her stories as best I could.

Bevann only told me recently that she has a complex ADHD disability, and that all the timelines and deadlines we set really helped her deal with things like re-ordering chapters for clarity and effect, changing the narration to first person, and switching back and forth between past and present tense.

As Bevann says, “We had a flow going on.  It was a relationship, a partnership, a collaboration, a commitment, an exploration, and a challenge that would allow me to dig deeper into my thoughts and memories.”

“Moons” by Bevann Fox

I learned so much from working with Bevann, who embodies resilience. I learned to listen first and ask questions later. To put the relationship first and let everything flow from that. To be honest, but to always be kind. To be still, and to wait (a tough one for me). To create a flexible structure that works for both parties. To respect and acknowledge different ways of being on the Earth. To laugh often. To work hard. Sure, I knew these things before, but helping Bevann tell her story really confirmed that these are qualities I want to bring to all my relationships, not just the editorial ones.

Bevann has recently sent me a new manuscript, and I am about to start the process of reading, thinking, assessing, and then sharing my thoughts with her. This is how she describes the new book: “It is fiction based on true events, a unique perspective using humour to heal from intergenerational trauma of Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, foster care and the sterilization of Indigenous women. Four successful Indigenous women –Cree, Saulteaux, Lakota and Metis—are spectacular remnants from systems of genocide. The editing will support the voice of each character and entwine their connection and the flow of their friendships as they embrace humour and seek answers to their existence.” I can’t wait to dive in! And wouldn’t Spectacular Remnants be a great title!

“Colonialisation/Assimilation” by Bevann Fox

BEVANN FOX is a member of Pasqua First Nation, originally from Piapot First Nation. In 2014 she was honoured with the YWCA Women of Distinction Award—Arts, Culture and Heritage, and in 2022 she was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee Medal. She is the founder, producer, and co-host of Access TV’s The Four. Her 2020 book, Genocidal Love, has been nominated for sixteen awards and won an Indigenous Voices Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award in 2021.

 

 

Off the Page with Darren Groth

 

When Orca bought the Canadian rights to publish Darren’s Groth’s YA novel, Are You Seeing Me? it had already been published in Australia, where Darren was kind of a big deal.  I was asked, as the YA editor, to “edit” the book for the North American market. I say “edit” but what I really mean is “look for Australian words and phrases and translate them into North American English.”  As I combed the pages for mystifying Australian-isms– dunny, yonks, sticky beak, Moreton Bay bugs–I realized two things: one, this guy could write–with humour, passion and compassion–and two, I wanted to be his editor on whatever book came next.

A couple of years (and quite a bit of nudging) later, Darren submitted a new manuscript called Munro vs. the Coyote (published as Exchange of Heart in Oz). 

Darren says, “I remember when we got together for the first Munro vs the Coyote editorial meeting , my opening question was “Okay, tell me what’s wrong with this.” You weren’t about that — it was important to you that our partnership not be framed that way. You told me what was good about the story, what worked; only after that did we start digging into the structure to find the beating heart of Munro.”

Darren came to Victoria for that first editorial meeting and to meet the rest of the Orca pod. We went for lunch, I think. A very long lunch. No alcohol was involved, but we laughed like drains. 

Sidebar: the expression “laugh like a drain” has always made me, well, laugh like a drain. Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Forces’ Slang 1939–45,  describes it as ‘Ward-room and also Army officers’ slang.’ Apparently the French verb rigoler, to laugh, comes from the noun rigole, which is a drainage channel, gutter or ditch. So, it’s a laugh that burbles and gurgles, but can also be somewhat vulgar. Sounds about right.

At that first meeting, Darren wore a flat cap that I came to know as one of his “signature” hats (see author photo), but a less pretentious person you are unlikely to meet. He is not a hipster. He just loves hats. And his family. And writing. And beer. But not at editorial meetings. Darren is serious about his writing–intense, even–but also completely open to editorial comments and suggestions. It was very clear to me that if I was honest with him, he would be honest with me. He might disagree with me (and I with him) but he was always willing to listen. And laugh.

Our conversation around Munro vs the Coyote continued over about a year, with one memorable meeting in the delightful coastal town of Steveston, near where Darren lives. I can’t remember why I decided to make the trip over on the ferry to see him. We may have been at an impasse over something in the manuscript, and I thought that a long face to face meeting would bring some clarity to the issues.

Darren has an intellectually disabled, neurodiverse son;  intellectual disability and neurodiversity often feature prominently in his novels. There were times during the editing of Munro vs. the Coyote when I questioned some of the writing about these issues. To his credit, he never brushed me off in a “you don’t know what you’re talking about” way.  He understood that his personal experience and what he put on the page were two different things, even though they were intimately linked. 

Munro vs. the Coyote was published in 2017, and we were soon at work on Infinite Blue, a book he had co-written with his brother, Simon. Now, one Groth brother is a lot! Would two be too much? Infinite Blue was a book unlike Are You Seeing Me? and Munro vs. the Coyote. It was romantic, mystical and immersive (read it and you’ll see why I use that word). And no, two brothers Groth were not too much.

This is Darren’s take on that edit:

“Working together on the Infinite Blue was particularly rewarding. The edit was somewhat of a challenge given my collaborator was younger brother Simon, living on the other side of the Pacific in sunny Brisbane. Undaunted by the prospect of wrangling time zones, dodgy wi-fi and a pair of bickering Antipodean siblings, Sarah navigated the proceedings with all the aplomb, patience and deft hand of the chief chimpanzee trainer at the zoo. Her marvelous guidance was most keenly observed in the re-shaping of the story’s ending. Simon and I had been fixated on a Romeo and Juliet-styled climax; Sarah gently countered on a number of occasions that a): Romeo and Juliet had kinda been done by some other author previously, and b): the contemporary reader might not be as receptive to all-consuming tragedy as we imagined.

 “In the eleventh hour, mere days before the edited manuscript was due to go into production, her message finally got through. On a drive home from my day job, I decided to abandon all the pre-conceived baggage I’d been carrying since the first draft and re-imagine Infinite Blue’s denouement. The result? A new ending. The right ending. Maybe my favourite ending to any work I’ve done. And it wouldn’t have happened without Sarah — that savvy, sanguine, sticky-beak (look it up) of a literary chaperone — drawing the very best out of me.”

Very recently, Darren asked me if I’d have a look at a picture book he was writing, his first ever. What started as a one-off email, became a rapid-fire six-draft edit of a book called Playing Catch With Pinecones. I hope his agents find a home for this book soon. I think will engage, enchant, and enlighten young readers. 

Darren’s latest book is Boy in the Blue Hammock, published by Nightwood Editions, an epic tale of loss and loyalty, of dissent and destruction, of assumption and ableism. 

Darren is an Adelaide Festival Award for Literature winner and has been nominated for many other awards in Canada and Australia. You can get a sense  of his writing (and personal) style and generous spirit at darrengroth.com.

Off the Page with Jen Sookfong Lee

I was a fan of Jen Sookfong Lee’s writing before I was her editor. Being a fan of a writer I end up editing always results in–I want to say a frisson, but that sounds super pretentious–so I’ll just say butterflies. I was going to say horripilation, an excellent word that means “the erection of hair on the skin due to cold fear or excitement,” but it sounds nasty. And nothing about working with Jen was nasty.

In about 2015, while I was still an editor at Orca, I developed a series called Orca Origins, which focuses on cultural traditions around the world. The books are all written by writers who had lived experience of the culture they were writing about. I found great authors for books on Passover, Diwali, Ramadan, Birthdays, Christmas, and Powwow but still needed a Chinese-Canadian to write about Chinese New Year. My bosses encouraged me to contact Jen, an East Vancouver-born-and-raised writer. To my delight, she agreed to write the book, as long as we could work around her busy schedule of teaching, writing, editing, podcasting and single-parenting. 

I got over my fangirl jitters as Jen and I built the book around the framework created for the Origins series. I already knew that she was an incredible novelist, poet and short story writer. What I discovered was that her gifts were well-suited to writing middle grade non-fiction. She brought intelligence, commitment and humour to writing Chinese New Year, which was later the basis of a lovely board book called Animals of Chinese New Year. When I wanted someone to write a middle-grade book about the immigrant experience, I asked Jen if she would write it. Again, she said yes. The result was Finding Home: The Journey of Immigrants and Refugees

Jen says, “When we started with Chinese New Year, Sarah was instrumental in helping me create a vision for a book I had yet to write, in a genre—middle grade non-fiction—that I didn’t have any experience with. Together we decided what needed to be included and the book became a social history of Chinese culture as it travelled around the world with the far-reaching diaspora. What a feat! 

I knew when we started working on Finding Home that it would be a challenge. As it grew, this became patently clear as I worked to conduct interviews and process the very granular, very adult-oriented migration data. I needed Sarah more than ever! With her help, Finding Home became a timely and necessary book that is read by children across North America.”

I finally did meet Jen, at the 2017 BC Book Prizes gala, where she was nominated for her wonderful novel, The Conjoined, and I was there as the editor of a nominated book. She was glittery and gorgeous in a long silver-sequined dress. She was also smart, kind and very funny. I wasn’t quite stricken dumb, but close. 

Jen’s latest book is Superfan: How Pop Culture Broke My Heart.  Let me tell you, this book’s courage almost broke my heart. It also made me laugh–a lot. And wince, and wish I could give Jen a hug. Here’s the synopsis Jen sent me.

“Ranging from the unattainable perfection of Gwyneth Paltrow and the father-figure familiarity of Bob Ross, to the long shadow cast by The Joy Luck Club and the life lessons she has learned from Rihanna, Jen weaves together key moments in pop culture with stories of her own failings, longings, and struggles as she navigates the minefields that come with carving her own path as an Asian woman, single mother, and writer. And with great wit, bracing honesty, and a deep appreciation for the ways culture shapes us, she draws direct lines between the spectacle of the popular, the intimacy of our personal bonds, and the social foundations of our collective obsessions.”

Visit sookfong.com to find out more about Jen and her books. And then read her books and marvel at what she can do with words. (Yes, I’m still fangirling.)

Knee Deep in the Slush Pile

 

So we all know what a slush pile is, right? It’s the place where unsolicited manuscripts go to die. It’s where editors and agents once in a while find that Holy Grail of a book, the one that wins awards AND makes money. This has been known to happen. Apparently J.K. Rowling, Hilary Mantel and Zadie Smith were all discovered in a slush pile. Not the women themselves, of course. No one mails themselves to a publisher any more. It’s all digital now. Twitter pitches, anyone?

There are some great articles online about slush piles. Masterclass has one. It’s very informative. masterclass.com/articles/slush-pile-explained. Go there if you want to be educated. Stay here if you want to shoot the shit about slush piles.

What I really want to know is why is it called a slush pile, of all things?

Slush is defined as:

  1. Partially melted snow–dogs pee on it, it ruins your shoes and then it melts away
  2. A thick drink made from crushed ice–gives you brain freeze and possibly tooth decay
  3. Waste from the galley of a ship–usually grease and fat from cooking. Gross.
  4. Trashy, sentimental writing

A slush pile never melts away–ask any editor or agent. It’s an iceberg. You never see the bottom of it. Dogs don’t usually pee on slush piles. Unless of course the editor has brought a pile of manuscripts home to read, flung them to the floor in despair, and the puppy mistakes them for newspaper. It’s much harder to pee on a digital slush pile.

Slush piles may give you a headache but your teeth won’t rot (unless you are drinking a slushie as you read).

Slush piles are not usually greasy, unless an author has decided to enclose a donut or a few fries with their manuscript. This would be preferable to glitter, which never, ever goes away, no matter how much you sweep or vacuum. 

Slush piles may include manuscripts that are trashy and sentimental, however. Is this the true source of the term slush pile.  No one really knows. Hang on while I ask ChatGPT. Here we go:

The term “slush” originally referred to a mixture of snow and water, often found on the streets after a snowfall. In the publishing context, the “slush pile” metaphorically represents the collection of unsolicited manuscripts that need to be sifted through and evaluated by publishers or their editorial staff.

I appreciate the use of the word “metaphorically” but apart from that, thanks for nothing, Chatbot.

But wait, here’s another explanation.  A sum of money held in reserve for vague, often illicit, purposes is called a slush fund. Back in the 18th century, grease and fatty waste from the galleys of  sailing ships (see #3 above) were often collected and sold for the production of candles. The money collected was then held in reserve for the ship’s crew so they could buy items their wages did not cover. Hence the term “slush fund.” Charles Boberg, a linguist at McGill University in Montreal, has suggested that slush funds and slush piles may be connected linguistically, since greasy kitchen waste and a pile (or file) of unsolicited manuscripts can both yield something of value. Thank you, Dr. Boberg. Etymology for the win!

If you want some help making sure your manuscript does not end up languishing in a slush pile (digital or otherwise) , click here to set up a FREE 20-minute consultation.

Off the Page with Robin Stevenson

I say this over and over again to anyone who will listen: editing (and book coaching) is 75 percent relationship and 25 percent mechanics. Maybe even 80/20 sometimes.  If the relationship isn’t there, then the process can be, well, painful.  Each editing relationship is different, of course. There is no “one size fits all” way to edit or coach a writer. I learn as much from the writers I work with as the writers learn from me, and I wanted to tell the stories of some of the incredible people I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working with.  Off the Page is the result.


I think Robin Stevenson’s first YA novel, Out of Order (affectionately known–by me–as OOO) was one of the first books I acquired for Orca. Back in the day, slush piles were actual piles of mailed-in manuscripts. (More on slush piles in a later post.) I started reading it and was immediately hooked. For one thing it was set in Victoria (where I live). Not only was it set in Victoria, it took place in Fernwood, the neighbourhood where the Orca office is located, and where Robin lives. I loved the main character, Sophie, and her new friends at the local high school.  But most of all, I loved the way Robin wrote. 

Phoning an author to tell them they are going to be published is always a thrill. I NEVER email that news; I want to hear an author squeal, shriek, drop the phone, dance around (yes, you can hear that, too) and call for a partner/child/friend to share the joy. I’m not sure Robin squealed, but she was pretty happy. Out of Order was her first novel, but it certainly wouldn’t be her last.

Robin and I have worked together on five YA novels, three middle-grade novels, two hi-lo novels and two non-fiction books. We  also wrote a YA novel together, Blood on the Beach, which was more fun to write than you can imagine. The amazing cover (it’s one of my favourites) was created by graphic designer Teresa Bubela.

When asked about our author/editor relationship, Robin said, “You have edited so many of my books, including both fiction and nonfiction for middle grade and teen readers, so it is hard to remember specifics or know where to begin. In terms of my own learning, some of the things that stand out for me, especially with the earlier novels, are to do with character and voice: making sure that the main characters stay at centre stage and the story doesn’t get hijacked by more interesting secondary characters, avoiding stereotyped and cliched characters, ensuring that the POV character’s voice is consistent and so on. I also remember learning to cut scenes and characters that don’t play an essential role or contribute much to the story as a whole. I think working with you taught me a lot about how to read my own work critically and strengthened my ability to edit and revise prior to submitting, so hopefully the later books were less work for you then my first ones.”

I honestly didn’t find working on any of Robin’s books difficult. She was always open to my comments and suggestions, so in every book I would see improvement (although her fondness for semicolons was a hard habit to break). 

When I asked her to write a nonfiction book about Pride, she was uncertain about tackling nonfiction. As it turns out, Robin’s nonfiction is as brilliant, powerful, and compassionate as her fiction. She never flinches from hard work, nor does she turn away from difficult topics. 

Robin has published 30 books (and counting) and has won numerous awards, including a Stonewall Honor Award for Pride. She is a force for good in the world. Learn more about Robin and her books at robinstevenson.comn

One of her most recent books is the picture book Pride Puppy, which came out in 2021. It’s a rhyming alphabet book that tells the story of a family whose dog gets briefly lost at a Pride parade. Luckily there are lots of people around to help out. The book is beautifully illustrated by Julie McLaughlin. 

If you’d like to chat with me about how I might help you with your writing, click here for a free 20-minute consultation. Let’s make the alchemy happen!

Off the Page with Monique Polak

I say this over and over again to anyone who will listen: editing (and book coaching) is 75 percent relationship and 25 percent mechanics. Maybe even 80/20 sometimes.  If the relationship isn’t there, then the process can be, well, painful.  Each editing relationship is different, of course. There is no “one size fits all” way to edit or coach a writer. I learn as much from the writers I work with as the writers learn from me, and I wanted to tell the stories of some of the incredible people I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working with.  Off the Page is the result.


Monique Polak is a force of nature. In a good way. She does not wreak havoc, but she does have a seemingly endless amount of energy. She is also talented, funny, kind, brave and super-fun to hang out with.The first time I met Monique was in a small seaside town called Sidney, about 20 miles from Victoria, where I live. I had just started working at Orca, and I was with my predecessor, the wonderful Maggie de Vries. A small woman with a head of blond corkscrew curls rushed by us on the sidewalk. “Monique?” Maggie called out. The woman turned, recognized Maggie, and gave us both the full force of her gazillion-watt smile. We chatted briefly–she was on her way to a book event and as she charged away, I said to Maggie, “Who was that?” 

I was about to find out.

Over the course of the next few years I would work on eleven books with Monique,  who sees stories everywhere: in a boxing gym (Straight Punch), in Nunavik (The Middle of Everywhere), in a support group for grieving kids (Planet Grief). She has written about domestic violence (So Much It Hurts) and custody battles (For the Record). 

Her first book for Orca was published in 2004. In about 2006 she submitted a YA novel to Orca. Up until then she had been writing short hi-lo books for reluctant readers. This new book was based on her mother’s experiences as a young teen in a Nazi concentration camp, and it was heartbreaking and brilliant. 

What World Is Left was an important book for me as an editor. I hadn’t been at Orca very long, and I wanted to prove that I could edit YA fiction. The book was a Holocaust novel, and I am not Jewish. And not only was it a Holocaust novel, but it was based on the stories Monique’s mother, Celine, had told her. For years Celine had not spoken of what had happened to her in Theresienstadt. When she finally did, Monique wanted to write about it. Not a biography. A novel. A novel for teens. 

My first job as an editor is obviously to read the manuscript and think about it for a while before I make any comments. My next job is to listen. To the book and to the author. The next job is to learn. From the book and from the author. Then the author-editor conversation can start. 

It wasn’t easy for Monique to do some of the things I asked her to do: First and foremost was to create a character who was inspired by her mother but was not her mother. We both worried about offending or upsetting Celine. We needn’t have worried. Celine loved the book and often came to events where Monique was promoting the book. She was often the star of the show. 

Monique has been quoted as saying, “I’m not super-talented but I am a super hard worker.”  It’s true that she does work incredibly hard on her books, but I have to disagree about the talent part. She has talent (and energy) to burn. 

Here’s what Monique said when I asked her to describe our working relationship:

“I have always felt that my writing could not be in more capable hands than Sarah’s. She is whip-smart and super sensitive. Most importantly, she has pushed me to go deeper into my characters’ hearts. I have come to rely on her wise, measured input. I also love that Sarah is no-nonsense;  the two of us have a very direct way of communicating, which has made my life — and the rewriting process — easier. Sarah asks hard questions. And her instincts inevitably turn out to be right. When we worked on What World Is Left, she felt that my narrator needed to question her father’s actions more than she did. Because the manuscript was based on the story of my mum’s childhood experience in Theresienstadt, this wasn’t easy for me to do. But I did it — and the result was a far better book.

Sarah went on to edit many more of my Orca books (both fiction and non-fiction), as well as my latest middle-grade novel published by Owlkids. I always understood what a privilege it was to work with her. I’m working on a new middle-grade novel now. I’ve already hired Sarah to look at my first six chapters. Once again, she zeroed right in on what I could do to reach deeper into my characters.

I should also say that over the years, Sarah has become a trusted and much-loved friend.”

After the publication of What World Is Left I received a slim padded envelope in the mail. Inside was a piece of yellow fabric with a Star of David printed on it. In the center of the Star is the word JUDE. Around the Star is a black dotted line. It was part of a bolt of fabric that the Nazis left behind as they fled Theresienstadt. Celine’s mother picked up the bolt and carried it out of the camp; since she had no idea where they were going or what they would need when they got there, she thought  fabric of any sort might be useful. Even fabric printed with the hated yellow Star. 

Monique’s latest book is also her first picture book. The Brass Charm is based on a moment of kindness experienced by Monique’s mom when she was imprisoned as a child. Monique says “I feel like I was put on Earth to learn about the Holocaust and write these stories. How lucky am I that I found the thing I was meant to do!”

And how lucky am I that I get to work with Monique and be her friend?

For more about Monique, go to (moniquepolak.com)

If you’d like to chat with me about how I might help you with your writing, click here for a free 20-minute consultation. Let’s make the alchemy happen!

Off the Page with Tom Ryan

I say this over and over again to anyone who will listen: editing (and book coaching) is 75 percent relationship and 25 percent mechanics. Maybe even 80/20 sometimes.  If the relationship isn’t there, then the process can be, well, painful.  Each editing relationship is different, of course. There is no “one size fits all” way to edit or coach a writer. I learn as much from the writers I work with as the writers learn from me, and I wanted to tell the stories of some of the incredible people I’ve had the honour and pleasure of working with.  Off the Page is the result.


I first met Tom Ryan in a crowded classroom at the University of Victoria in 2010. Writer Robin Stevenson and I were co-teaching a course on writing and publishing for young adults, and Tom signed up. He had started a YA novel, and wanted as much information and feedback as he could get about writing and publishing (see below: Be smart). He was clearly very serious about his writing, but he also had a sense of humour about himself. For me, this was (and is) an irresistible combination. 

Fast forward a few months.  Tom contacted me at Orca Book Publishers, where I was an in-house editor, and submitted his YA manuscript. (see below: Be brave) It wasn’t perfect (no manuscript is) but it had real potential and Tom had real talent. Like Tom, the book was intelligent, funny, authentic, kind and bursting with heart. 

Reader, I signed it. 

Here’s what Tom said to me about our work together on what became Way to Go. 

“There are a few things I remember about working with you on Way to Go. First and foremost, the fact that you signed it at all is worth mentioning. It was my first novel, and the draft I submitted wasn’t particularly tight, but I think you saw some potential in it, and in me. Your offer letter came with an important caveat: you were willing to sign the book if I was willing to work really, really hard to whip it into shape. I didn’t need to be asked twice, and we proceeded to dive in.

 As I remember it, we worked through six rounds of edits, beginning with a broad structural edit in which we tackled the book’s framework and addressed significant issues with the plot, then in subsequent rounds we worked our way through characterization, theme, etc… until we made it to a final polish. At the time, I assumed this is how editing always worked, but in retrospect (and with several more books behind me) I realize that the manuscript was so rough that it required an unusually intense and deliberate approach, which you were willing to bring to the table. 

I learned so much working with you, and I have taken many of those lessons forward with me as I’ve continued to hone my craft and build a career. I tell the students and aspiring writers I speak with that a great editor is worth their weight in gold, and you are certainly a great editor. I doubt I would have made it this far if you hadn’t been willing to take on my manuscript and treat it with such respect and careful consideration.”

Tom’s  determination to improve the book was impressive. He was open to anything I threw at him, and he did the work. And then some. (see below: Be tenacious) We listened to each other, we laughed a lot and we got it done. We became friends. I met his husband and his dog (both lovely).  Way to Go came out in 2012.  This is what Publisher’s Weekly had to say about it:  Those who, like Danny, feel like ‘an island of gayness in an ocean of straightness,’ should identify with his search for a path of his own.”

Tom and I  worked on three other books together–Tag Along, Totally Unrelated and Big Time–before he got an agent and moved on from Orca. Since then he has gone from strength to strength. (see below: Be ambitious) 

His YA mystery Keep This to Yourself  was the winner of the 2020 ITW Thriller Award for Best YA Thriller, the 2020 Arthur Ellis Award for Best YA Crime Book, and the 2021 Ann Connor Brimer Award, and is currently being adapted for television (with Tom as the screenwriter). Learn more about Tom at tomryanauthor.com.

(Tom looking very serious signing books at a book convention.)

Tom’s latest book I Hope You’re Listening, won the 2021 Lambda “Lammy” Award for Best LGBTQ Mystery. Also in 2021, Tom and co-author Robin Stevenson published a YA novel called When You Get the Chance, about two cousins on a road trip to Toronto Pride. 

So what’s the take-away from all this? (Other than that you should read all Tom’s books. )

Be smart.  Read (a lot), take writing courses, join a writers’ group, read some more. Educate yourself about publishing. Read Jane Friedman’s articles about publishing (janefriedman.com).

Be brave. Writing is hard (and can be isolating). Publishing is hard (and often discouraging). It took courage for Tom to send me his novel, but it was so worth it, for both of us!

Be tenacious. Tenacity is an absolute necessity for writers. Rejection sucks, but it doesn’t mean that your book is bad. Don’t give up. Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before being picked up by Doubleday. 

Be ambitious: Talent will only take you so far. Ambition can open a lot of doors. Confidence draws people in. 

If you’d like to chat with me about how I might help you with your writing, click here for a free 20-minute consultation. Let’s make the alchemy happen!