Sunday, October 26, 2014

A new take on character driven stories: Inviting comments on a story; a fascinating experience

I’ve asked people to comment on stories as readers,  adults, in the form of teachers, librarians, editors, and children, usually from schools. These comments usually help me and my editor as we continue the writing process. But I’ve never put a story on line and invited comments from the general public. I did this with Daughter of the Time to Come in my last blog. I already knew how one of my regular readers felt as she said she couldn’t comment as she really didn’t work with that style of writing/type of story. Translation: she does not like it at all.

So on to the comments. As far as I can see only two people commented, which could mean people didn’t like it and wanted to spare my feelings, or just weren’t interested. But the exercise has been instructive and fascinating for me because I found out so much more about the story.

First comment: N. said that the story was lovely (or maybe that’s what I took her to mean, when she said it was so gentle). She added that she wondered if it weren’t too gentle. I agreed with her and said there really was no action or excitement. Certainly a damning comment form the author herself, eh. She asked what was the target audience, and I stuttered a reply. I realized that I had wanted it to be for children under 12, but hoped that adults would also read it, and read between the lines. I admitted that I had perhaps imagined a type of Native American approach to story, where things are quietly told so as to let us know why something is the way it is. Yet this is not a ‘just so’/’how it came to be’ story. And as I think of that, I share with you an event at the library, where a visiting Native American storyteller told a story; it was beautiful and calm. The children present clapped politely. Then a Jamaican storyteller told one of our stories; it was full of fun and excitement and some amount of trickery (Anancy-type survival syndrome) and the children roared with laughter and clapped loudly. Who indeed is my target audience?

Second comment: H. said that the story felt unfinished, that she needed more back-story, more info on both characters, e.g. Was the soldier brought up by house slaves, hence had an affinity for Africans? Had the two characters thought of each other in between the meetings which take place in the story? and so on  H. mentioned the idea, as expressed by the characters, that one day people would respect one another, as something that resonated with her. She pointed out that it was still relevant today and that we have not as humans managed to achieve this ideal. In the story, The Red Warrior tells Daughter of the Time to Come that they had respected one another as great warriors, and that even if they could not now be friends, perhaps their children would be friends in this island in the time to come. The story indicates that Daughter of the Time to Come realizes this truth. . . . "This then was the answer, to have the understanding." That, by the way, was the original ending.

There is a history to this story. I had actually sent it to an American publisher and the children’s editor graciously met with me when I was in New York attending a conference. She said they might be interested if I could include what Maroon life was like, how the villages were set up/worked, etc. I understood what she meant and that this then would make it like those stories which could be promoted as historical/multicultural. I thought about it. It seemed an excellent idea. I did nothing about it when I returned home. The story was selected for a collection of Caribbean folktales. I saw the comments of the readers and one had mentioned the element of romance. The collection was never done because the publisher had discovered by then that children’s books were hard to sell. When that collection was passed onto another publisher, I was not surprised that the story was not included in the book they produced. Perhaps it had only made it through that initial selection because one of the readers had a little romance in her soul.

Both readers, N. and H., picked up on the attraction the characters felt for each other. An attraction that would have been forbidden at that time, and always is, wherever we are in whatever time of history, for those who are on opposing sides. (Romeo and Juliet).

The back story: I know all about these two characters. I can see them. The soldier eventually married and had a family. He had grown up with Africans, not as house slaves, but around them on the estate to which his father was attached. He learnt their ways. Always he wanted to be a brave warrior. He is handsome, just because he is, and he is a wise and brilliant warrior; he can also be gentle. All through his life he often thought of Daughter of the Time to Come, always wondered if he would meet her again. Perhaps he always loved her. Certainly, he understood her.

Daughter of the Time to Come also has a family, she too has thought of him over the years, but would not even admit to herself that she is carrying any feelings for him (as we say in these modern days). She is beautiful, just because she is, and bold, fierce and proud. She is not gentle. She has had no opportunity or inclination to be so. She is bitter about the defeat, as she sees it, of the truce with the British. Her people are more important to her than anything else. (‘I could not love thee dear so much loved I not honour more’ – something I remember from English literature in school when I would mentally collect particularly romantic or life-directing quotes).

These two characters are star-crossed never to be lovers. There is no way that any of their feelings could be admitted. Hence, I suppose in 2014, I give her the consolation prize of mothering all the daughters who will lead her country down through the ages. (The later ending). And after all, who can say if it is the consolation prize?

And that is why, even though I’ve read the comments, I don’t think the story can be changed. This is a character driven story and I don’t think the two characters want to tell their back story. There is nothing more to be said. Their story has been written. These characters came to me and said , ‘Tell our story', and yet , here is a story that perhaps should not have been written, because it is not a story. You may then ask if there is any psychological reason why the characters came to me, any family history. That question did not occur to me until I was writing this blog, and quite honestly, I do not think that there is. This is a story which has no future and yet these two characters are as real to me as any I have ever written.

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