Odysseus and Calypso.
Red-figure vase. Clay.
Paris, Louvre Museum.
I’ve been writing a lengthy middle-grade sci-fi novel for almost two years now that I think of as an odyssey. It’s the tale of a modern girl whose city has been horribly changed be someone stealing her parents’ time machine. When the machine returns to her, she and her best friend must use it to go back three-hundred years and undo the damage.
Eighth-grade Critique Group
This was the second round of criticism for these students. They read a very early version of The Inventors’ Daughter – so early, in fact, that it was called Erin Isabelle and the Wicked Uncle. All of those who read the first draft were invited by their teacher Brian to read the second. I don’t know if one can draw a strong conclusion from this, but only girls volunteered to critique the rewrite.
As you can tell from the photograph, they are a wonderful and spirited group, and they were very generous in their opinions and support. Though their comments were somewhat more detailed, they agreed with the assessment of the fifth-grade group entirely. (See next post above.) Those points were exactly what I was looking for. I tend to ignore a single person’s comments, unless they resonate with my own feelings. But I take the unanimous enthusiasm for the work and the pinpoint critiques of sixteen middle-grade readers very seriously indeed.
One thing that inspired me about this group is how close they are. Obviously they know one another well after at least three years together, but there is something else. The very fact that they volunteered to re-read a manuscript demonstrates a shared intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for exchanging ideas that is a credit to their school, their teacher and most especially to themselves.
I’ve learned a great deal about writing from reading. You are what you read. Everyone says it. Stephen King in his On Writing, for one. John Lennon became the songwriter he was by listening to stacks and stacks of pop 45’s.
And yet, good writing doesn’t just come from reading, nor education by itself. Satisfactory writing, for me at least, comes through quite a lot of unsatisfactory writing. It’s easy to beat yourself up about it. Indeed, I’ve gone to the school of self-flagellation wearing my sack cloth and ashes. By in large, that time was wasted. Vanity and modesty are both illusory.
Good writing comes in the effort of making your imagination clear. Clarity informs everything. It tells you what is overstated, ommited and overdramatized. To be clear is to tell a tale or sing a song without deviation, and isn’t that what we all look for in art?
And patience can’t be underestimated, for it implies two qualities one brings to a piece: First, the dignity of labor. To be patient means you will show up on time with a willingness to work for as long as it takes. Patience further suggests that you will leave your negative nature behind and not infect the words with it.
The photograph, by the way, is of my granddaughter Erin who at three-years-old exhibits a remarkable degree of clarity and patience in so much that she does – especially her storytelling. As an example when she was barely two, she created an imaginary sister named Wall. Her hands and feet are mermaids and such. Each has a name and a set of traits. She has stories about them all, and talks to them regularly. The remarkable thing is how clearly she remembers each vignette and how consistent are the properties of each character. I know this because when I confuse them, she corrects me with an all but imperciptible show of exasperation. She is my inspiration.
Here is a quote from The Inventors’ Daughter series website in which I describe my collaboration with famed Dream City writer S. E. Hunt. (S. E. is a very close relation. In fact we could hardly be closer.)
Every night – very, very late – I fly high above the clouded moonlit ocean from Seattle to Dream City, never quite sure whether Professor Spotworth’s buzzing, sputtering Astral Phaeton will stay aloft for the entire frigid, buffeted journey. Once there, I join S. E. in a gloomy, back-alley coffee shop where we scribble, shout and toss notes at one another from opposite ends of a long, battered table.
Why have a collaborator? Don’t get me wrong. I’m used to working alone, and I tried my best to research Dream City and write the book by myself. I was shown the shark-shaped Aquarium. I joined the Jupiter Space Museum, a five-story glass ball resembling the striped planet with the hurricane-eye riding on its equator. I even travailed up to the Tripod observation deck where I could look down seven-hundred feet onto the three Dream Islands below.
But it was no use. I could tell the stories alright, but the pages were as dry as a Pharaoh’s mummy. No, I needed a partner who was not only a good writer, but a resident of Dream City and someone who actually knew the brave and clever Erin Isabelle Becker-Spotsworth. I believe our collaboration, though quite stormy, has yielded far richer tales than I myself could have ever told alone, or he by himself for that matter.
I recommend to all writers that they occassionally take the opportunity to join a fellow scribbler and see if one plus one does not equal … well, who knows what?
I suppose not knowing is rather the point, wouldn’t you say?