Thursday, April 11, 2013

Writers reading writers

One of the best things you can find is another writer whom you trust to read your work and comment on it. This writer has to be knowledgeable in the genre in which you write, be aware of your style and your right to your style. To illustrate, for one of my children’s novels, the publisher employed an editor who had no concept of writing styles, and therefore she reduced any misplaced imagery, as she saw it, until the novel had become sterile. Fortunately, the publisher asked me to read it again and I was able to set things right, to have my story use the wings of language to bring enjoyment to the young reader.

I am fortunate to have writer friends who can be entrusted with my work, who with total integrity will give advice, which one may or may not take. That too is important, to have the freedom to take or not take advice, and for the advisor not to get into a huff (even quietly) and so decide never again to read for you.  One of these friends is Hazel Campbell, fellow children’s writer, invaluable; and I hope that I provide the same service for her. Another is Geoffrey Philp, a Jamaican who lives in Florida, whom I have never met, but who has turned out to be a trusted literary friend. I’ve read children’s stories for him, and I’ve asked him to read mine  and received  very helpful advice.  So here’s why I am writing about this. He had a recent blog: Life Lessons from Writing a Christmas Dutch Pot Baby  (a recent children’s story of his) where he quotes my advice to him, especially as it relates to the folktale genre. For my part, when he had discussed his story, I was impressed by the advice John Hearne had given him about the protagonist being able to ‘save himself/herself’. In the running of children’s writing workshops, I always point out that:

The solution becomes all that better if the child has discovered  it, rather than  the challenge be solved  by a grown up, as this empowers the child.


Mind you, in this modern world, one has to be very careful how we allow a child protagonist to solve really dangerous situations in a contemporary story. Nancy Drew would be out of her depth in a true to life modern story and we do not want children to think they can handle drug dealers, etc. on their own. Mind you,  come to think of it, I have a story like that in the Dr. Bird Readers, ganga dealers and all, solved by children. Oh dear. But was it that the 80s were slightly less dangerous than 2013? Perhaps a discussion for another blog.  Anyway, back to the folktale.

Geoffrey, in reading my story, based on a traditional fairy tale but in our setting, said that the heroine had to suffer more. Interesting, since I had thought his heroine suffered too much to no avail. Interesting, because this is what happens when writers talk, even by email. Interesting because it sets one to thinking, and the mind of the writer, this writer, spins out like a net catching ideas, or creating them... When Geoffrey told me my heroine had to suffer more, I thought,  ‘Well it’s clear she suffered, and  how can I make it more so?’ However, when I went back to the story, just about a week before his post to which I’m referring, I realized that she may have suffered in the original fairy tale, but not so much in mine. The original concept of enduring had slipped subconsciously into my mind, but in fact had not been stated to any degree in my story . So I tried again (it can take you some time to accept advice given, even if valid) and I rather like the result. I’ll see how it all turns out when I’m through.

So now what about the empowerment of the heroine? The position  stated by Geoffrey, which has crept over into my consciousness. Aaah. I must tell you that  I have been  challenged by this.

We know that in folktales the protagonist is often helped by magic,  the lifting of a spell by a wonderful prince. ‘Some day my prince will come’, which supposedly has led generations of real life girls  to believe that one will live happily ever after. ( And as Disney has recreated all the fairy tale heroines  as princesses, another generation will be hooked. How clever!  Another post?)  In my story the heroine is helped by the magical Auntie of the Starlight, first created by me for the story, ’Once Upon a Starlight’ (circa 1983,) and that element is integral to the story.

The fact is, before all of this thinking  about the advice give by Geoffrey,  I was not very fond of my heroine. She was allowing the bad treatment (suffering) to be done to her, even if she didn’t know any better. The fact that she redeems herself in the end by hard work  in a position of responsibility, is not necessarily a redemption since she was hard working ‘from time’. However, I am now beginning to like her better. The challenge is, although retelling a story which depends on magic of some sort for a solution, I have the desire to have her contribute even more to her own solution. Thank you, Geoffrey, for replanting that seed (because I had forgotten). Perhaps in that way the story becomes even more Jamaican/Caribbean as it attempts to transform a helpless folktale heroine into a  girl worthy of a matriarchal society in which men still exert power. Maybe not a ‘life  lesson’ (borrowing Geoffrey’s phrase) for my readers, but perhaps a lesson for me. Suddenly I am excited about finishing this story.

Oh, as a sort of post script, I have been reading some children’s stories, and while I welcome the increasing number, I beg of authors and publishers to  1) use editors,  who are familiar with the genre of children’s literature and with the English language for those parts of the story that are in standard, 2) use proofers. It’s a bit worrying to see in a 16 page book,  with not much text on each page, typos and major punctuation errors.  I’m  not asking for the job, but it might be worthwhile to ask another children’s writer to read some of these manuscripts before they go to press. Blessings all and keep on writing.

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