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When Two Minds Meet

The Branford Boase Award is presented annually to the author and editor of the outstanding debut novel for children and young people. Jenny Downham and her editors Bella Pearson and David Fickling won the Branford Boase Award in 2008 with Before I Die. It was the start of a long, happy, and very successful working relationship for them. We were interested to find out about the benefits of a long partnership for both the writer and editor, and so we asked them some questions.

Jenny Downham

Jenny Downham (photo credit Barker Evans)

Jenny, what were your expectations of how an editor would work with you from manuscript to publication? Was the process as expected, or were there some interesting discoveries on the journey?

I imagined an editor would be like a teacher – putting red marks and comments all over the ms and making suggestions about how I could ‘do better.’  I thought there would be several stages – wide sweeping (rewrite this chapter, get rid of this character, cut the whole by a third) and smaller stuff (commas and semi-colons and repeated words).  I was right that there are steps to editing but I hadn’t realised a copyeditor is a different person and that the fine line stuff and the proofreading come a lot later.

When I first met Bella, I couldn’t believe how confident she made me feel.  I was full of doubts, so close to the work that I couldn’t judge it anymore.  She was firstly, simply lovely to me, telling me all the things she liked about the book.  Secondly, she was not prescriptive.  She had a profound understanding of all the elements of good fiction, but she had an intuition that couldn’t be learned.  I knew my book better after discussing it with her.  Its weaknesses and strengths had been exposed and I felt confident and excited about making changes. 

Inevitably in the editing process changes are made. Could you tell us something about how you navigate the process? What are you prepared to give way on? 

Sometimes an editor will suggest a change I was secretly hoping they wouldn’t pick up on.  On those occasions, I bow my head and re-write.  Other times an editor suggests something and it’s like an alarm going off because it’s so obvious and I can’t believe I didn’t notice it myself.   Sometimes the things they suggest feel like the finishing touches to a painting – I need to add more detail to a scene, rub a few things out, or splash some vivid colour across a chapter.  Occasionally, I don’t get it at all.  An editor says something and I think, nope, I don’t know what you mean.  I try to understand and usually I have a go and it’s useless, I simply don’t believe in the new writing.  A second or third meeting is required.  Lastly, there’s the stuff (happens rarely) where I flat out disagree.  This is not stubbornness.  This is because I have lived with the project for three years or so (I’m slow!) and I can justify exactly why something should or should not happen.  I have been blessed to work for a publisher (David Fickling) who believes in his authors and allows them to make the final judgement.  I have been blessed with an editor in Bella who is a great listener and offers sensitive and insightful suggestions.

What do you think are the most important things that you have learned from each other?

Bella imbues me with confidence, so if I had to pick one thing, I’d say she taught me to have more faith in myself.

I once wrote this about her:

Discussing my manuscript with Bella is a bit like going on a trek with a wilderness expert.  She remembers the matches; she knows how to build a shelter and which mushrooms are poisonous and how to filter water from the stream and all that important stuff.  But she also encourages the wearing of silly summer dresses (totally inappropriate trek clothing) and the climbing of dangerous trees (to gain a different perspective) and the singing of songs at the top of our voices into the darkness (to welcome the spirits). 

So, I guess she also teaches me that rules don’t always matter.

You have worked together over a long period, in what ways do you think the author/editor relationship benefits from longevity?

Bella is one of only two people I know who can hold all possible story paths of a book in their heads at once and seamlessly travel up and down them.  Once she has read the first draft of a manuscript, we get out great rolls of paper and I draw my story all over them and we walk about and ask, ‘What if?’  It’s a great way of ironing out structural problems.    

This ‘long-papering’ is something I used to do as an actor and over the years, Bella has become a trusted companion for the task.  I’m not sure we could have done it for the first book.  This opening up of the story means she gets to know my manuscript on a deep level and can discuss not only the wider issues but the details.  It’s frightening to invite real criticism, but Bella has empathy by the ton.   

Do you think that there are insights from the way that you work together that might benefit teachers who seek to nurture their pupils’ writing?

A bespoke attitude.  Camaraderie.  Get off your bottom and walk the story about – draw it, act it out, do silly voices.  Don’t be hungry when you do this – eat a decent lunch! 

Ask lots of questions because you’re bound to eventually ask something the author hasn’t thought of and then they’ll need to be very clear about what exactly it is they’re trying to say and why. 

Be honest – truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. A good note is truthful, specific, and inspiring – but be kind in the telling. 

Bella Pearson

Bella, can you recall your first impressions when you received the manuscript of Before I Die?

I remember vividly where I was when I first read the manuscript of Before I Die by Jenny – I was an editor at David Fickling Books in Oxford, and my office was in the basement of a building on Beaumont Street (which used to flood periodically due to the Victorian drains). I remember coming to the end of the novel and being in a state of shock – and immediately ringing Jenny’s agent Catherine Clarke and garbling out some words along the lines of ‘I love this so much’… and then I also remember seeing Jenny and Catherine walking across the road before our first meeting in a state of nerves in case she didn’t like us… as well as the train journey to a sales conference in Amsterdam a few days later, where the paper manuscript was passed up and down the carriages as people from every department at Random House desperately read and wept… what a time! I’m not sure there had been anything like that in my career before or since – that palpable excitement about a novel and the desperation to publish this writer who had come out of the blue. And we somehow managed to persuade Jenny to be published with DFB, and I’ve worked with Jenny since then.

Inevitably in the editing process changes are made. Could you tell us something about how you navigate the process? 

The editorial process inevitably is different with every book and every author too.  I remember with Before I Die, the book was fully formed and we barely had to make any suggestions. It was editing with the lightest touch – almost nothing to do to make the book the best it could be – it already was.

For Jenny’s next few novels, I think my main role has been as a sounding board. She is very kind about my input – but I often feel that I am there more to steer her own inner thoughts. Once I had read the first draft Jenny would talk through different scenarios and we would chat about the implications and motivations of the characters and the structure. But I am generally there not to give my own ideas but to facilitate Jenny discovering hers – the most important thing I feel I do is listen. One of the most memorable meetings we had was at the Museum of Modern Art – Jenny hired one of the rooms tucked away in the museum, came with huge pieces of paper and we spent a lovely day wrestling with character and structure and story – bliss!

What do you think are the most important things that you have learned from each other?

I have watched and marvelled as Jenny has shown me how her characters come to life, with her insightful views of how people work and how they tick. How to structure a novel – the sense of shaping a story is so brilliantly clear when you’re there with coloured pens and someone endlessly questioning the motivation of her characters. She questions and talks around until she knows EVERYTHING about the story and people in it, more so than anyone else I know – I’ve always been in awe at how much work Jenny does around her story that never actually makes it into the book directly (although of course it does indirectly). She’s taught me that you can never know too much about your story as an author, and she has made me a better editor as a result. And she’s a joy to work with – she is now a good friend and a lovely person to spend time with.

You have worked together over a long period, in what ways do you think the author/editor relationship benefits from longevity?

When you first meet an author, the most important thing in my view as an editor is to learn about the way they want to work with an editor. This is their creation that you are working with, and it is so important to be sensitive and thoughtful and work in the way that suits them best. I think generally I’m a hands-off editor – I don’t suggest things to do, I am more likely to point out areas that don’t work as well as I think they should and discuss from there. At other times perhaps I will suggest some things and hope that one might trigger a response of some kind. Trust is so important – there will sometimes be difficult conversations to have, and it’s important that the author trusts your judgement too.


Branford Boase winner 2008

Jenny and Bella were awarded The Branford Boase Award for Before I Die.

Tessa has just a few months to live. Fighting back against hospital visits, endless tests, drugs with excruciating side effects, Tessa compiles a list. It’s her Ten Things To Do Before I Die list.

And Number One is sex. Released from the constraints of ‘normal’ life, Tessa tastes new experiences to make her feel alive while her failing body struggles to keep up. Tessa’s feelings, her relationships with her father and brother, her estranged mother, her best friend, her new boyfriend, all are painfully crystallized in the precious weeks before Tessa’s time finally runs out.