When I first began attempting to write children’s books, I didn’t know another person in the world who wanted to write anything, let alone know anyone who was publishing in the juvenile field. I started in complete isolation.
It didn’t matter so much that I didn’t have contacts to let me in on the “tricks of the trade.” The tricks are highly overrated. What did matter, though, was that I had great difficulty finding readers who could give me meaningful feedback. A reader who loves everything in sight is no help at all. And that’s the way untutored readers tend to react, especially if you are writing for children. They seem to assume everything, anything is good enough for the young. Particularly if you write sweet.
One of the joys of a long career is that now I have many people in my life, most of them fellow writers for young people, who know better. They are solid, experienced critics, and they have the generosity to read my manuscripts when I’m struggling. Even multiple times.
I can think of few greater gifts.
I have recently finished a picture-book manuscript that I have been working on for many weeks. Not just the research, which took its own long time, but the writing of it, which took even longer. And from the beginning I knew that what I was trying to do was challenging and that I didn’t quite have hold of it yet. So I turned to three writer friends, wide open.
They each responded, carefully, thoughtfully, and their responses were more valuable than I have words to say. But they rarely agreed about what they wanted from the manuscript.
I took their varying suggestions and sorted them, revised and since I knew I still wasn’t quite there, I asked them each to read once more. With new responses—and new contradictions to ponder—I revised and asked again. And again. And again. I’ve lost track of the number of times I returned to my friends. I’m sure they have too. Revisions beyond counting.
To their credit, no one said, “I can’t read this again. I can no longer see what’s in front of me,” which they could legitimately have done. They just kept reading and they kept parsing and they kept trying to understand my vision and share theirs.
Eventually, though, I began to realize that because I was adrift myself, I was leaning too heavily. Not too heavily for friendship to tolerate—bless them, they held firm—but too heavily for my own good. I was beginning to rely on their minds instead of my own.
I had a student once who did that. She was young and new to VCFA’s MFA program, and she was so impressed with my critique of her first packet that she began checking in with me every few days with questions, showing me the newly minted work. I reminded her gently that she needed to think for herself, that she was the authority on her manuscript, not me. And to think for herself she had to keep the manuscript to herself, at least for a time.
By the last round of critiques on my recalcitrant picture book, two of my readers thought my ending was “perfect.” The third wanted me to take out the line the others loved. And I laughed, remembered the student I had sent gently away, and sat for a while with the piece on my own desk, in my own heart.
Then I decided what worked and sent it on its way.
My agent liked the piece, but came back with a question, still about the ending. I considered his question long and hard, revised again, then sent the piece to another friend, one who had never seen it before. She, from her fresh perspective, came back with a totally different idea about what the ending needed, and I knew, instantly, that she was right. Once more I revised and returned the manuscript to my agent, who sent it right on to the editor we both had in mind.
Next, I hope, will be the eye of the one who has the capacity and the desire to midwife this small piece into the world. When I hear from her . . . once more I will be wide open.