Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2010

In the Details

My sister is an artist. She once sent me a beautiful pencil drawing she had done of Bougereau's Rest. I showed it to a friend and pointed out the details of every single leaf on the tree in the background that my sister had lovingly drawn, vein by vein. If I were drawing the picture, I said, I would focus on the figures, and the tree and its leaves would end up being sketches. My friend said, "That is why she is the artist and you are not." It stung for a moment, but then I realized it was absolutely true. I like to fiddle around with a pencil and paper. I like to get human figures right (though I rarely do). But I am a hobbyist. And my sister is a professional. She not only cares about getting every detail right when she does a drawing, she actually enjoys it. She sees every leaf distinctly and she wants to draw it just that way. I don't.

I am the same way when it comes to cooking. If I am in charge of dinner, it will be served on time, because that is the thing that matters most to me. I may take shortcuts with the microwave or with prepared ingredients. But the food only matters to me because it can be eaten when I am hungry. My son, who is a chef in the making, is very frustrated by my haphazard style of cooking. When he makes dinner, it is always late. But he always follows the recipe exactly, and it is always good.

When I am quilting or knitting or sewing, I cannot bear to redo sections. If the two corners of a piece don't match up, I shrug and cut the long piece. Even if it will look a little funny. If my flying geese section points the wrong way, am I really going to unpick it all or do I trust that my seven year old whose quilt it is won't notice? The purple cable sweater I am doing for myself has a couple of missing increases on the sleeve that I fudged on in a place it wouldn't be so obvious how I'd added them in the wrong way. Possibly no one will ever notice but me. But some people might. Quilters and knitters who take pride in excellence that is nit-picky and particular, that wants perfection. They not only can't let a mistake go, but they enjoy fixing it. They accept that it is part of the process that they won't get it right the first time, and good enough isn't good enough when it come to art.

I tell people all the time that I think being a successful writer is mostly about keeping at it, year after year. It's not about talent as much as it is persistence and the willingness to change and try something else. But I will admit that if there is a genetic component to writing well, it is most likely in the details. Writers care about using exactly the right word. They care about the right phrase, about just the right piece of dialogue. They care about if the action scene they've described is logical and could really happen, in the world they've described. They care about making sure that the time line is right through the novel, and everything doesn't happen on the same day if it's impossible for it to do so.

This is partly a matter of training, I suppose, but not entirely. I think there is something in born in me that makes me watch stories more carefully than other people, that makes me cringe when something is not quite right, and I want it to be when I do my books. I suspect that if we are ever able to understand every bit of DNA, it will turn out that this part of me is actually a defect, and that it could be corrected, and I wouldn't care about those things anymore. But I'm going to keep the defect, thank you. I know writing is an illness, but I'll keep it as mine.

At the last few conferences I have been to, I have ended up telling about what happened when I got the galleys for The Princess and the Hound. I'd been through three solid rounds of revisions, but I realized in the middle of the novel at the climax that one of the last changes I had made affected the climax in a way that I could not ignore. It niggled at me and demanded that I fix it. And so I ended up adding an entire new chapter into the novel before it was published because it needed to be there. I wrote it in, long hand, on the side of the page and on the back, and then added a couple of pages, paperclipped them and sent them back to my editor.

Yes, I really added a full chapter at the galley stage. Did I have to pay for this? No. I believe my contract states that if at the galley stage I made changes that were "excessive," or more than 5% of the manuscript, then the publisher could charge me for the cost of the changes. But I don't think, technically, that this was 5%. There were almost 40 chapters in the book. And besides that, the editor agreed with me, that this added section needed to go in. We ended up making a compromise in terms of the actual needs of the publisher, and I cut it back to three or four pages, I believe, added into the existing chapter. I don't know for sure if the complaints from readers who can't follow the ending are because I didn't add all the chapter in I wanted to, but I suspect they are.

I remember when my first editor at Holiday House (The Monster in Me) told me to just "glance over them quickly," and get them back to her. They were in a time crunch. But I told her I couldn't do that, and she tried to explain how more seasoned "professionals" do it. I am still not sure what she means, but I find myself more and more particular about galleys the more seasoned a professional I become. I am the kind of perfectionist that takes every chance to make sure the manuscript is absolutely the best I can make it. It's my name on the cover, and the reviewers and readers are going to blame me for anything that goes wrong.

More importantly, I will blame me if anything is wrong. I don't spend a lot of time reading published books of mine, but if I am leaving a legacy for the future, those books are it. Indelible. They are mine forever. My drawings I don't see as a legacy. Nor my quilts. Nor my knitting. They are just for fun. My writing is not just for fun. Think about every word. I know there are writers who don't write a sentence down unless they have already decided that it is perfect. I am not like that. I want my sentences to be clear, but they don't have to be perfect the first time around. They do have to be perfect by the end, or as perfect as I can make them. If I am describing the leaves on the trees in the background of my novel, I want my words to make them so clear that the reader can see them in his/her mind as if s/he were looking at my sister's drawing. That's what a writer does.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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