Humbling: Kids’ Opinions

In honor of a humbling experience this weekend (Saturday morning trip to the ER with piercing pain on breathing, diagnosis: pleurisy), I’m going to do a few posts on humbling experiences.

Number One: Asking kids for their opinions of my writing.

I’ve written the first in what I hope to be a series on novels based on the biblical story of David and Saul. I’ve tried to aim it at the middle grade audience — mostly at my son, who was 11 when I started writing it, just turned 13 now. I’ve never written for that age group before, so when I finished all the drafting and after my two mothers read it through and I’d incorporated their comments, I recruited my son and some of his friends. The deal was, if they read it and answered 9 or so questions, I’d give them a small honorarium and I’d put them in the acknowledgments if this thing was ever published.

I’ve gotten five response sheets back so far.

They were mostly good news. All the boys said it held their interest from the very beginning, they mostly understood the passage of time (it being B.C.E., years run backwards), they all enjoyed the level of poetry/psalms included, and they found the ending generally satisfying and believable (given that it’ll be a series; as a standalone, it’d be a bad ending).

After that, there was little they agreed on. I let all the comments percolate for awhile, and I hadn’t even thought about making changes until this weekend. It’s fascinating how, even among this small group of 5 guys, age range of 11 to 14, certain responses split by age. The younger two liked the battles, including killing Goliath and the lion, best and got a little bored when David played for Saul and when he was shepherding. They weren’t as into Saul’s story, which makes sense for their age group: the drama of grownups isn’t as interesting as the drama of kids. They wanted to know more about the battles.

The older three didn’t mention anything about Saul being an issue. One of the older boys got bored during a family dinner scene during which David interacts with Merab and Michal for the first time (Saul’s daughters, each of which had just been offered to him in marriage). There is plenty of tension in that scene, some of which is David fighting his sense of place and his sense of Michal’s crush on him and his growing attraction to her. I don’t think I’ll mess with that scene too much, because boys that age can have their own tension about more romantic scenes, and, on the other hand, one of the adult women who’s read it wanted to know more about the stuff between Michal and David. Although this is a book written for young people, their parents may likely read it as well. I certainly read a lot of what my kids do, including other middle grade and young adult stuff for my own enjoyment. How to balance those two interests? Should I even try?

There were a couple of points the older boys made that I am going to work on: one scene of David’s early days at Saul’s fortress was a bit slow to get going and another piece of character motivation wasn’t clear. I’ll look at the battle and army scenes to see how I might expand them a bit to show more detail.

But what to do with Saul?

I’m going to keep him and stop calling the book “middle grade” and call it “young adult.” Saul and David are perfect foils for each other. Their stories start out identically, but because of who they are and what they bring to the table, their stories diverge dramatically. All that time David spends playing for Saul and overhearing Saul’s ramblings teach David a great deal about how not to be king. The interplay between the two is where the story is meaty for me. If the older kids didn’t object, I think I’d do better to keep Saul and stop aiming it at the younger side of the age range.

Maybe that might even entice potential agents to ask for a full. At my stage in publishing, I’m querying literary agents with a descriptive letter and however much of the manuscript they like to see in order to get someone to ask for the full ms. I haven’t gotten even one request.

Humbling: Repeated rejection.

On the one hand, this isn’t surprising. Rejection is par for the course. I’ve been rejected for other projects many times without it bothering me this much. Except that I know this book is good. Not perfect, but good. Really good. We’ll see whether calling it YA will garner any more interest. If not, I’ll be doing a lot of research on self-publishing and searching for a good cover designer.