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.”

Hidden Figures in the Restroom

In Hidden Figures, the excellent film about African-American women mathematicicans working at NASA in the early years of the space program, the main character, Katherine, spends an inordinate amount of time rushing across the Langley campus in her heels to the Colored Women’s restroom. In fact, the sequences get a bit tiresome–until you realize that of course that’s the point: If watching it is tiresome, imagine having to make that trip, half a mile each way, whenever you need to relieve yourself. Meanwhile, Katherine’s

Katherine Johnson, NASA, 1966

boss gets annoyed that she’s absent so much, until the day she finally explains. Then he takes a sledgehammer to the sign and integrates NASA’s bathrooms.

hahn_meitner_1912
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn, 1912

Women scientists have had bathroom trouble before. I describe one instance in my book Magnificent Minds. When nuclear physicist Lise Meitner began working with chemist Otto Hahn in Berlin in 1907, the boss, famous organic chemist Emil Fischer, restricted her to the basement. Fischer’s excuse? Meitner’s long hair might catch fire in the Bunsen burners upstairs. (Fischer’s bushy beard apparently presented no such danger.) Besides being confined to the woodshop, Meitner had to walk down the street to a nearby hotel to use the restroom.

How silly, but how oppressive. Nothing says, “Your kind isn’t wanted here” like failing to provide restrooms. I can’t help but think of these examples as I read about the controversy over which bathrooms transgendered students may use in schools. I’m not convinced by statements that restricting bathroom use is “to protect our daughters.” What is the fear? That a person who considers herself female is going to display male genitalia to frighten other girls in the bathroom? Why would she? Or is the fear that males will pretend to be transgender to get into girls’ bathrooms and spy on them? But then why don’t they do that now? Right now, a man could slip on a dress and a wig and go through the wrong door. This doesn’t seem to happen. What changes if we welcome those who consider themselves female into the bathroom of their choice?

No, I think on the whole the real issue is something else. A woman from Omaha explained it on NPR this morning. She works in a school, she says, and they have transgender students, and even though she doesn’t “approve of their choice,” the school treats them all with love. But allowing them to use the bathroom that makes them comfortable “would only encourage it.” The idea seems to be that allowing a young person to use their chosen bathroom would overcome all their other hesitations and lure them into becoming transgender, a choice they would otherwise rationally reject.

I don’t think this makes sense.

I understand that the mere idea of transgender people can make us uncomfortable. From early childhood, a person’s gender is one of the very first things we perceive about them. To think that this designation is fluid or uncertain can be profoundly disorienting. What does it mean about us? Do we really have to think about this? But truly, people who question or seek to change their gender are not impinging on our freedom or physical security.

sledgehammerAnd for all you men out there, I’ll tell you a secret. Women’s restrooms have stalls. Women use the toilet in privacy.

Forty years ago, when I attended Harvard, the houses in the Radcliffe Yard were co-educational. Males and females lived on the same floors. But because the dorms had been built when Radcliffe housed only women, there was only one large shared bathroom on each long hallway. The dorm held an annual bathroom vote to determine whether the bathrooms should also be co-ed, or whether half the population should have to travel to another hallway or another floor. Over and over, the co-ed bathrooms prevailed. People used the toilet stalls. They closed the shower doors. They didn’t intimidate or harass one another. In fact, it worked pretty much the way it does when you’re at home. Everyone was welcome to use the bathroom. It wasn’t a big deal.

So maybe it’s time to do what Kevin Costner did in Hidden Figures. Knock down the signs. A restroom is a restroom. A person who needs it should be allowed to use it, and we can all be just a little courteous and discreet.

Book Signings: Best and Worst

A few people have asked me if I’m planning a book tour for THE BEECHWOOD FLUTE. I’d be happy to come talk to just about any group that invites me, but I find talks at schools or to teachers much more fruitful than bookstore signings.

The sad truth is I’m not famous enough for people to flock to a bookstore to see me. Not very many authors are. Think about it: how many times have you gone to book signing and author talk, especially for a new author you don’t already know? Bookstores know this. Some of them (I’m talking about you, Kepler’s) even charge an author or her publisher for the chance to visit.

Still, I’ve had some really great events. The trick is to have a main event that is something more than a signing or even a reading. I’ve talked about women in science in places from colleges to gatherings of science teachers to research labs, and in April I’m going to lecture at the American Library in Paris. Not that they’re paying for my trip or anything, but I’ll be there visiting family, and it will be fun to talk about the Curies and Sophie Germain in their home country.

At a lecture, I can often sell twenty to fifty copies of MAGNIFICENT MINDS or REMARKABLE MINDS, and one site bought two hundred, so those are good events.

And then there’s family or kid-oriented events. Once a co-author and I created a trivia contest. For LOST IN LEXICON, I worked with the wonderful Kirsten Cappy to create a “Lexicon Villages” event. At schools or in libraries, I set up nine stations of playful word and math-related activities for kids. We pulled in teacher or parent volunteers to help staff the tables. At one of the very best of these events, a school in Brookline held an event on a snowy evening. Parent volunteers even served pizza. A third of grades 4 through 6 showed up with their families, and I wandered among the villages and signed books for two happy hours.

But even having great activities is no guarantee of a good event. Once an enthusiastic bookstore owner in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who urged me to come do an event. She could get 200 schoolchildren there, she promised. Eventually, I decided to stop in Albuquerque on my way to California for a work trip.

At the airport I rented a car. The event was going to be the next day, but I decided to scout out the store ahead of time. That was a good idea that I carried out badly–by locking the car keys in the trunk in the bookstore parking lot. It took AAA an hour to come, and my trip expenses rose further. I also learned that the bookstore owner had recently suffered a heart attack. She was much bettlil-coverer now, but she had never managed to contact her partner schools to make arrangements.

Next day, I arrived in plenty of time to set up my activity tables in the aisles of the bookstore. Then I sat. And sat. Finally, a young black woman came in with her daughter, who must have been around five years old, and asked about the special event. I started to show her some of the activities, but the proprietess bustled up and told the visitor that her daughter was too young and could not participate. Frustrated that she had come our for nothing, the lady muttered angrily as she swept her daughter away.

Nobody else came.

So that was that. Two thousand miles, two days, and one angry, rejected customer.

That was my worst book event ever.

What would you most like to see or hear at a book event? Do you like to hear the author read? Talk about how the book was constructed? Hear about what the author is working on next? Play games?