Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Chopsticks
  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
February 2015

The Book of Your Heart

I like to write stories. All kinds of stories. Romances, fantasies, science fiction, contemporary, adult, YA, MG, even screenplays and graphic novel scripts. I have always found story to be a way to process the world in different ways, and I like experimenting and playing with old forms and remaking them. I like retelling classics and fairy tales. I like hiding little hints about what story I'm telling where only very clever readers will find them. I have often written a novel because of a formal challenge of one sort or another -- like when I wrote Mira, Mirror purely because a writer friend of mine said that you can't write a novel from the viewpoint of an inanimate object because it would be boring.

So when my agent would talk at our yearly retreat for clients about writing "the book of your heart," I had literally no idea what he was talking about. There was never any "one" book that I wanted to write most above all other books. I had lots of ideas all the time and I liked playing with them. I am one of those rare creatures who prefers to write a first draft over revision. I get lost in a world of my own creation and time passes quickly for me as I write words. So if an editor or agent didn't like one book, I would have a half dozen other ideas ready to offer them. If I wasn't getting anywhere on a revision, I would turn to another project.

And then I wrote The Bishop's Wife and my life as an author changed dramatically. I was terrified of reviews of this book in a way I had never been terrified before. Oh, I always had plenty of anxiety about the release of a book. But it was more like the anxiety I'd felt in college when I turned in a paper for a professor and was waiting to see what grade it got. The anxiety I felt over The Bishop's Wife was a different kind entirely. It was like asking someone you'd never met if they would marry you. It felt like I was offering that much of myself to other people. And of course, I knew that not everyone would be interested in marrying me. Some people might spit on my proposal -- and on me.

This book was personal to me in a way nothing else had ever been. And it isn't because the main character is a thinly veiled version of myself, though her thoughts are often mine. I cared about the reception of this book in a way that wasn't related to sales. It's been hard for me to use my normal methods of distancing myself from the hoopla simply by avoiding Goodreads or Amazon reviews or turning off my Google alerts. I get emailed responses to the book in a way I never have to any other book. Mostly good emails, but they are very heartfelt. People spill out personal things to me that they say they have never told anyone else before.

I had a conversation with my agent recently where we talked about what book I should work on next (in between work on sequels to The Bishop's Wife). I mentioned a couple of manuscripts that he'd seen bits and pieces of. But I knew what I really wanted to work on, and when he asked, I told him directly. I have a new series that I hope will create an entirely different genre (or possibly subgenre) of books that I feel passionately about. It is a series I feel like I have unique experience in. At the same time, when I have felt other people out about the idea, I've gotten resoundingly positive feedback. Almost everyone wonders why it hasn't been written before.

If I hadn't had the experience I had with The Bishop's Wife, I might have dismissed these impressions as not mattering. After all, wasn't I supposed to be following trends? Looking for what the audience wanted? Or what editors were interested in buying?

No. None of those things really matter in the end.

I feel confident that I should write the book of my heart and I think that other authors should, too. If you don't know what the book of your heart is, then write a story that matters to you. It's not quite the same thing, but it will lead you along the way to getting the skills that you need to write the book of your heart.

Sometimes authors or aspiring authors will come to me and tell me about a book they've been thinking about writing. They put it off because it's so different and so difficult that they're convinced they don't have the skills yet to do it. Or because they're scared. Or they tried to write it and someone told them it wasn't any good.

This may happen. I can't guarantee you that writing the book of your heart will be commercially successful. I can't offer you an automatic contract from one of the big 5 publishing houses that sell nationally. I can't promise that you will earn a lot of money. There are a number of brilliant authors that wrote the book of their heart and it didn't do well, and then they went back to writing other books that were more commercial. I wish this weren't true. I wish that I could tell you that if you follow your heart, you will find the yellow brick road that leads you to never worrying about money again.

But I can promise you that you will never regret writing the book of your heart. I can promise you that it will change your life. I can promise you that even if you share it with a very few people, even if it is never published, the book of your heart will live on in you in a way that no other story does. It will haunt you in a way that only things that are meant to be do.

The book of your heart is the book that keeps calling to you and you keep pushing it aside because you're working on something that is more likely to sell. The book of your heart is the book that fits into no categories. The book of your heart is the book that you are waiting to write until you are smarter and more courageous. The book of your heart is the book that people are going to get mad at you if you write. You may lose friends or family members over the book of your heart. You may end up splitting with your agents. You may lose your publisher or editor over the book of your heart.

That's how you know it's the one you have to keep hold of and not let go.

The book of your heart is the one that you will be writing in your head in secret when you are supposed to be working on other projects. It's the book that you think about when you're sick or on vacation. It's the book that you're afraid to tell anyone about. The book of your heart is the book that you need to write in a way that you can't explain to someone else. You need it because you have to put words and structure to an experience. You need to be able to look at it and say -- this is who I am. This is what I was born to write. This is the most honest I can be. This tells people more about me than if I stripped naked in front of them.

Please, find your way to the time and the space you need to write the book of your heart. The world needs it.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison


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