Scary Stuff: Teens Workshop My Work

Last week, I spent five days in Vancouver.

Now, I am back in Prince George, and the deep snow that was here when I left is gone. The temperature hovers around freezing instead of plunging to -20C.  The sun is shining. Five weeks from today, I will arrive home for good.

I am determined to make the most of my last thirty-five days. To start, I’d like to write about an experience I had a week ago down in the big city, and to do that I must back up to May 7 of this year, when I went to Christianne’s Lyceum to talk about my historical novel, Hunger Journeys.


Christianne Hayward has been running book clubs for children and their parents for more than fifteen years now and her Lyceum is a wondrous place, filled with books and those who love them. Some of the teens in her older groups have been part of her clubs for eight or nine years. My visit in May was my third one. Each time, it was a pleasure to hear from thoughtful readers in a structured environment with Christianne at the helm. Then there’s the food… They always bring foods from the book in question, which is a delight.

At the May meeting, though, I learned that the teen groups also workshop books in progress. My book in progress is called Rabbit Ears and moves back and forth between two sisters, Kaya and Beth. Kaya has a terrible secret, which is revealed by the end of the story, and she runs away to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where she sells sex to survive and used heroin to cope with her pain. Kaya is based on my sister Sarah and her secret is Sarah’s secret, but Sarah never told. The secret is prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of a neighbour. The book was hard to write, but is very important to me. It is coming out with HarperCollins next year, and I’ve already done one major revision. I thought that feedback from an intelligent group of readers who have been trained to respond to works in progress would be a great benefit. Could I submit my manuscript? I asked. I could.

As the meeting drew closer, I became more and more frightened. What had I been thinking?

I had emailed the manuscript to the Lyceum at the end of September so that it could be copied and given to the teens and their parents at the October meeting. They had a month in which to read it. By the time I arrived on the night in question, I longed to be anywhere else but there. I was expecting the readers to be older teens, but they ended up being thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, which is a good age at which to explore the issues in my story, but also a hard age at which to do so.

Christianne encouraged me to start by sharing something of my sister’s story, and I was able to share photos, letting them know that Kaya is based on a real person, and why the subject is so very important to me. Then they went around the circle, first a child, then her (or his in one case) parent. They were honest. They were articulate. They were respectful. I scribbled and scribbled and scribbled to get down everything that they were saying to me. Several of the parents were uncomfortable with some of the content for younger teens, but the teens did not seem to feel the same way, though one had chosen to read only the beginning of the book.

Several felt that the ending tied things up too neatly, explaining things that they already understood. I am going to change that. Several struggled a little bit with my use of second person at the beginning (Kaya’s parts are written in second person.) and I am going to bring Beth’s voice in earlier so that readers can see quickly that the text will move back and forth, that they won’t be stuck reading second person for two hundred pages. Several, including Christianne herself, felt that I was too soft in my description of drug use and of the journey back. I will work on that. Everyone felt that a note at the back explaining the connection to my sister was essential. They suggested a photo or two as well.

At the end, I was so glad that I did not shy away, that I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I am forever grateful to each of them for helping me with my book!

Since I came back to Prince George, I’ve been watching Ted Talks, which I have meant to do for years. And I’d like to recommend one here: Brené Brown on vulnerability. It strikes me that life rewards us when we open ourselves up, when we let others see us as we actually are. It also strikes me that this is a lesson I must learn over and over and over again.

Now, I just need to wait for my editor’s next round of feedback. I look forward to telling her about the session at the Lyceum and to sharing my notes with her.