Every month, my writing group and I share ten pages of our WIPs and then meet a few days later to talk through our feedback. Whilst there’s usually agreement between what works and what needs to be developed, there are always certain points that spark reflection beyond the WIP. As an editor and as a writer, these reflections are fascinating as they highlight the uniqueness of each person’s reading experience, and the impact that stories can have on readers’ lives.
In our last meeting, three simple sentences from my current MG WIP sparked one of these conversations.
Her mind raced. She was just a kid. “How am I supposed to stop this?” she called.
The ‘she’ in this extract is an eleven-year-old girl faced with stopping a giant from destroying a village. When I wrote it, it felt totally natural to me that this girl would question her ability as a child, to stop the attack. But it turned out that this wasn’t relatable for all members of the writing group. There was a divide. And this led to further reflection.
As a child growing up with so many of the issues that a broken home can bring, I clearly remember feeling that I was ‘just a kid’ and that I couldn’t do anything to solve problems or help my mum. It was a default setting: ‘I’m just a kid’ then ‘I’m just a teenager’ followed by ‘I’m just me.’ It’s not a helpful default setting, and it took a long time to get rid of the ‘just’.
Whereas, I have many friends who might have the odd ‘just’ day, but who have always understood their ability and their responsibility and their right to make an impact on the world. Friends who, in my MCs position, would say.
Her mind raced. “How am I going to stop this?” she called.
No ‘just’. No reflection on being a kid. Simply a person with a problem, stepping up to overcome it.
And so, it turned out that these three simple sentences were not simple at all. They could put a ‘just’ into a child reader’s mind. And this ‘just’ might be a positive: making another ‘just’ child feel seen. Or it might be a negative: making a confident child suddenly question their power to make an impact. As a writer, I now have to accept the responsibility that goes with these sentences if I keep them in the book. By choosing to include a ‘just’, I have to make this a prominent character arc. My MC must learn to overcome the ‘just’ and take her rightful place in the world. Without this arc I would be promoting the default setting that I once fought to overcome.
Despite being an editor, a writer, a teacher and a mother, I didn’t see the message hidden beneath my words until my writing group helped me to see it. And this isn’t me having a ‘just me’ moment! No writer can be completely objective when considering their own work. Knowing that every reader’s experience will be different, we have to turn to trusted networks of beta-readers, editors, agents and CPs to reveal the underlying themes and truths that impact them as they read our work. And then it’s our responsibility to shape these themes and truths into messages of strength and hope that our one-day readers deserve.
So, here’s to my next writing group meeting!