Our meeting on Tuesday, November 16 featured Kingston author Ying Lee.
Ying was born in Singapore, raised in Vancouver and Toronto, and lived for a spell in England. As she completed her PhD in Victorian literature and culture, she began to research a story about a girl detective in 1850s London. The result was her debut novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House, which won the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s inaugural John Spray Mystery Award in 2011.
The Agency quartet continued with The Body at the Tower, The Traitor and the Tunnel, both of which were nominated for awards, and Rivals in the City. The novels were published by Candlewick Press (US, Canada) and Walker Books (UK, Australia) and have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, and Turkish.
In her previous life as an academic, Ying wrote Masculinity and the English Working Class (published by Routledge). She now lives in Kingston. Visit her website at https://yslee.com/the-author/.
First Experience of Being Edited
When Ying was working on her PhD thesis, her two supervisors were excellent substantive editors: they engaged with it deeply and asked the right questions at the right time. That was crucial for her: it attuned her to things that she couldn’t see because she was too far inside the work to see the broader context.
As a result of this early positive experience, she learned to love being edited. While she was the content expert in this one small area, she could learn a lot from her editors; they could all work together to make her thesis a stronger project. When an academic press offered to publish her thesis, she was surprised and disappointed that it wasn’t edited at all. She had been hoping for someone to help make it better.
She was interested in writing at the time and wrote two textbook-like graphic novels for Rubicon Press’s Timeline series, Olympic Gold and Boxcar Riders. Such books are now called “high-low novels” because they have relatively sophisticated subject matter, but use a fairly limited vocabulary. They’re geared to students in Grades 6 to 8 or Grades 5 to 7 who are reading with a Grade 3 vocabulary. The books seek to engage these readers without being condescending and to allow them to read independently.
This was a massive learning experience. She learned how to write a script for a graphic novel and how not to offer much stage direction to the illustrator. She also learned to write in a controlled fashion with a limited word count and careful vocabulary. It was also good fun – she got to do research into history, which she loves, and it was good training in focused writing. This second foray into academic publishing was more positive than the first.
The Agency Series
Ying was also, at the time, finishing a historical detective novel, The Agency: A Spy in the House, which was a conventional historical mystery novel for adults. She sent it to her agent, who said, “You do realize this is a coming-of-age story?” and recommended that Ying rewrite it as a young adult (YA) novel.
This was in 2006, when the Twilight series (of vampire romance novels written by Stephenie Myer) was really taking off, and while those novels have come under much criticism, they opened up an entire space in publishing, creating a niche that hadn’t existed before. Everyone who works in YA now owes a small debt to Stephenie Meyer. YA is still a genre with a wide readership, and it’s still commercially successful, although no longer for historical novels.
Ying didn’t know anything about YA, so how to rewrite her novel for that genre? She decided to do so by creating one that she would have wanted to read as a young adult. And her agent sold it to Walker Books in the UK. The Agency: A Spy in the House was published in 2008 in the UK and later by Walker’s sister press in Massachusetts, Candlewick Press.
So the book was acquired and edited in London and Americanized for the US market. Ying received two sets of editorial feedback, one more substantial than the other because the two editions couldn’t be far apart. The American editor would ask the copy editor for a very light Americanization, and it would come back totally Americanized. Ying would then go through and stet three-quarters of the copy editing, an approach that the editor wholeheartedly endorsed because she agreed that the novel would otherwise lose a lot of its flavour.
Ying met her UK editor a few times but otherwise worked with both editors remotely, and the process worked really well. Her advice to aspiring editors of fiction would be to communicate clearly, assume the best of people’s intentions, be timely, and be respectful of other people’s opinions while being respectful of your own boundaries.
Ying had written the first half of the second novel, The Body at the Tower, when she gave birth to her first child, and she was so tired all the time that writing the second half was difficult. Thus, the editorial work focused on making sure that the two halves were balanced. Her UK editor helped, for example, by saying, “This scene is far too long; you need to cut three pages” or advising Ying to choose between two conflicting plot threads.
The Traitor in the Tunnel was fun to write. It’s about Buckingham Palace and the royal family, and because Ying is fundamentally republican, it resulted in a lot of collaboration between Ying and her UK editor. The Agency series was originally pitched as a trilogy, but Ying wanted to write a fourth book because she’d run out of space for her ideas and she realized that the threads of the relationship between the protagonist and her love interest needed to be drawn together. Her editors were enthusiastic, and Rivals in the City was written.
Ying has coined this term, which she defines as fiction that stands slightly outside; it’s not counter-historical but, rather, interested in what happens in the shadows. It pushes the entire premise of the Agency series: a 19th-century woman’s detective agency. But there is precedent: Alpha Behn, the 18th-century playwright and courtier, was also a spy. Also, the 1840s and 1850s saw the rise of women’s education, including higher education. Taking these facts together, one could make a theoretical case for a woman’s detective agency in 1858 London. Both editors encouraged this approach, pushing these boundaries, although historians were unhappy with it. Consider Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and other books about the rise of Thomas Cromwell; she does a lot of research but receives a lot of criticism from historians.
As far as editing goes, there was some fact checking. Neither the UK nor the US editor queried the historical references or facts too much but relied on Ying’s presentation and judgment. Ying wanted to preserve historical facts (such as what day of the week a date fell on) but also used a little leeway in her plots. Most historical romance novels focus on the upper class, but there isn’t very much about ordinary working people, and she wanted to upend that approach. Both editors were on board with that.
Ying has written three short stories to date. One is about the Kingston Penitentiary for Women for the teen anthology Life Is Short and Then You Die, published by Macmillan for the Mystery Writers of America. The editor, Kelley Armstrong, was involved in the substantive editing, and an independent editor did more substantive and copy editing. The Macmillan editor checked for house style; she was fierce, and Ying had a lot of respect for that approach because it ensured that the story was as good as it could be.
She contributed a historical short story to A Tyranny of Petticoats, edited by US YA novelist Jessica Spotswood and published by Candlewick Press. There were two layers of editing, but all Ying’s interaction was with Jessica, who had some good concerns and a real eye for things like length of scenes, etc. This was Ying’s first experience of being edited by someone who was also working in YA fiction.
The third short story was her first foray into independent publishing, a contribution to Underwater Ballroom Society, a collection of fantasy and science fiction stories edited by Stephanie Burgis and Tiffany Trent. It was Ying’s first fantasy short story, and she’s grateful for that editorial nudge to expand the boundaries of her writing.
Ying’s first picture book is coming out with Groundwood in 2023. The editorial process was bumpy. The first readers were friends, and the first draft was about 900 words. Ying sent it to her UK editor, who advised that most picture books are in the 400-word range. So Ying had to take out more than half the words, which was initially daunting; but she winnowed the draft down to 470 words. This editorial advice was much more helpful than any generic comments one can find on the Internet. The story has now been through a substantive edit. It took only half an hour on the phone, the fastest revision process of Ying’s career. But the story would never have got to that point without all the previous rounds of comments and all the fresh eyes.
Ying has also been writing poetry since the start of the pandemic. She’s a member of a workshop, which meets most weeks to critique each other’s fresh material. She dislikes creating a first draft but loves revising – paring down and moving things around.
The Experience of Being Edited
Ying enjoys the editorial process and is grateful for all the excellent editors she’s worked with. They’ve brought so much to her books but don’t get a lot of credit. By the time an author gets to the point of working with a professional editor, they’ll hopefully approach editing as a learning process and be willing to accept an editor’s contribution as improving the original text.
Our December social will take place on Monday, December 13. We’ve booked a table at Tir Nan Og in downtown Kingston but are watching the number of COVID-19 numbers closely. If we don’t meet in person, we’ll hold a virtual social. Hope to see you on the 13th!