The discussion begins with a phone call.
Ah, the phone call. I could probably do this by Skype, but I always think I look awful in pictures and video, and while obviously nobody but me cares whether or not I look elegant and put-together in this sort of situation, I don’t want to be distracted. So phone it is.
In the email setting up the phone call, I ask the readers to go over my questions, and, which is more important, to begin writing down their thoughts and questions, if they haven’t already. Some kids are great at talking off-the-cuff and thinking of things in the moment; others will do what I do myself if I don’t make notes, and go completely blank.
When it’s time for the phone call, I have my original questions and the reader’s notes (if they’ve emailed any along the way) in front of me, and a fresh notebook page with the date up in the corner. The next page has a list of all of the major and most of the minor characters.
Now, from here, things can go a couple of different ways. We always go over the advance questions, and any questions that arise organically from those. Then we start talking people, places, things.
We go over the settings. I ask them if they can picture the locations, and which places they most liked visiting. We go over any major weirdnesses I threw into the story (which have, in the past, included everything from alchemical fireworks to mail-order catalogues to creatures made from walking iron to half-told, invented folklore).
We go over basically every character, first with me simply asking the reader what he/she thought of that person, and what he/she liked and disliked. Then I ask who the readers would like to see more of in this book; who they’d like to see come back in another book; and who they’d like to be the main character in his or her own story. For these questions, any character, no matter how small, is fair game. I have been absolutely shocked by what I’ve learned with these questions. Among other things, it’s how I know if I get my villains right. If the readers connect with the villains, that’s always an incredibly good sign.
Then we get into the reader’s questions, concerns, confusions. This is where it’s critically important that these kids understand that it’s okay to tell me, the almighty writer, that they don’t understand something, that they’re confused, that they’re bothered, that they simply don’t like what I’ve done. This is a tough one, too. It takes a while to build up the necessary trust between yourself and the kid editor for him/her to feel comfortable being honest when the truth means giving constructive feedback. I knew I had the right formula when one of my readers, who I will speak more of in a later post, told me point blank, “I wish you hadn’t done that. I wish you had done it more like this.”
Another thing I ask, because I write things that tend toward the scary: was anything too far beyond the pale? Did anything really creep you out? Do I need to dial down the scariness? This question gets the most interesting answers. In The Broken Lands, when I thought I might have crossed a line or two, the two youngest readers told me I could make it more frightening, if I wanted to, and that the villains were just the right kind of creepy. One of my readers had no problem with anything the villains did, but was truly shaken by an act of violence that takes place between two adults that, in her words, “should have known better.” Fascinating stuff.
And, of course, as with any group of readers, sometimes I agree with what the Kid Editors tell me, and sometimes I disagree–although certainly if they’re all in agreement, that’s a big flashing warning sign for me to pay attention.
When we return: your questions answered, and wise words from the Kid Editors themselves.