The Book Only You Can Write
heard a lot of writers give the advice that you should work on books
that only you can write, but I think it’s taken me a long time
to figure out what that means. I think I always knew that it meant
not to chase trends, not to write about vampires if I didn’t
like vampires just because vampire books were selling, for instance.
I think writing a book only you can write also doesn’t mean
that you should write books that are thinly veiled autobiographies,
or that you should write essentially the same book over and over
again (I should hope that we’re all changing and so the book
only you can write will also change with time).
are some of the things I think I’ve decided it does mean to
write the book only you can write:
may be painful because it will expose your weaknesses in ways you
may not be comfortable with. (I don’t mean in explicit ways).
might write a book in a fever-fast spell of days or weeks. Or it may
take years to work out. The time spent writing your book has nothing
to do with its quality.
people may not recognize that this is “the book.” Not
your agent, not your parents or spouse, not your writing partners or
your best friend. It may seem strange to them. It may not fit into
any pre-defined genres. It may be hard to sell. None of this
may feel a sense of satisfaction about this book that you’ve
never felt before. Or you may feel anxiety about it you’ve
never felt before. Both of these reactions make sense.
may feel like there is nothing to write after this, that you’ve
given everything to this book and you’re used up creatively.
Don’t worry about that now. Eventually, your creativity will
probably return. You may need to rest and refill the well with other
kinds of creativity in the meantime.
may worry that you will never write anything this good again. Maybe
you will and maybe you won’t.
may be angry when your book isn’t met with the reception you
expect for it. Either it’s ignored or the wrong people read it
and like it or people aren’t “getting” it. You
don’t have control over this.
career may change completely after this book, going in a direction
you never expected, and you have to suddenly figure things out all
over again. That’s OK. Have confidence in yourself.
may come to you and pour out their hearts in exchange for what they
feel is a gift of the soul. Decide how you deal with this now. My
advice: Welcome it, but make sure you also keep a little distance.
You need to keep some privacy to stay sane.
may find it difficult to get people to ask about the book rather
than your personal life that led you to write it. You can direct
conversations back to the book if you prefer.
like writing stories and I write every day. For a lot of my career, I
was writing good stories and I’m proud of those stories, even
if I don’t consider every book I’ve published to be “the
book of my heart.” For many years, when I heard people talk
about “books of the heart,” I didn’t really
understand what they meant. I thought, every book I write is a book I
care about a lot and want to see published. I like making books
better as I revise. No one book seemed to rise above the others as
the only book I loved, and every book I wrote had little bits and
pieces of me in it.
it was different when I wrote The
which is truly a book of the heart. Several people told me not to
write it, including my agent at the time, who simply thought that
Mormon stories were difficult to write to a large audience (he’d
had other Mormon stories rejected by multiple editors at multiple
publishers and, as he said later, he didn’t know I was going to
write the story like “that.”). Other people told me not
to write it because they thought it would be difficult to deal with
the fall-out from family and other members of the church.
has, indeed, proven to be true. Everyone has a reaction, and not many
of them are simple praise. When you write about something as personal
as religious experience, you are going to end up making a lot of
people feel like you haven’t quite described their religious
experience. And coming to accept that people are going to tell you
off in spectacular ways because you’ve done something they
consider heretical is, well, part of the game.
have another book that has never been published that I also consider
to be a “book of the heart.” It is about a young girl
whose youngest brother is stillborn and she is convinced that the
stillborn brother isn’t her real brother, but a fairy
changeling. She goes off to find her real brother with the fairies. I
wrote the story after I had experienced a traumatic and life-changing
stillbirth myself, and I wrote it with the specific purpose of having
a happy ending where the sister succeeds in her quest and it turns
out her brother isn’t dead, after all. But when it came down to
it, I couldn’t write that ending. The words wouldn’t
come. I won’t spoil the real ending in case it ever does get
published, but it still makes me cry to read it. And one of the
problems with this book is simply that I get too emotional about it
to be much good at editing it with the cold eye I suspect that it
needs to get published.
book of your heart may or may not be related to your own life
experience. I know writers for whom the book of their heart is set in
a world they first created in their teen years. I wrote books as a
teen, but I’ve never had any interest in going back to them as
an adult, and I didn’t really create fully fleshed out worlds
for the adventures I planned in my teenaged mind.
some writers, a book of the heart is a recreation of a favorite movie
genre, changed in all the ways they’ve wanted to “fix”
it. For other writers, the book of the heart is something they’ve
written for their children, sometimes collaboratively. And there are
books of the heart that are stories passed down from generation to
generation and finally published and shared with the world.
doesn’t matter if your book of the heart is about you or your
family or some trauma that you’ve suffered. What matters is
that it speaks to you, that it will not let you stop writing it. What
matters is that it tells a story that is uniquely yours, that is so
different from what else is out there that it is difficult to sell
precisely because it almost creates its own genre.
course, every book I’ve written has my unique storytelling
voice, and I put my mark on it in a dozen other ways. But some of the
books I’ve written are books that I feel other people might
have written only a little differently, books that contain less of me
somehow inside of them.
Venn diagram of my best-selling books and the books of my heart is
not very big, I admit. What does that say? Probably only that what I
love and what others love is never going to overlap a ton. When it
does, it’s something to celebrate for the book industry, if not
for me personally. For me personally, the celebration comes in
writing the book down and going back to it again and again to get it
right, whether or not there is a promise of publication.
if you’re a writer who is trying to make a career out of this
and earn a living, I don’t know if my advice about writing a
book of your heart is of any value at all. Go ahead and write to the
market. There is nothing wrong with using your skill to tell stories
that sell. I offer no guarantees that writing the book of your heart
will lead to financial success. It may lead to a lot of people hating
you. Or it may lead to a stack of wonderful books in your trunk that
will never be published. My only guarantee is that you will grow as a
writer and as a person and that you will never regret writing the
book of your heart.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison