Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2013

My Bucket List

I know that most aspiring authors think that having a book published is the most important thing in the world. It is the affirmation that you spend years working toward. Some people aim toward self-publication; others want a national publication; others still are happy with a local press. I remember this stage very well. I heard authors talk about problems that happened later in their careers and I wondered how it could possibly matter. If they had been published, then that was all the affirmation that they needed. One book publication. You are a real author. Right?

Well, coming from the other side, it's a bit more complicated. Having one book published is wonderful. But like with any goal, after you have achieved it, you often find yourself setting another goal, pushing yourself further. If I finish a marathon, I will want next to improve my race time for the next one. If I make a certain national ranking, the next year I will want to have a better one, to be an All American, or to beat a nemesis. It's human nature to look for the next step, after you are standing on a plateau. This doesn't necessarily mean that you don't appreciate the fact that you've had enough good fortune that your hard work paid off and that you happened to reach a certain number of readers with your particular kind of storytelling.

But a lot of my favorite writers who made it through to publication have found that it isn't all sunshine and roses afterward. Even if you have an agent, that doesn't mean that you will sell all your books -- or any of them, for that matter. Even if you have an editor who wants to buy your book, it doesn't mean the editor can buy it, if the publisher thinks it won't sell. And beyond that, bizarre things can happen that you have no control over in your career. Your publisher and the largest chain of bookstores in the country may have a dispute right at the time when your book debuts. Or you may end up orphaned at your publisher. Or writing a book that for whatever reason, readers did not enjoy. And then what? What do you do?

I had thought for a long time that I would be insulated from problems in the writing world because I was easy to work with. I listened to editorial feedback. I worked hard. Insanely hard. I always met deadlines. I was a real professional and I wasn't too enamored with the idea of "art." I mostly wanted to tell good stories. I didn't want to win awards or be remembered as the greatest writer in history. I don't care about the literary establishment accepting me or putting me on a list of classics, because I was involved in that world for too long to look at it uncritically. I figured I looked at writing as a job, not a touchy-feely moment about who you are and what you were meant to do with your life in some spiritual sense. But guess what? None of this insulated me from the problems of the post-debut author slippery slope.

To the contrary, I lost my editor shortly after The Princess and the Hound was published, was assigned a new editor who didn't see my vision of the series, had abysmal sales, and then had a big contract cancelled. All of which led to me spending much of the last several years depressed about the state of my career. I hope it will not sound like not appreciating my good fortune to have come as far as I have. Much of the time in the last several years, I reminded myself on a regular basis that I was glad to have published the books I had published. If I never sold another book, I would still be known for those books, and that was a good thing. I felt that I had been creatively fulfilled in many ways.

But . . .

I began to consider other job options that might also fulfill me. I could go back to teach at college writing. I could work as a personal trainer or a coach, after my experience in triathlon. I considered opening an etsy shop for my knitting and crocheting hobby. And I also considered offering to do some organizational/tax work for my husband's company. Or just getting a job at a fast food restaurant, which can be deadly boring, but at the end of the day, you're finished, you get paid, and you can go home and do whatever you want. You don't have to justify to yourself the use of your time because you need to fit in more writing in your life.

One of the problems with life as a writer is that the feedback loop can feel very messed up. You get some feedback from an agent or editor soon after you finish a book (if you are working with good people, which I am). But it can take months to finish a first draft (or years), and you don't get feedback from reviewers or readers for years more after that. I desperately wanted more immediate reward for my labors, and a greater sense that the harder I worked, the more I would be compensated for it. Why was I writing again? Maybe that had never been a good choice.

So I gave myself a deadline of one year. If I hadn't sold a new book by then (after several dry years), I would move on. I'm not saying I thought I would never write another word. But I was going to take a break.

I thought.

What happened instead was surprising, at least to me. I hope it will be of interest to those of you who read these columns. I found that as my time to the deadline grew closer, I made a list of books that I felt I desperately wanted to write. A bucket list of books, so to speak. If I was going to die, these were the books I wanted to write before then. These were books that didn't matter to anyone else. They weren't books that I thought would be commercial. They weren't books that I imagined readers who had enjoyed my other books would pick up and like again. There really wasn't much in common between these books except that they happened to be about things that I cared about uniquely, and felt that only I could write.

If I died, these books would never be written, nor anything like them. I didn't have any reason to believe that they would be published. That wasn't the reason I was writing them (though of course, you always hope that someone else will want to read what you write). I was writing them because I needed to write them and that was the only reason. They were an odd collection. One of the books was one that I had written years ago in another form and for whatever reason, of all the many books I have let go after a certain number of revisions, this was one I couldn't let go of -- not yet, anyway. One of the books was non-fiction. One was adult.

It may not really matter, but I'm going to list the books here, just in case you are interested:

1. A triathlon book, which went through many different titles, beginning with Born to Tri.

2. An adult murder mystery set in my local Mormon community, titled The Bishop's Wife.

3. A retelling of the Arthur saga, but one in which Arthur has a son, originally called Son of Arthur.

4. A friendship romance about two princesses who are on a see-saw of power which demands that only one of them can survive.

Over the course of about a year, I worked through each of these books in draft form. I didn't send them out to readers. They were my books and they were weird and I didn't know what to do with them. I worked through a few more drafts. I waited, not sure why I was waiting, but doing it anyway. And then the universe seemed to respond to me.

In the case of #1, the triathlon book, a friend recommended me to an editor at a brand new publisher who was interested in a book on family and triathlon. And somehow without doing anything but sending in a manuscript, I had sold the book that eventually became Ironmom, and which will be out with Familius publishing in July of this year.

#4 went through a long, complicated process which I won't go into full detail here, but is out May 14, 2013, as The Rose Throne. It's by some measures a romance fantasy for the YA market, and therefore like The Princess and the Hound, but that's not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I felt like the young adult market has very few stories about genuine female friendships, and especially not in fantasy. There is a romance, but the most important relationship in the story is the tricky one between the two princesses, who are very different, and whose stories really required me to look at myself and my own assumptions about femininity and reassess them.

#2 and #3 are looking good for being published. I'll promote them at some point if they come out and you will find out about them.

But ultimately, that isn't really the point.

The point is that I found out something really important about myself. I wouldn't say that I can't be anything other than a writer. I wouldn't even say that I'm a born writer. I've said before that I don't believe in talent and I don't believe I'm naturally talented at writing, either. Mostly, I think I work damned hard at it. But working hard wasn't really what my bucket list was about, not really. It wasn't about being published ultimately, either. I'm not telling this story because I think the moral of it is that if you build it, they will come and publish your book. I was writing my bucket list of books because I needed to write them. And it was important for me to realize that.

Ultimately, this is why I am a writer. Not for other people. For me. If that sounds crazy and solipsistic, maybe it is.

Forgive me if it sounds condescending, but there is something about being unpublished that published writers envy. Not the anxiety of never being published, but the freedom with which unpublished writers may choose what their next book will be about, who the audience will be, and what it will say. The freedom of writing without a contract, without critical or reader expectations -- that is a beautiful thing and it's hard to get back.

I think I have it back. I'm not sure that I would recommend other writers getting it back in the particular way that I did, because it has been hell. On the other hand, if you gave me the choice of not having all the crap in the publishing world descend on me, I wouldn't choose the easier path. Because I wrote that bucket list of books and they matter a lot to me. These are my books. They don't belong to anyone else. Not to my agent or editor or publisher. They're mine and I love them in a way that I suppose you don't love things that come easily. (Not that writing any novel is easy.)

And you know what happened? At the end of my finishing writing the books on my list, I began to write a new list.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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