“If you do what you’ve always done . . . “ (September theme) by Claudia Mills
I have been writing and publishing books for young readers for a long time. I’ve published picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle-grade novels. I’ve written books about girls. I’ve written books about boys. But despite these differences in form and focus, all the books are realistic, contemporary school/family stories that have a certain recognizable voice, style, and sensibility. They are easily identifiable as products of the same pen.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
Good thing. It’s always good to stretch and grow as writers, correct? To stretch and grow is by definition to go someplace you haven’t gone before, to venture into uncharted territory. I felt my plotting skills improve as I tackled this more action-driven story. I had the joy of doing research, gobbling up books on Indiana history from the Underground Railroad to the wild ride of John Dillinger. And of course I harbor the hope that this book, the book unlike any of my others, will be the book with reviews and sales unlike any of my others: my immortal classic! After all, as the adage goes, “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.”
Bad thing. The book may be unpublishable. I may have spent a year of my life lavishing love on a project that will never attract any readers at all. Publishers value authors in part as a “brand” – they want the consistency that will lead readers who liked a book to seek a second book by that author and enjoy it for the same reasons they enjoyed the first. Put in less commercial terms, choreographer Twyla Tharp in her brilliant book The Creative Habit says that we all have our own “creative DNA” – “strands of creative code hard-wired into our imaginations. . . They determine the forms we work in, the stories we tell, and how we tell them.” In writing this departure book, I may have lost sight of who I am as a writer.
The jury is still out on this one. The six other members of my writing group just read the manuscript. Four of them liked it, one saying it is my best book yet. One disliked it; one actually hated it. The one who hated it said (in addition to many valid criticisms about plot and characterization): “This book lacks all the features that make something a Claudia Mills book.” Hmm. By doing something other than what I’ve always done, I want to get more than I’ve always gotten, not less!
I think what I need to do now is put the manuscript away for a while. Let it sit. Let it simmer. When I return to it in a few months, with fresh eyes (and a less-invested ego), I may see how to blend old and new, how to do something radically different that still expresses my creative DNA and reflects my unique identity as a writer. Maybe I’ll figure out how to make this artistic leap without bounding off the trampoline altogether.