Sometimes my son’s wisdom astounds me. Not always. I can still see his little eight-year-old body straining against the temptation to chase a ball into the street, where all his instincts are at war in that moment. Morning time, each morning, comes to him as a complete surprise, as if he is baffled that each day he will need to choose breakfast, find socks, brush his teeth, and be at the door by 7:50. Today my wife found a completely black banana in his backpack, wedged between math homework and a drawing of Spiderman. Not all decisions are equally wise, perhaps.
But he has his moments. And sometimes these moments blow me away.
One of the most difficult things that writers have to face is the question of whether their work is actually good. I don’t mean “good” in the way your mom thinks your faded drawings on the fridge are good, or the way that guest speaker in your high school assembly said you were each special. I don’t mean cheek-pinching kind of good, or Dr. Phil kind of good. I don’t even mean “good” in the sense that your grammar is excellent, your structure is strong, and the narrative is engaging. If writers are still asking themselves these questions, they have some work to do.*
When I say “good” I mean demanding an answer to this horrifying question: Is my work really good? This Tuesday there are a hundred thousand writers with a manuscript ready, and we’ll only hear of a few. It is true that the odds can overwhelm us. There are probably huge numbers of authors who should have been given a chance, and weren’t. And there are enough writers whose following is greater than their skill demands. We cannot control any of those things, and must leave it to the cruel or blessed hands of fate. The only thing we can control is our craft.
And that is the frightening part. Me, alone with my work, deciding the next step to take.
Now, I know that my work is basically good. I’ve been around enough to confidently say some of it is pretty good without any real arrogance. What I cannot say is whether it is really good. Specifically, should I try to find an agent—a very difficult task—and get it published? I like the story and think the characters are unique and engaging. I’ve worked it through a few drafts and it has survived the fate of other manuscripts, which I’ve used to cover textbooks and light fires. I think it is commercial and timely and well crafted. But is it really good? Is it good enough?
This is where beta readers come in. I sent the piece I’m working on now, a Middle Grade novel, to two groups of readers. The first group were friends, mostly, including adults who like kids books and some readers who fall into the target group (9-12 year old girls, in this case). This group gave some good feedback and were mostly supportive. I would have liked some more critical responses from these readers, so next time I’ll have to pick people who don’t like me. But they were terrifically encouraging. One of the readers sat in a hard chair and read the entire manuscript in a single sitting. I made him a salad.
The second group of readers was made up of professionals and people I paid for their advice. One of the professionals, a writer in residence, read ten pages and really didn’t get it. His work is highly literary, sophisticated, award-winning adult fiction, and he mostly gave me general advice for my career.
Three other pro readers I paid, which included one author published in the target age group and two anonymous readers. The published author did a complete read of the book and provided substantial criticism based on the premise that it was worth editing toward publication. His comments have been invaluable, and one of his critiques that I am trying to integrate right now could be a do-or-die re-writing moment for me. This children’s author offered me a great amount of time and donated all the money to charity. I hope one day to return the favour.
The first of the two anonymous readers offered a critique that was generally positive, but he** felt like I had missed what the true story was and left far too many questions open. Considering this reader’s critique, I don’t know whether he would suggest I continue with the manuscript or not, but it gave me enough to consider as I move forward.
The second anonymous reader was far more critical. It was, of course, the criticism I remembered most vividly as I went through my day, writing and rewriting in my head as I packed lunches and washed dishes and punched my peculiar version of a clock. The second reader thought the writing was good and I had “some talent.” She then offered a genre criticism—something that could be fatal to the work and is really a devastating critique if she is right. I am willing to risk what she critiqued, though, partly because all of my beta readers liked best what this reader thought least commercial, but also because addressing her concern would mean making it a different kind of book. I appreciate her concern—I had thought of it myself—but I think I have to move forward anyway.
What was most devastating, what I carried around all day, was one word in the critique. She called this book, this story I’ve crafted for three years now, “derivative.” Reading that word on the screen was like getting hit in the gut with a quidditch bat. Or, at least, what I imagine what it would feel like if my work was derivative of J.K. Rowling. It is true that derivative authors can get published and read. But my goal is more than having a story printed between cardboard covers. I want it to be good, really good.
I’m not even sure how this came up with my son. His mom was working and Nicolas and I were at the kitchen table working on his homework. He had liked my story, but, honestly, he is sort of required to like my story. After all, I can always sell his Lego on eBay or break all his pencils. I kind of have the upper hand. Still, I value his thoughts and we talk about all kinds of crazy things. Without thinking much about it, I said to him:
“Someone read my story and didn’t think it was worth publishing. What do you think of that?”
Nicolas looked at me for a moment, then spoke wisdom far past his eight years:
“Well,” he said. “If they’re right, they’re right. Fix it.”
Bam! There it is, of course. Somewhere in my editing and beta testing and rewriting I had forgotten Stephen King’s basic dictum:
He didn’t say that exactly—you can read his On Writing for yourself—but that’s the gist of it. For me, the demons don’t haunt while I’m writing. When my fingers are on the keyboard haunting demons have to wait. But when the manuscript is done, and the file is saved and saved again, then the demons make themselves comfortable in my mental studio. It is why I now have six completed novels on my hard drive that have never been pitched to a publisher. They haven’t seen the light of day.
“If they’re right, they’re right. Fix it.”
So, I have to just sit down and do it, don’t I? That reader might be right and this will be a failure. Either way, I’ve got to keep working on it.
But then Nicolas dropped his second bomb:
“When people don’t think I’m good at drawing, it makes me want to try harder and learn more.”
Wow. Who made this kid?
Our conversation moved on after this. I wanted to know who didn’t like his drawing so I could beat them up (or sell their Lego on eBay, if they’re kids). But his advice stuck with me. It is such an artist’s trait, isn’t it, to use the resistance of the universe to provide energy to the new creation? Artists, not least of all writers who lose themselves so easily in mental worlds of their own cruel fabrication, need to remember these lessons from my eight-year-old son. Right or wrong, consider the critics and then move on with the task at hand. Fix it, as Nicolas says. Out of the mouths of babes. I think someone said something about that once.
*Note: I was really tempted to spell something worng there.
**Note: I don’t know any of the anonymous genders, but I hate writing “he or she” or “s/he.”