The Warrior Girl that Never Was: When to Take Editorial Advice–and When to Ignore It.

Sometimes we writers go to a writing conference and make an appointment to meet with an editor or agent for advice. We’re invited to send in ten pages of a manuscript along with a plot summary. Secretly we hope the reader will say, “How wonderful! I want to buy (or represent) it right away!

Usually, this does not happen. Instead, we get a critique. Advice. But how do we know whether to take the advice?

When I was working on the first draft of THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE (way back when I was calling it Kiran of Nuath, which now seems to me a much less evocative name), I attended an SCBWI conference in LA. That’s for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, one of the clumsiest acronyms I’ve seen. Lovely people, but I wouldn’t ask them to come up with the name of something.

At these events, one waits trembling in the hallway until it’s time. The editor called me in. Basically, she liked my writing and my plot ideas. She gave me two pieces of advice: Make Kiran older, and make him a girl.

The Beechwood Flute’s protagonist, Kiran, is sixteen when the book opens.

In that early draft, Kiran was fourteen, and I was thinking of writing for a middle-grade audience. On reflection over the next few weeks, I came around to the editor’s way of thinking. The coming-of-age themes I wanted to explore would work better with an older protagonist. I could go deeper, and I could go darker. I would take on the challenge of adding romance. In the end, Myra became one of my favorite characters, a strong young woman that reflected a lot of me.

But what about making my hero a heroine? This was key, the editor told me. Interest in girl warriors was peaking. I’d have an easier time selling my book to a publisher.

No doubt changing Kiran into a girl was good advice. If I had taken it, the Hunger Games phenomenon might have happened to me, though I doubt it–I don’t think I can write something that violent. More important, the suggestion just didn’t resonate with me. To me, Kiran’s journey was very specifically a masculine journey, a way of a boy becoming a man. A girl becoming a woman would be a completely different tale, not the one I wanted to tell.

So to answer the question at the top of this column, I would say,

“Take the advice that rings true to you. Don’t take it just for opportunistic or commercial reasons. If your motivation is insincere, that insincerity will come through in what you create. Take advice when you see how it will better allow you to tell the story that is in you trying to get out. After all, that’s what writing is for.”

The Week I Gave Up Writing

In the summer of 1990, I attended a writer’s conference in Aspen, Colorado. I felt fortunate to have been accepted into a fiction workshop with one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley. And it came at a time when I needed a lift. My first novel, TULKU, had come this close to being accepted by Little, Brown: I had rewritten it after feedback from an editor, and she advocated for it. But in early June, my agent called me to tell me they had turned it down. Not only that, but he didn’t know anywhere else to send it.

TULKU was dead. But there was much worse. Earlier that week, my father had died suddenly and unexpectedly at age 62.

So there I was in Aspen, fighting the sadness. I had a story to workshop about a young woman growing up in East Boston, which is where I practiced medicine at the time. The story was okay; it grew out of my attempts to understand a patient I reacted to in an instinctively negative way. The problem is that I’ve never really liked short stories, and fiction writing classes love short stories. They can get into the nitty gritty of style and theme without having to deal with lots of text. But okay.

I made friends. There was the young woman who got altitude sickness, another who wrote about her twisted, sadistic mother, another who wrote for some reason about auto glass. Jane Smiley was insightful, caught up in a love affair, and strangely remote. She told us she would never say whether or not she liked our work, because she had seen the negative effect a teacher could have on a student. One writer she knew of had had a twenty-year case of writer’s block after harsh words from a mentor.

When I met with Ms. Smiley for my one-on-one session, though, she did say one thing. I didn’t have the writing skill, she told me, to attack the kinds of themes I was addressing. I should start with something lighter, something simpler, as she had with her first horse novel.

 

Silver_Queen_Gondola_Nima3I never touched the East Boston story again. My last day in Aspen, I took a silent journey. I rode up the gondola to the top of Aspen Mountain. So many times since childhood I had taken that trip in winter with my father. At the top we often paused for photos in the sunshine before finding our way down. He was a strong graceful skier. At times it seemed he could lead anyone anywhere. He made us forget our clumsiness, our hesitations.

I walked down the mountain, trying in my mind to transform the grass and rocks into the snow-covered slopes I knew so well. I remembered turns and falls, and I let grief wash through me along with the beauty of the mountainside. I thought of John Keats, worrying that he would never write all that was inside him in “When I have fears that I may cease to be.”

                                 . . . then on the shore

Of the wide world I stand alone, and think

Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

The next day I flew home to Boston. Soon, I started helping my stepmother establish the foundation we set up in my father’s memory. I worked on improving math and science education for American schoolchildren. I didn’t write fiction again for fifteen years.