The writing life: 1

It wasn’t the worst book I’ve ever read..    

It’s often said in publishing that authors who write for children and young adults are generally easier to work with, less inclined to have big egos, than their counterparts in the adult literary world. Partly, that is because, as any writer for young people knows, you’re often not taken seriously by the world at large. The idea seems to be that if you write for kids, you must be an overgrown kid yourself, and your books therefore are not worthy of the same attention as ‘real books’ for adults (and yes, people do actually say to you—When are you going to write a real book?) But another reason is the fact that if your ego ever stood any chance of taking off, you’d be brought back to earth and pretty damn quick too, by your readership. 

Children and teenagers are honest. If they aren’t hooked into your book in the first couple of pages, they will simply close it. It doesn’t matter how many prizes its won, how well regarded you are by the literary world, they simply don’t care if your book doesn’t grab them.

If they like your book, they will tell you with excitement and enthusiasm. And if they don’t, well, they will say so! 

Enter the dubious pleasure of the class exercise, when your book is read by a whole class and the students are then instructed to write to the author. It’s an experience not calculated to raise authorial self-esteem. 

“I was made to read your book by my teacher,” one student writes, “I thought it was boring, with not much action.” Kindly, he adds: “But it wasn’t the worst book I have ever read.” 

Another says: “I didn’t like your book, because there is no description of characters. ‘‘ But she doesn’t want me to lose heart altogether, and helpfully proposes a solution: ‘Keep writing – and remember to include more descriptive passages.” 

The worst, though, are those that say, baldly, “I was told to write. I didn’t like your book.” 

Why? Why? you scream as you pull your hair out. The bald brush-off is the one that makes you the most paranoid; it’s the one most likely to make you question your sanity in writing at all. You compose a cutting letter in reply, only to throw it away – because, after all, you’re the adult, you’re supposed to take this on the chin. 

Then there are the patronising ones.

“I think your book might have worked if you’d thought a bit more about it. Well, never mind, keep up the good work.” 

Fume, fume. It makes you immediately feel about two feet tall and back at school. Bet that one’s going to turn into a school principal!

The more charming of the critics disarm you with their honesty.

“Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t really like your book. My reason is the ending. You didn’t say what happened. It’s just my feeling.” 

And you’re left feeling, help, maybe he’s right. Maybe my ending was wrong.

Maybe I expect too much of them; expect them to think, and don’t want to spoon-feed them. 

But then there are the sweeties, the ones who make it all worthwhile, who make your heart leap, and who will write to you not because they’re made to, but because they really want to. They’re the ones who send you messages to your Facebook site, or to your email, or by post, who just can’t wait to tell you how much they enjoyed your books:

“I really liked your book, because it made me think about things; the same kinds of things have happened to me, and it was so real.”

“I couldn’t take my nose out of your book; I felt I knew everyone in it.”

“I loved this book so much that as soon as I’d finished I read it all over again straight away.’

‘You are my favourite author, I think you know how to do magic, I’m telling all my friends about you. Please write lots more books!’’

‘‘You described everything so well I could feel every emotion and every sensation.(Take that, you earlier critic!)

“I wished I lived in the world of your book.” 

Or, simply:

“How did you know what it is like to be me?”


Sophie Masson’s latest novel is The Madman of Venice (Hodder Children’s Books, 2009)

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