A Great Fantasy Novel: The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable
What distinguishes a good fantasy book from a mediocre one, and how does an editor work on a novel originally published in another country? Arthur Levine, Editorial Director of Arthur A. Levine Books, and Cheryl Klein, Associate Editor, discuss The Singer of All Songs by Kate Constable.
Arthur: When I was a kid, some of my favorite novels were fantasies — Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, and Mary Stewart's Arthurian Saga among others. So naturally I took that love with me into the world of children's book publishing.
As an editorial assistant, one of the first submissions I raved about to my boss was Brian Jacques' Redwall. At Knopf I was lucky enough to be the American editor for Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass. And, a few years ago I convinced my colleagues to get behind another talented author making her debut in the realm of fantasy — J. K.Rowling.
Because of these books and others, my love of a good fantasy has become well-known among authors and agents and I'm fortunate to see many of them cross my desk in manuscript form. I'm very grateful for this, especially in an age that I believe will later be seen as a golden age for children's fantasy. But it also means that I have to be extremely selective in taking on a new author writing in this genre. I'm a tough critic as well as a fan.
So when Rosalind Price of the Australian publisher Allen & Unwin told me about Kate Constable, I was intrigued, but also quite skeptical. And when my editors Zehava Cohn and Cheryl Klein began to rave about the book I was impressed, but still held on to my reservations.
The proof, as they say, was in the writing itself. That's what convinced me. But I'll let my associate editor Cheryl Klein tell you more about that, and her experience preparing the book for publication.
Cheryl: When I read The Singer of All Songs, three things stood out for me. The first was the originality of the magical world that Kate Constable creates. The magic in Tremaris is worked through music (called "chantment"), and the nine different kinds of chantment each control different powers. Only women's voices can sing the chantments of ice, for example, while only men can make the low hum of ironcraft. It's a totally original and yet entirely natural idea, for all of us have felt the power — indeed the magic — of music. And yet it also speaks to the book's theme that all voices must sing together in chorus for anything great to be accomplished, just as all kinds of chantment must be brought together for the broken world of Tremaris to be healed. As Arthur says, we've seen a lot of fantasy manuscripts in the years since Harry Potter was published, but this one immediately stood out to us for the intelligence of its concept.
The second thing that set The Singer of All Songs apart for me was the beauty of its prose, which sang out as beautifully as its heroine Calwyn does in the novel. Every authorial choice is right here, so that I truly came to care for Calwyn and her friends. I saw the seas and mountains of Tremaris in my mind, I followed every turn of the plot breathlessly. As Mark Twain said, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug," and Kate's prose is lightning.
And because of that, the third thing happened: I flat-out loved the book, which took me back to all the thrilling female-centered fantasies I adored in middle school and high school. The strong heroine who makes mistakes, her band of loyal companions, the hint of romantic tension, the enemy who reflects the heroine's own fears and weaknesses . . . I immediately connected The Singer of All Songs with Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, Garth Nix's Sabriel, even Diana Wynne Jones's Fire and Hemlock (which I think I once read four times in a row). So I was delighted when Arthur acquired the book and asked me to work with Kate in bringing it to an American readership.
Because Rosalind Price had already done a masterful job editing the book, Kate and I didn't need to work on the usual editorial concerns of character, plot, pacing, and theme. Instead, my chief responsibility was to see that the manuscript read just as clearly and wonderfully for American readers as it did for Australians. To that end, I went over the original text closely, changing Aussie spellings and punctuation to fit American standards and querying places where the Australian text seemed incorrect or unclear. To give you some idea of how terribly nitpicky editors can be, I wrote to Kate:
"According to p. 178, Calwyn and Mica were heading for a fishing hut on the other side of the island from the harbor. Right now this sentence on p. 180 reads to me that Calwyn and Mica are on the harbor side of the island and Fledgewing is on the opposite ("far") side. Yet when we last saw Fledgewing, it was just moving out of the harbor, and in the next few lines Tonno spies the girls moving among the rocks. So is it actually Calwyn and Mica who are on the non-harbor side of the island here, and then they cross back over for Tonno to see them?"
Did your eyes glaze over reading that? Arthur says that the editor's job is to serve as a book's "ideal reader" — that we support our authors by identifying places where they don't communicate their stories as clearly or strongly as they might to the book's ultimate readers. Here I thought readers would share my puzzlement over the characters' movements, so I asked Kate to clarify the scene. She agreed the passage wasn't clear, and the reworded text appears in the final book. After the copyedited manuscript was set in type, my summer interns and I read each of three "passes" of the text, correcting small typographical errors each time. Illustrator Matt Mahurin created the gorgeous cover art, which incorporates many of the novel's motifs, and designer Elizabeth Parisi came up with a sumptuous package for the book, including a gold stamp on the cover, colored endpapers, and deckled edges. We then sent it all off to our manufacturing department.
But an editor's work isn't done even after a book leaves her desk. Arthur and I sent the manuscript to Nancy Farmer, who had just won a Newbery Honor for The House of the Scorpion; she told us, "I absolutely adore Kate Constable's The Singer of All Songs". We shared it with Garth Nix, whose Sabriel had so delighted me years earlier, and who called it, "A terrific book, beautifully written, with wonderfully rich imagery and fascinating magic." We introduced Calwyn to Tamora Pierce, the queen of the "shero" story, who praised the book's "carefully shaped blend of magic and music" and asked when the next book in the trilogy would come out. Two of these quotes appear on the back of the jacket, and they've already begun to help The Singer of All Songs find a large audience of enthusiastic readers — the editor's greatest satisfaction. And our efforts were further rewarded when Booklist gave the novel a starred review, praising "Constable's detailed vision of her world, the precise way its magic operates, and her extremely likeable cast," and calling it, "an impressive debut by an author who clearly has much to contribute to the fantasy genre."