Thought of the Week: The Harshest Critic

The Redemption of Erâth is nearing completion (yes, I know I’m late – I’ve had a busy and difficult week, but the last chapter will be out later this week; you’ve waited this long, you can wait a little longer!), and I’d thought I’d like to share some thoughts on its development. In particular, I thought it might be interesting to discover how it has grown over time, and and how I’ve received, and adapted to, feedback.

They say you are your own harshest critic. They’ve clearly never written for an eight-year-old boy. As you may already know, I began this whole tale as a story for my son, that we might read together as it grew. The inspiration for this came from the serial novels of Charles Dickens, and I loved the idea of keeping him (and myself) waiting eagerly for the next weekend, the next chapter, never knowing what was to come (truthfully; I often had little more idea about the next set of events than he did).

Over time, the tale has grown from the simpler children’s story I had thought it would be, into something much deeper, and much darker. Sometimes I feel almost as if I’m not in control of the tale; that I’m merely the teller of someone else’s story, that I’m merely relating the facts of what happened. I remember trying to explain this to my son one evening; he said, “You mean you stole it?” Ouch.

This is where it gets interesting. I had no idea when I started this that it wouldn’t be my own invention. I thought that I would write, and talk about it with my son, and together we would work out what was going to happen next. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I couldn’t just make up the next chapter. What, then, was I to do with his feedback, and his thoughts? You see, I needed this to be interesting for him.

When I sat down with him at bedtime, for the first chapter, he asked why I didn’t have our usual book (Harry Potter at the time, I believe it was). I asked if he remembered that I had told him I had wanted to start reading a story to him that I had written. He said, “Awwwww…do we have to?”

Auspicious beginning, no? I asked him to bear with me for the first chapter, and make his mind up from there. So I read, and he listened, and he fidgeted, and I was becoming very nervous; at the end of it I asked what he thought of it. “Um…it was okay,” he said. “A little boring.” I wondered if that was what Tolkien’s children had said when he first read The Hobbit to them.

So I returned to the book, and dejectedly started on the second chapter. The following weekend, I pulled out Harry Potter, sat down and started to read, when he said, “Dad, where’s your iPad?” (I had put the first chapter on the iPad to read to him in bed). So – not a complete failure, then!

Things really picked up with chapter three (A Tale of Blood and Battle), and became our weekly routine from then on.

The thing is, it became important for me to keep the audience happy. From this early experience, blood an battle clearly won out over dialogue and back story. But what was I to do? This tale simply wasn’t going to have a lot of blood and battle, I could already see that early on! So I did what any self-respecting historian would do: I embellished.

It became a weekly judgement of storytelling technique, plot interest and emotional level. Sometimes it got too scary (like when the wolves surround Brandyé in a dream); sometimes too soppy (such as when Brandyé and Sonora start to spend time with each other). And sometimes, it was just plain boring (I could tell when he started pretending to ride his stuffed animals instead of listening to me).

Still…in the long run, I think it has been at least a mild success. He’s never asked me to stop reading (in fact, he’s reminded me the few weekends we were away and unable to read), and he’s even told me he wants me to include some creatures of his own design in the later books (some more embellishing here, I guess). He even started writing his own epic fantasy story about ninjas, which is awfully cute.

The wonderful – and torturous – thing about this weekly feedback has been its dreadful honesty. “What did you think of this week’s chapter?” – “It was really boring; can’t there be more fighting next week?” Sometimes I wondered myself if I was dragging things out too long, and here was the proof: if someone who wanted to know more thought it was boring, what on earth would someone think that had no prior vested interest in the story?

In the end, he’s enjoyed listening, and I’ve enjoyed reading. He does want me to write the sequels, as long as I promise there’ll be more battle. I’m pretty sure there will be (embellished or not). But wow – if you ever want to know the truth about your new novel, read it to a kid. They’ll tell it like it is.

9 thoughts on “Thought of the Week: The Harshest Critic

  1. It’s great your son is writing his own tales, you’ve given him a great gift.
    And yes, our children are great critics, aren’t they?
    They just say it like it is – refreshingly honest.
    Hope he doesn’t ride his stuffed animals too much in your future reading times,
    but that image is awfully cute!

    • It’s that damned nuisance, Huggable Dog – the thing’s huge, and he insists on sleeping with it every night! At least Bruno Bear and Katie Kitty snuggle neatly under his chin.

      And don’t even ask about Cheeky Monkey.

      Aren’t our names original?

  2. Don’t worry too much if your little buddy is bored with parts of it. Epic tales like RoE are better received by those interested in the Percy Jackson and Hunger Games series. When he gets older he’ll be more interested. 😉

    • I’ve learned that what he enjoys, more than anything, is the time spent reading. He is invested in Brandyé and his journey, but his little mind aches for more excitement! (I must say, mine does also, at times.)

  3. Such a wonderful gift to share with your son. I tried reading some of the children’s poems i have written to my twin girls…after 2 or 3 poems, one of them said “mommy we like, now goosey goosey gander” I haven’t read any of my poems to them since…reading this has inspired me and Lord willing i will try again this week. Thanks for sharing this

    • Thank you! It’s funny – I had hoped he’d enjoy it since we managed so well through Harry Potter and The Hobbit. Your daughters sound terribly lovely! I’m sure they’ll enjoy your work!

  4. Children do not sugar coat anything. LOL. I think it is quite amazing and wonderful that you are writing this and sharing it with your son. It is creative and creating lasting memories with him that will most definitely be carried with him as he grows older.
    Be sure to put more battles in future chapters… we can tell what he likes the most. 🙂

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