Monday, April 25, 2011
Making my job harder
It’s a terrible thing, writing for an audience.
Not you guys—I’ve always written for you, in some way, and I’m used to the gentle pressure of your eyeballs on my brain. (At least, that’s what it feels like; perhaps it’s just another manifestation of the voices in my head.) And yes, writers are always supposed to have their audience in mind.
But more and more, as I write the serial, I find myself thinking about an audience of one.
After much soul-searching and a certain amount of patient negotiation, I secured parental permission to let one of my students read early drafts of the series. (It’s not going to take time away from her studies—she's on break right now, and anyway this is one of those kids who finishes everything two weeks ahead of schedule.) I knew I needed at least a couple of teen readers who enjoy YA fiction among my betas, and the time just seemed right for this girl. I’ve known her since she was 11 years old; I’ve coached her for the local spelling bee and helped her with her math. She’s 13 now, rapidly closing in on 14—the age I was when I began writing Rae Masterson’s adventures. And even though I know I’m writing for the larger world—or at least the larger internet—I find myself keeping her more and more in mind as I write and rewrite.
This girl is smart. Imagine an American Hermione Granger, only a bit less bossy and a bit more interested in pink sparkly things (despite my best efforts to the contrary—sigh). She’s the girl who always knows the answers in class, loves to read almost as much as she loves to dance, and runs up to me excitedly and often to pirouette and ask me if I’ve read this or that and what I think and what kind of books I might recommend. She waits patiently while I help other students, although she sometimes snaps at them when she thinks they’re wasting my time. It only takes one word of praise to get a dazzling smile out of her, and sometimes a joyful little quiver. She’s a bit like I was at her age, only with more friends and less of a desire to kill the people around her (I attribute this to those extra friends—the occasional desire to kill her brothers hardly counts). Early adolescence has not yet driven her completely psychotic, and she may even come out the other side of it with her self-esteem intact. I hope she does, because right now she has a spirit like a small fire—bright and burning, glittering and dangerous, but you can’t help wanting to stand near it and get warm.
And so I find myself thinking about her as I hammer my early drafts into submission. Chapter 3 is giving me particular trouble—how do I introduce a complicated character in a complicated situation, involving feelings I’m pretty sure this girl’s never been unfortunate enough to experience, in such a way that I don’t turn her off? How do I maintain the gossamer fantasy every 13-year-old girl has about what it’s like to be 16, while layering in the truths about being 16 that she will need to carry in her heart—that alone is not the same as wrong, that different can be beautiful, and most of all, that the ridiculous “be yourself” platitudes adults heap on you do make sense, but only after you figure out that the first step is figuring out who you are, and the second step is being that person? Because that little lesson is turning out to be the heart and soul of the story, and it very nearly broke me once in the learning.
I am a youngest child, and an only daughter. I never had a little sister—never had a sister of any kind until my eldest brother married and I acquired the world’s most awesome sister-in-law. So I wonder how much of this is parent-ish concern for my student’s welfare, and how much sister-ish concern. And how much of it’s just me obsessing over my own adolescence, and trying to make someone else’s less horrid. This girl is beautiful, and brilliant, and will be quite a spectacular human being if she can just get around the things in her life that encourage her to be shallow and ordinary. She’s excited about getting to help me with my book, and I want to live up to those sky-high expectations.
So back I go to Chapter 3. To make it perfect, or as perfect as I can make it. To spin the tale I wish someone had spun for me at 14, the story I’ve been seeking ever since. To speak the truth, and make her smile.
It’s a difficult job, but I eagerly look forward to the reward.
*P.S. The photo is not of my student. But it's someone else involved in The Serial. And look, a kitty!