Wednesday, February 29, 2012

19 WOW Wednesday Nikki Loftin on How a Nap Changed My Chapter

Today's WOW guest, Nikki Loftin, lives and writes just outside Austin, Texas, surrounded by dogs, chickens, and small, loud boys. Her middle-grade novel, The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy, will debut on August 21, 2012. You can visit her online at www.nikkiloftin.com, on Twitter as @nikkiloftin, or on Facebook at Splendid Academy.

But I Didn’t Write a Bedtime Story

or,

How a Nap Changed My Chapter

I knew most of the kids in Mrs. Mahaney’s third grade class. I’d coached some of them for UIL contests, recommended books in the library, seen them at birthday parties or the park. They were excited about having a Real, Live Author come into their classroom to read from her soon-to-be published middle-grade novel.

I was excited, too, and only a little nervous. I mean, the book had been through everything but copyedits, and my editor seemed pleased. These bouncy, happy kids had to love it, right?

Wrong.

They fell asleep.

To be honest, only two of the kids closed their eyes for longer than a slow blink. But my opening chapter, those vital first few pages that I’d written and re-written, showed itself to be the literary equivalent of a big turkey dinner, a glass of warm milk, and a dose of Benadryl.

Students shuffled and shifted, trying for a position that made my boring prose more palatable. Mrs. Mahaney politely stifled a yawn behind her hand.

I wanted to disappear. I wanted to cry. I wanted to tell them, “It gets better! Just let me read until I get to the murder-y part!”

I didn’t do any of that. Instead, I went home, ate enough chocolate to dull my humiliation, re-read those pages for the millionth time, and emailed my editor to schedule an emergency phone call.

She must have thought I was crazy. Final edits were due in two days! We were way past the “I want to change the whole beginning of my book” stage. But when I explained that I thought I’d made a mistake somewhere along the editing way, and I felt compelled to explore just one more revision, my trusting and supportive editor said “do it.”

So I did. I spent that afternoon rewriting the opening chapter, sent it off the next day, and those words will be the first ones the next set of middle-grade readers see when it hits the bookshelves in August.
Now, if you’re a writer who’s been to a few conferences or poked around the Internet for a while, you know that using kids to “critique” your work is considered, well, almost unprofessional. Cautionary tales abound of writers who send queries off to agents and editors, prefaced with “My Sunday school class loved this story,” or “All my grandchildren think this novel is the absolute bomb.” One agent said it bluntly at a conference I attended: “It doesn’t matter what kids think of your work; what matters is what the editor thinks.”

I had heeded that advice, resisting the temptation to read works-in-progress to the classes I subbed for and volunteered in. (Although, I must admit that my two middle-grade sons were and are my first listeners. Reading aloud helps me find typos, word repetition, and continuity flaws faster than anything else.)

Still, I’d had that toothache-y feeling for weeks, ever since the last revision pass. I couldn’t ignore it. I’d been a mom of extremely mischievous boys long enough to know when to trust my instincts, and my subconscious was sounding the alarm. But I couldn’t see the root of the problem.

And neither could anyone else, or so they said.

I’d sent those pages to at least a half dozen writer friends, my mom, my agent, and my editor. I just knew that someone would tell me what was awry. “What about the first page,” I asked. “Is the first chapter good enough?”

No one called me out on the soporific nature of my latest revision. I don’t blame any of those dear readers, of course – it wasn’t awful, or poorly written. It was just… boring.

It’s possible they thought it was good enough – or the best that I could do. But I had a hunch something was wrong, and if I could just figure out what it was, I could fix it.

So I went against all the advice I’d heard. If the experts didn’t see the problem, maybe it was time to take it to the audience. I called Mrs. Mahaney and asked her for a half hour with her twenty-two narcoleptics.

When those kids snored, my own inner child/editor woke up screaming. “Now do you get it? Now do you see?”

Did I ever. It hurt, but those somnolent students made it very clear that I still had work to do, even if no one else thought so. Performing an emergency heart transplant on that first chapter was the best decision I made in the whole revision process.

Of course, if I hadn’t gone against the advice of that anonymous agent – and conventional wisdom – and read those pages out loud to those kids… well, I’m not sure I would be quite as excited about my impending book launch.

And I’m certain I’d be a lot more nervous.

My advice to other writers? Contrary to what you may hear, it does matter what kids think of your work. It matters a lot. I’m not advocating using third-graders as your only critique group (and you should NEVER mention the darlings in your query letters!), but if you find yourself in the situation I was in, ignore the experts.

Pay attention to your inner child – your inner editor-child, that is – and read your work out loud to your future readers.

Watch their faces. Pay attention to their expressions. And listen for snoring.

19 comments:

  1. You are on point about having beta readers in the market that you are writing to. Ultimately they are the true audience.

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  2. Sounds like a great way to know whether the critical first chapter is working or not. Thanks for sharing this.

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  3. I love this! It's the future readers that matter the most! What a bold and courageous decision that was but I'd have felt the same way!

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    1. I'm not sure it was bold - more desperate! But it worked, so I'd do it again.

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  4. Good for you for listening to your inner-child editor, Nikki!! And of course for paying attention to your audience. :) This is a such great advice.

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  5. I've read a few early chapter books to my daughter and wished the author had done this. Both she and I quickly lost interest.

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  6. Thank you for some great advice! As a middle-grade writer too, this one really hits home. Can't wait to read that first chapter and beyond :)

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    1. Thanks, Temre! I hope the "beyond" keeps you hooked. (Make sure you DO read to the murder-y bits, LOL.)

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  7. You should test-drive your story, I agree. Probably the best way it to sit and watch while someone else reads it to the intended audience.
    And then, yes- not mention that 'the kids liked it' in a query. This info is for you, the driver.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  8. I was waiting for a story about you snoring...not that you do. :) Enjoyed the post anyway. Made me laugh. Excellent reminder to trust your instincts.

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  9. Best. Advice. Ever. Of all the readers I've used, I have to say I value the teen opinion most. Their praise brings me up, and while their negative comments do sting for a second, I take them to heart. I really do want to please my target audience the most. Thanks for this. A great reminder that going with your gut is worthwhile!

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  10. GOOD for you, taking that excruciating experience and doing something about it! I've thought the same thing, regarding whether we're writing for agents/editors/publishers--versus the readers. Initially, it's the former, but the success of the book once it gets out lies with the readers. Especially with MG (with YA, there is a bigger % of adult readers). Although reading a ms could be misleading if the author is just a dull reader! It may not be totally about the book being dull/yawners.

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    1. Carol - great point about needing to be a good reader for the "yawn test" to work. In my case, as I am an overly dramatic soul to start with, emoting wasn't the issue. I just didn't have much left to work with. But I think I put the magic back in... we'll see!

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  11. Great advice. I read to my own kids and look for that bored look, myself. I also try to remember that I pick a lot of books based on a first page skim. If it's not grabbing me right away, I'll set it down. Good for you for following your gut!

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  12. You are so brave, Nikki! Children are the most terrifying beta readers.

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  13. Great advice, Nikki. I'm glad you took that chance. It surely paid off. Thanks for your post.

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  14. Thanks, everyone, for your comments, and Martina for setting this up! It's an honor to have my name appear on this blog!

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  15. I find my 5th graders are very discerning readers. I can tell quickly when I read to them if the book is going to interest them or not. I think it's a great idea to road test to your market.

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  16. Seems logical to test the audience before polishing up a story for an editor. I have been revising a 45,000 word story for three years and my best feedback has come from the mg audience. I am almost ready to query (almost... my first venture into YA publishing!!)

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