Friday, June 3, 2011

Daughter of a Writer

Sixteen-year-old me and my dad
Growing up, I was not the kind of girl who wanted to write a merely passing paper in English class. True to the perfectionist that I am, I always strove for an "A." But the grade that mattered most didn't come from my English teacher. It came from my dad.

My father is a writer. His middle grade novels, historical fiction, non-fiction, and self-help books have been published by regional and national publishers. No matter the genre, my dad's books are insightful, compelling and beautiful--upheld by strong and moral themes. I grew up wanting to please my dad with my own writing as well. Easier said than done.

None of my English papers were submitted without a thorough critiquing by my father. I sat next to him during these editing sessions in the storage room of our basement--his makeshift office. My dad would review every word choice, redundancy and pronoun with me, making sure my sentences read in a clear, concise and creative manner. When I brought him new drafts, I was sure that this time I had finally mastered the craft of writing...and was amazed that he could still find countless flaws.

When I was in college, I showed a new piece of writing to my dad. The assignment I'd been given in English class was to take a chapter from a published book and retell it from a different character's point of view. When my dad read my version of the story, he misunderstood, believing he was reading the original chapter. When I clarified it was my writing, he said, "You wrote this?"

My father, the writer
Oh, happy day!

Over the years our roles reversed a bit, and when my dad wrote new manuscripts, he would send them to me for my criticism. I know my dad never believed I was the better writer, but I always felt pleased that he trusted my opinion enough to ask for it--even tweaking his writing in places where I suggested improvement.

The other day I was talking to my dad about the progress I had made in writing my first novel. He shook his head and said, "I never thought to encourage any of my kids to become a writer."

"Why?" I asked, a little shocked. Hadn't he been encouraging me for all of my life to write well?

My dad explained that he thought we kids would have learned through his example just how hard a writer's life is; that it's slow, painstaking work--unpredictable in its possibility to provide any income.

 "But I love to write, Dad," was my reply.

He gave a little shrug as if to say, "That's what I was afraid of." But then he smiled.

I have been no stranger to criticism in the process of writing my first novel. From the earliest drafts, I have worked closely with my critiquing partner, Robin, who is a seasoned and excellent editor. But the idea of having my dad see this new work terrified me. The last time he had read anything of mine was back in my college days--thirteen years ago.

I let my mom read the first chapter of my novel last year, with specific instructions not to show it to my dad. But he found my chapter on my mom's laptop and took it upon himself to edit my work. Stopping one-and-a-half pages into my story, he wrote a lengthy essay on everything I was doing wrong. The most gut-wrenching part was that he didn't even finish reading the chapter!

I called him that night, basically begging him to tell me anything good about my story. He was able to list several things but was still adamant about what needed fixing.

"Can't you be a little easier on me?" I sighed in frustration.

A younger dad making a "kid sandwich." I'm the bread at the bottom.
"No!" he answered. "You'd never learn anything!" His manuscripts bled in red ink from all his editor's suggestions, he told me. The message was clear: I had to toughen up; there was always room from improvement.

By my upbringing you'd think I would have been better prepared for my dad's criticism of my novel. But my college days--the last time my dad had read anything of mine--were over thirteen years ago. I'd forgotten what a wonderful--and ruthless--editor he was.

As hard as it was to hear, my dad's insights proved invaluable. "Show, don't tell," "Make me need to read this," and "Don't ever let your character walk offstage" are just a sampling of what will forever be branded into my memory.

A few days after I talked with my dad, I threw out my manuscript and decided to begin anew. Up to that point I'd completed a quarter of my novel and written a sixty-page outline--all of which represented six months of my life. But I now determined to develop a new storyline, while still keeping the main characters and rules of the fantasy world I'd created.

For giving me honest feedback, I will forever be grateful to my father. I have faith that my words will blossom into a beautiful and gripping novel one day, but in the meantime I've learned how to stomach tough criticism, realizing that nothing in my story can be too sacred to undergo major surgery. More importantly, I've learned that this is my story. The genre and subject matter are not what my dad would be inclined to write or even read (though I know he'll happily read my finished novel one day). So before I run my manuscript through another editing gauntlet, I have to first be happy with an audience of one. No matter how my apprenticeship under my father has shaped my writing, the story itself comes from my own soul. I need to be pleased with myself before I try to please anyone else.

After the long and painful discussion we had about my chapter, my dad and I made a pact: the next time he'd read my story would be after it was published. "I'd rather be your father, Katie, than your editor."

I wish I was still strong enough for him to be both. But for now I'd like him most of all to be my dad.


  1. That's beautiful Katherine. Your dad is right. He can read it when it's published.

    And in the mean time, I'll mark it up. Lovingly.

  2. Touching story, Katherine. My mother is the same way. Not interested in reading until there are no changes left to make. That puts her on the top of my Beta reader list.

    Great post. I'm glad I found your blog. :)

  3. Hi Kathryn,

    I love this post! I just stopped by to let you know that Noveltee(n) has awarded you the Liebster Award. You can check it out on our blog.

  4. Thank you, Kate! I will spread the Liebster love!

  5. This is a fabulous post! My husband is the same way--he's a really good editor. My chapters always come back completely marked up. It's a love/hate thing--I love that he can help me see what needs to be fixed, I hate to see all those marks on my page. Thanks for sharing!