I died on that Stupid Hill

I'm not sure this is actually my favorite post from the last year, but it's one that kept screaming at me when I thought about what should go up this week. In fact, it's  a hard post for me to re-read (and not just due to the typos), but because I failed in selling the novel it references (see my post about dealing with the lows of writing from June). In summary: I died on this hill.
However, I still firmly believe it wasn't because kids aren't smart or wouldn't handle the challenge, but that I wasn't able to write the story well enough. And, as you see from the June post, I've moved on. I'm venturing into another genre - a new voice - a different aged reader. But I'm not dumbing it down. 

Nope, I'd rather die again. 

Stupid Hill

As you know, this week is all about “Hills to Die On”. My stories tend toward a younger crowd (Upper Middle Grade) which requires me to go light on saying “Lardass” and leading people around by their junk (we all know 13 and 14 year-olds actually talk like this, though their parents…who buy books for them…pretend they don’t). I spent a lot of time this week thinking about what Middle Grade Hill I would die on.

I kept coming back to a memory from a recent conference critique. I sat down with someone who I respect 113%, both as a person and as an industry professional, an agent we’ll call Sally (to protect the innocent and in case Sally ever wants to represent me). Sally had read 15 pages of my shiny, new book. She was one of the first to taste it and I was pumped/scared-outta-my-wits to hear what she had to say.

After some compliments on my style, voice, humor, etc., came the zinger: she thought the concept was too complicated for my readership. Not the plot, not the characters, not even the rules of this fantasy world – but the very core concept would be too much for an 8-to-12 year-old to grasp. It wasn’t something I could re-tool or tweak or even throw out and start again. To change this concept was to rip apart the story’s DNA and create a different tale. Period.

If it’d been some joe-schmo agent or editor, I would’ve blown the comment off. But this was Sally. She told me as a professional. She told me as a friend. She was very, very nice about it (she always is). But the message was loud’n’clear: I was barking up the wrong tree…in the wrong forest.

I went through the usual steps of recovering from a hard critique: Shock. Denial. Numbness. Wine. Long, long talks with The Muses. Wine. But the questions nagged me for weeks: Should I leave my book to die based on Sally’s highly respected advice? Should I abandon ship and write the equivalent of Middle Grade Dancing with the “Stars”? (Back off, it’s my idea.)

All four chambers of my heart said, “NO!”

I believe that kids are smart (you’re right, MOST kids). They get deep concepts. In fact, theywant to expand their horizons. In 8th grade, I made the leap to adult books because children’s lit – at the time – didn’t challenge me. And it wasn’t about vocabulary or reading about sex (ok, one of those is a lie). I wanted to flex my brain muscle. I wanted to go to places I’d never heard of. I wanted to know people who were totally different than me. Most of all, I wanted to hear ideas that blew my mind.

Sally knew that kids weren’t the problem. She didn’t think kids were dumb. She was pointing out that I was on a hill – and I might die. Her worries were around “salability” – or that smart works aren’t sure bets. And you already grasp that Sally was right. Just look at 95% of movies.
Really, it’s not even the book-world gatekeepers – they know intelligent things can take off, because they do. But they’re a gamble. These folks are in a business and have to sell things to feed their families. In short, if my “out there” concepts are going to be read, then the burden falls on me to write the best story I can. I have to make it so good that the various gatekeepers will have to feed it to all those brain-hungry tykes.

Of course, maybe I will die on this hill…but it’ll be because I’m not smart enough to write my concept into a clear, entertaining story…not because the readers are too dumb to get it.

To me, there’s a big difference between a stupid author and a kid in the bookstore. And that’s a hill I’m willing to die on.

And I bet Sally agrees.


Aw, Bret. But now instead of Bret the Grey, you'll be Bret the White.

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