Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison

One of the writers I admire most in all the world is Mette Ivie Harrison. She once took a writing workshop from me - after already publishing Mira, Mirror. So it's obvious that whatever she knows, she didn't learn from me! When I put together a one-day writing workshop at Southern Virginia University in the winter of 2008, she was one of the handful of writers I invited, and her session was extraordinary - and radically different from anything I taught.

If you're a writer and you want advice you haven't heard before - or even some you have, but didn't fully understand - you'll want to read Mette Ivie Harrison's column every month.

Orson Scott Card

October 2008

What to Write: Imitation, Voice, and the Emperor's New Clothes

A friend of mine told me that when we give advice to other people, we are always telling them about "How to Be Me." So that is what I am doing, telling people how to be a writer just like me. Yes, I am perfectly well aware of the fact that many, many writers are not at all like me. But I can not tell you how to be them, can I? I have no idea. The only advice I have to give is about what I have learned about me, and I hope that those of you for whom it doesn't work, shrug and put it aside, and find another author who is more like you. But for those of you who are like me, trying to figure out how to find your voice and what to write, read on . . .

When I started writing in junior high, I was a mimic. I did some fine Sherlock Holmes pastiches, started a Perry Mason novel, wrote a novel that fictionalized a scriptural account, and tried an updated version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. I have a few of these pieces on my website, www.metteivieharrison.com. Then as a junior in high school, I stopped writing almost entirely, with occasional painfully bad, self-conscious "artistic" pieces (some with titles, colons, and secondary titles -- though this was much more frequent later on). You can also find these at my website.

This bad writing period lasted almost ten years, as I finished college and then graduate school. I was an outstanding student, but never bothered much about getting perfect grades and generally thought of myself as a "rebel." After all, when I, as an nonors student, had to choose my own list of 100 great books of literature and then defend them in an oral exam, I purposely chose a Harlequin romance solely to have the pleasure of watching a certain professor's eyes when I explained what that title was and why it belonged with the others (insert Marxist and Deconstructionist defenses here). I spent a lot of time arguing with professors about their prejudices against popular writers (and especially against women writers -- in the Romantic period!). I tended to write papers that were not always well received, though I admit they may have had other problems besides disagreeing with the professor's opinions. I wrote my dissertation on a well-known female writer generally considered a hack, Sophie von la Roche, from the late eighteenth century. I was coerced into doing a comparison with Goethe which was not fair, mostly to her.

But as I was struggling outwardly against all my professors' assumptions, I was inwardly appropriating them for my own. I kept reading books for fun, moving into some of the fantasy novels that my younger sister had read in high school and which I disdained her for then. But they were only "escape." The literary works were the ones that I dreamed in my most arrogant moments I might one day be able to compete with as a writer. But all I could do was imitate them badly. I wrote pages, tore them up, deleted computer files, and generally felt myself to be a useless creature. Then an enlightening moment occurred. A writer I admired greatly, and had been in correspondence with, agreed to read a few chapters of a novel of mine and send back comments. When the pages came back, my heart pounded. She did not write much, but I knew when I was finished that this was a book I would never work on again. It was amateurish, a high school student's homage to a rock band seen on YouTube. I knew that I was missing something important. I had to find my own voice. That was what all the writing books I was reading said. The problem was -- what was that voice? And how did you find it?

In fact, I think this is entirely the wrong question to ask of yourself as a writer. I found my own voice eventually, but I found it by writing about a story that was uniquely mine to tell. But that was a few years later, when the first draft of my novel Mira, Mirror was written and I brought it to a critique group. In the intervening time, I joined two writing groups. One was a group that focused on writing novels for children, either middle grade or young adult. Several in the group were already published, award-winning, best-selling, and I was in awe of them. The other group consisted of a big name who rarely attended (perhaps for the best, seen in hindsight) and the rest of us whom he had for some reason chosen to draw together and then abandon. We were the ones who had nearly had stories published, or who were almost good enough, got personalized rejection letters frequently, and wrote with passion. I'm not sure which was the better group.

The children's group read everything aloud, and there was a limit of ten pages. The other group sent out full novels every month and required a lot of work. I wrote a new novel about every other month, one for one group, one for the other (six a year). I think no one in either group would dispute that I was the most prolific member of either group -- and each group only saw half of what I was actually producing. I wrote twenty different novels over the next four years, a lot of them very, very bad. The children's books were about modern kids facing modern problems. I learned how to write scenes, how to use dialog well, how much description to use (not much). What I didn't seem to be doing was finding my voice. I was in awe so much of the other writers there that I would completely rewrite anything I brought, to their specifications. After two or three rounds of this, I had no idea where my ideas stopped and their ideas began. I knew I wanted to "say something," but I was afraid of saying anything in case it might be "wrong."

In the other group, it was much the same. I'm sure that no one meant to be unkind to me, but one of the writers asked me once if I had printed out the manuscript and proofread it before I sent it out. I hadn't. He nodded, and said he thought that was part of the problem. Yes, probably it was. Although what does it matter what words you are using on a paragraph by paragraph level if you have no idea what you want to write?

One kind, wiser member of the children's group would say to me every time we met, "This is so much better than last month's." At first, I was pleased, until I realized after two years that she kept saying it, and meaning it, and that it meant that I had been a long way down to begin with. I was never sure how far up I had come since then, until one day she told me, "I think this is publishable." And eventually, that book did get published as The Monster In Me, a contemporary young adult novel with a hint of my interest in science fiction and fantasy, in the form of dreams about being Frankenstein's monster. I discovered that it was possible to become good enough at writing in a given style to be published, and I had done it. But nothing else happened. I couldn't get another book accepted in that same genre, and my sales were abysmal. Which might not mean anything, except that it did to me.

Then I was a finalist in Writers of the Future, a contest for science fiction and fantasy writers, with a short story about Cinderella's stepmother when she was a teenager. This was the first time it had occurred to me that since I was interested in both young adult fiction and fantasy, I should try to combine the two. Mira, Mirror was the result.

When I brought the first chapter of Mira, Mirror to my children's group, there was a silence. This had never happened before, believe me. One of the other authors told me that I'd finally found it, what I was meant to write. She said that this was so different, so unique, that only I could write it. It wasn't just publishable, it was the kind of book that couldn't remain unpublished. Well, it wasn't quite that easy. I spent another two years revising the book before I got an offer, and a year after that revising it some more. But this was a life-changing event for me. I wasn't imitating anyone's style. This was the kind of story that I always wanted to be written for me, the kind of story that isn't about the fairy tale itself, but all the interesting things that might have happened around the fairy tale, if just the right circumstances were tweaked into appearing. It was about the characters who are on the sidelines of the fairy tale, vital but unimportant. Not the bland, perfect heroine or the evil -- mwahahah -- villainess of the piece, but about the people who were struggling to work around them, to make their own lives, and to be heroic in their own way. This was my story, about the world as I saw it.

There are times that I think it was a story that was above my capacity as a writer (not a storyteller) to tell skillfully. But let us leave that aside. Writers are forever worrying themselves to death over whether they have told the story that they meant to tell. What is important to me about this story is that I had figured out what I was supposed to be writing. I had found my voice, if you will. Not a stylistic voice, but a voice of substance, a voice that had a story to tell, and a damned good one, at that. It was a commercial story, not a particularly literary one, although you can argue what the definition of that is with me all day if you'd like (I have the credentials and the experience -- ask any number of my beleaguered professors).

I see a lot of beginning writers today doing what I did (I will not say they are making mistakes, because it's part of the path as I see it). They write "the next Harry Potter," or "in the style of Lemony Snicket." They write another vampire novel for teens, because that's what's selling. Or more fantasy romance, because that's what the editor says she's interested in buying right now. But what people are really going to buy, editors and readers alike, is you. That is what every reader is buying. This is a scary realization, isn't it? You may want to hide from it, disguise yourself in every way, cloak yourself in pretty words and sharp observations of irony. But writing is admitting that you are the emperor, standing in your new clothes, allowing people to laugh, because that's what they paid for. They don't want your imitation of another great author. If they wanted to read that author, they would and they would reread old books if there aren't any new ones. The only thing you have to sell is your uniqueness, the twisted way you see the world, the mole on your left shoulder that looks like a map of Switzerland, and the smell of your fear when you realize that everyone is looking at you.

Yes, there are things to learn from writing groups. There are also things that must be unlearned, either from literature professors or those teachers in high school who told you not to use the word "is," though they never dare to tell you that 2 + 2 should sometimes equal something other than 4 because it's just boring for it always to be 4.

I don't know that it would have helped for me to have found out what I was supposed to be writing any sooner, since I needed every one of those tools I learned and a few more besides. But if I could give some advice from myself now to myself in the past, I would say to remember what it was I loved when I was a child. Remember the fairy tales that my mother would read, about Prince Bertram the Bad, and how I would poke her even when she had fallen asleep, to read more and more. Remember those first stories I tried to write. Remember the books that I read for "fun." Remember the books that I hid in jackets of other books, or that I checked out with an eye over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching, at the university library. Remember the feeling of disdain when I watched someone else read a book I wished I could read, but chose not to, because I was going to read something "better," something less like candy, and more like -- well, old celery with strings that stick in the teeth. Remember how I avoided the books with the medals on them, and the books that teachers recommended, and found the books that called to me from the first line, no matter how dusty the jacket or how the cover was torn. Remember the books that made me so mad because I knew I could have written them better. Remember the books that made me want to "be" that author, to have written that book. And put that aside.

Then write the book that is mine, the one that no one else will ever write. Most of all, remember to be confident enough to believe that such a book exists.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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