The Book that wouldn't Publish
Oct. 3, 2006. 01:00 AM
MATT BEAM
TORONTO STAR

Three years ago, I wrote a story for I.D. about my early experiences as an unpublished author. I told readers about my search through writing market guidebooks for the appropriate publishing houses, about how I learned to follow the fastidious format of the cover letter, and about how I gradually understood what a long, torturous, mind-bending experience the whole thing could be.

I'm here now to tell you, the latter lesson was not yet complete.

The Matt Beam of 2003 knew absolutely nothing of long experiences, had barely glimpsed publishing-styled torture and could not have conceived of the true meaning of cerebral contortion.

But you couldn't blame me for thinking I had. After all, my young adult novel, In Clouds, as it was once called, was on the cusp of being accepted for two excruciating years, and when the publisher finally did accepted the manuscript in November of 2001, there was a disaster looming around the corner.

Shortly after the editor had given the thumbs up on my novel, her publisher went bankrupt. That caused my story to be summarily stuffed into the bankruptcy freezer (along with the rest of their frozen literary assets), left to collect a fuzzy coating of frost.

Six long months later when the summer of 2002 arrived, there was some good news: my former publisher was bought by another, and my manuscript was set out on the counter to thaw.

I can now imagine this new publisher, waiting impatiently over this metaphorical frosted lump, wondering what would finally reveal itself. Was it a thick juicy steak of a story or a nice rack of lamb? Perhaps a tidy row of organic sausages?

Well, whatever it was the publisher finally witnessed, it was NOT what she was imagining for dinner. For a long time.

Finally, after a year of not being dinner, my agent, and I decided enough was enough. We withdrew the manuscript, hoping to sell it elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I had been writing. I had finished two other novels, and was getting close to selling one of them, Getting to First Base with Danalda Chase. To make a long story short, my agent found a major Canadian publisher for First Base, and this publisher ended up looking at and liking the not exactly fresh but no longer frozen, In Clouds.

But thing is you can't make a long story short, especially in the publishing world. Because In Clouds was now technically my second book, it wasn't touched for another two years. While I edited First Base — removing over-the-top metaphors, slaying characters of unimportance, and toning down some of the craziest character names in the history of unpublished fiction — the pages of my manuscript yellowed and curled like old newspaper.

But finally in the fall of 2005, four years after the manuscript had been accepted for the first time, it was time. I snipped the elastic on the pages of my once first novel, and turned over the title page.

I was terrified. The first line of the manuscript contained essentially the first novel-writing sentence I had ever typed ... in 1999!

"Rules. They were what he hated most."

The rest of the first three pages were painful — pull out one of your English essays from Grade 10 and you'll know what I mean. The writing seemed pubescent; my characters were growing much faster than my plot, my voice was cracking every third line, and the pages had acne, a few metaphors needing to be popped on every page.

But at a certain point, I could see my former self hitting its stride. There was a good story there, and funny characters, and there was a message I still firmly believed in. The idea for the novel came from some of my experiences as a Grade 8 teacher in New Zealand, and the issues of power, how it is wielded in and out of the classroom, still resonated with me.

So I hunkered down. Because I'd already worked with an editor on my "first book" — First Base — I knew what had to be done. (Usually, if he or she is lucky, a writer must initially answer to a three-page editorial letter — if unlucky or stubborn about the suggested changes, multiply the number of letters by 3.)

In this unusual case, I had asked my editor if I could do the first edit on my own, and after giving me some general ideas, she complied.

So, I deleted whole paragraphs, pruned awkward phrasing, and made a point of showing with dialogue, instead of telling too directly. The last name Stoltophski became Stren, the town Carrodsville became Laverton, Principal Dorfenburger became Dorfman.

Last thing to go was the title. While I still liked In Clouds, deep down I knew it had to go — there was simply no entry into the plot. So I brainstormed with my cache of readers and advisers, and eventually came up with Can You Spell Revolution? The title was tailor-made. It rolled of the tongue, it was edgy, and it fit in perfectly with the twist in my plot.

After the first edit was another and then another, each one getting smaller and smaller until there was an advanced copy, and then finally a finished book. It all happened in a short six months, which felt like Mach 3 to me and my manuscript.

When Revolution hit the shelves this September, I went straight to the bookstore, and found some copies on display. I quickly grabbed my novel, held it to my chest, and thought, "Can you spell `Finally!'?"


Can You Spell Revolution? is published by HarperCollins Canada. Finally. Email Matthew Beam through his site at www.mattbeam.com.

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