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.
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.”