Letter From The Editor - Issue 42 - November 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2009

20 Novels That Will Never Be Published, And Why

When I go to conferences, people often ask me what they should do while they wait for responses to their first manuscript. Should they work on a sequel, something else entirely, or rework the first one? My answer -- keep writing. And then I like to give a dose of reality by explaining that I wrote 20 novels before I wrote the first one that got published. Will any of those 20 ever be published? I hope not, because they are mostly terrible. I thought it might be useful to describe the 20 novels, and give a first line from each.

Novel #1 - The Shepherdess Daughter

I wrote it in grad school. I remember bringing the first twenty pages to read to a writers group. Oh, how painful that was. This was after I sent it out to possibly every publisher or agent on the planet. First line:

I was thirteen the year my mother told me I was to spend that summer with my grandmother, her mother.

You know, it's not such a bad first line. But the title is awful, and the whole book is overwritten badly. I was very self-conscious, as you are taught to be in grad school, about savoring the language of every line. Everything that happens is in the mind of the narrator. Deadly dull reading. Lesson: Write clearly, and tell a good story.

Novel #2 - A Warring Peace

"Estrella."

The voice called her from far across the space dock, faint with disdain. A part of Strella wondered briefly who it was, but she didn't dwell on it.

I was at the time a huge, worshipful fan of Lois McMaster Bujold. She graciously wrote me a few notes about this manuscript, including the problem that the main character does not recognize her own father's voice. She also pointed out some Stupid Plot problems, which were entirely right. Lesson: Characters cannot be stupid.

Novel #3 - Untitled

The novel was about a family of adopted kids. One was blind. One was missing a leg. Another had no arm. Mostly disabilities that were physical rather than mental. I think one of the kids was deaf. It was like I was picking the disabilities out of a hat. Anyway, the opening scene is of this girl trying to find her other sock in the morning. A sock for a leg she didn't have!

Lesson: Write about what you know.

Novel #4 - The Goodbye Notebook

This is a novel about four brothers whose mother leaves them, and they each tell a part of the story.

First line:

I am writing this because I can't stand the way John and Dad talk about her.

This had some similar problems to other attempts, mainly that too much happened in the character's head. But I will note here that the first line isn't that bad. At writing conferences, so much emphasis is put on the first line, the first page. Attendees are told that editors won't read past the first page. I am not saying this is untrue. I am just saying that to focus so much on the first page is a mistake. Every page must compelling, well-told, and more importantly, it must lead inexorably to the next one.

Novel #5 - Sea Queen, The Image stone, Witchweed

I began this novel as a fairy tale retelling (dark, as usual) of the little mermaid. In my version of the story, the evil witch is really the mermaid's mother because, well, where was her mother and why didn't anyone talk about her? First line:

The day Ilara had been waiting for came near winter's end exactly ten years after her father's death.

Overwriting, anyone?

Novel #6 - Circle of Seven

"My queen, you will survive this," murmured Gretcha, as she wiped the royal brow, careful not to touch the skin directly.

This one just makes me laugh. The idea of the book, which is that there is a village divided into seven parts, each with their own unique magic (water, fire, stone, and so on) isn't a terrible one. But talk about over-the-top fantasy language!

This novel also had another problem, that it was about childbirth. Almost every novel I wrote during this period had some gruesome scene of childbirth depicted in it, because that was my experience at the time. I delivered most of my children at home, and they were not quick or painless.

Novel #7 - My Mom is a Cow

This is about a girl who is struggling with her mother's obesity, as you can tell by the rather outrageous title. An editor told me that my approach was "too blunt," like the title and that the book was "depressing." She was exactly right, and while I knew at the time that personalized letters like this were a good sign for my career, I couldn't help but wish I was back at the earlier stage when the letters didn't sting so badly.

Novel #8 - Racing to the Bottom of the Hill

This is a story I wrote based on my husband's experiences as a twelve-year-old when his youngest sister was born with a life-threatening heart condition. One of the main problems of this one was a little more subtle than others, the voice. I could not get that twelve-year-old boy voice down. Still struggling with that today. Also a few too many coincidences.

Novel #9 - Rapunzel, Weeping

This was a novel that was based on the Rapunzel fairy tale, but loosely, and set in modern times. The idea was that the mother had been a painter and she painted Rapunzel weeping but didn't finish it. She disappeared and the father kept trying to pretend that she would come back any minute. I got compliments on the title, but an editor said the father was "pathetic." Lesson: Things need to happen, even to depressed characters.

Novel # 10 - Multiply and Replenish

I woke up inside the hiber chamber with goose bumps all over my body -- and I mean all over. It felt like my balls had frozen off in space.

I was trying to get the voice right on this one. I think I may have done it. A new problem appeared, though. I was trying to write an anti-hero story and that is a really tricky thing to do. How to make an unlikeable character someone the reader cares about? Not by writing this book, apparently.

Novel #11 - Encroaching Shore

I have been fascinated with the Amish for some time, perhaps dating to the year in which the film Witness came out. This led to the idea of an Amish science fiction novel. There are a lot of apocalyptic novels about climate change, but what would the Amish do if the eastern seaboard were engulfed in water and all the "English" started to move inland and take over their land. What if there were some Amish who refused to move west and give up their land to the sea? What if one of them was a teenage girl who wasn't sure she wanted to be Amish anymore.

It was one of those days that proved the English right about the new weather.

I have some fond memories for this novel. The problem with it is that I am not Amish and while I did research, I was never convinced that it was enough to write a whole book from inside that world.

Novel #12 - Dream Back

First line:

"Who's President, boy?" the old bum asked.

This was an alternate history novel with a character who had the power to dream to other alternate worlds. I got desperate enough at this point that I sent it to a "subsidy publisher." I was lucky enough that the publisher wrote back and said that he thought this was good enough to get published by a real publisher. It wasn't. Main problems: It was too hard to get into, and I honestly think I didn't see the niche this would get published in. Alternate history isn't being published for middle grade at the moment.

Novel #13 - Nazis in America

I'm putting this in as #14, but maybe I should think of it as novel #1. This came out of the second short story I wrote as an adult, after I started seriously thinking of publication as a goal. It was only later that I began to think of it as part of a novel. I read Mike Resnick's Kirinyaga series of short stories, which also became chapters in a novel that I loved, and I realized I wanted to do the same thing with this story; so it became kind of the anchor in a series of stories set in a near future America where a fascist government had taken control after a famine and a worldwide depression.

I actually sold a story in this series to Absolute Magnitude back in 2001 and it was my first professional short story sale. The entire novel is written in first person POV, with each chapter focusing on a different character at a different time in the Reich's history. I don't think it's badly written, but it is extremely grim.

First few lines of the first story I wrote:

This could be her, I think. She looks about the right age, medium height, medium build, like me. Seventeen years I've been looking for her. Since the day she was taken from me, the day she was born.

Novel #14 - Living Up to a Fairy Tale Sister

First line:

I'm not Rapunzel.

This is another novel that takes a classic fairy tale and twists it. It doesn't work because the plot is simply flawed. It's not a problem with my writing on a sentence by sentence basis, but with larger things. I was trying to have the events of my novel and the fairy tale happen at the same time, and I couldn't get them to sync. Problem: Trying to write something that was beyond my technical abilities. Not that this is a bad thing. I think writers should do this all the time, to get better. But sometimes the projects have to be given up as failed.

Novel #15 - Anjira

First line:

I thought it had to be some kind of delusion when I saw him there in the mall. I

mean, didn't those kind of things run in families? Like, in the genes?

This was the first of a book that was meant to be a trilogy. I think it was the first trilogy I actually set out to write. It's about a girl who discovers that her estranged father (who kidnaps her in the first chapter) is actually an alien. Which means that she is half alien. She struggles through the first half of the book to believe that her father isn't just delusional. But when she meets one of the bad aliens her father is fighting against, a creature who feeds on terror, she begins to turn her thoughts toward what she can do to join the fight. She ends up on the alien world for part of the novel, and then back home.

I still like the idea of the story, which is that as a teenager, you feel like an alien. You feel like your parents are alien, too. I've literalized it, but again, the plot didn't work. There were, as they say, holes big enough to drive a truck through. Like why the aliens needed her, and how she was going to stop them. I liked the idea so much, I worked on this book a number of times, but never fixed it.

Novel #16 - Living in Germany

No, that wasn't the real title of the novel, but it was just as terrible. This was based on my experience in Germany as an exchange student. I learned through it that it is extremely difficult to write good fiction based too closely on reality. It is just too hard to see what makes good story material, because you keep saying "This really happened." It doesn't matter what really happen. Only what is interesting.

NOVEL #17 - The Empty King

First line:

The man lay asleep on a park bench, two overhanging oak trees shielding him from the rain.

This was meant to be a novel about slipping in and out of worlds, a la Thomas Covenant. The problem was simply that I couldn't figure out how to make the two worlds work together. I'm not sure I have read a fantasy novel that does this well. Usually, one world ends up not being shown fully.

Novels #18 - God, Heaven, Funerals and Ghosts

This is about a girl who kills herself and the girl who was her best friend. Actually, that was only the last incarnation. It went through several. I again had the problem of mixing fantasy with the real world. Was there really a ghost? Was it just the girl's imagination. I wanted to keep the reader guessing, but it was annoying and made the novel difficult to label.

First line:

Whatever quantum energy your body holds -- which is as close to a soul as I'm willing to admit -- is released when you die.

Novel #19 - Counting Steps

This novel was very close to publishable. I wrote it about two bothers, one autistic, the other not. Their POVs alternated, which made for some interesting chapters from the verbally impaired autistic brother. I think that it was formally very interesting, but one editor asked me to rewrite it entirely from the non-autistic brother's POV because she thought readers would relate to him more. It didn't work.

First line:

I am sitting at the back of the bus, alone. I feel the vinyl underneath my fingers, smell the scent of old farts in the air.

Not a great first line, but I don't think that's the real problem with the story. It just turned out to be too much for me to handle writing two stories at the same time, the story of the brothers' relationship and the story of the boy who grows up.

Novel #20 - Dogged

About a girl who goes out running and gets chased by dogs and is terrified of them. But why is she terrified? There is a deep, dark history that gradually comes out.

This isn't a terrible novel, but I ended up feeling like it wasn't what I wanted it to be. It may be that at this point, I became too critical of my own work. I never sent this out to an editor to be rejected. I rejected it myself.

First line:

I reached for the first deadbolt, heard the click of a prison door opening.

It's a good first line, actually. But not enough to make me love the book.

There is one novel I wrote during the time period before I was published that I still have hope for, called The Stepmother's Story, about Cinderella's stepmother when she was seventeen. She has her own fairy godmother, ball, and prince to marry, and a pair of black boots rather than glass slippers. So far, the main problem with it has been that it feels too adult for YA publishers and too YA for adult publishers. I have had this problem with several novels I wrote after I published my first book.

And now that I am a published writer with several novels doing well? Do all my books sell now? No, they do not. I have another 20 novels that I have written after my first book was published that are languishing away. I think they are more publishable, but that is another essay.

I get annoyed when people tell me that I am "talented" or that they "could never write a novel." I feel like I am a writer because I worked hard at it, and that anyone who worked hard at it could be a good writer. Maybe a slight exaggeration, but there is some truth to it. And this is my promise to people who complain about the publishing world being too hard to break in to: Write twenty full novels, and then tell me you still haven't been published yet. Then I will feel sorry for you.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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