Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
May 2016

The Book Only You Can Write

I’ve 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).

Here are some of the things I think I’ve decided it does mean to write the book only you can write:

  1. It may be painful because it will expose your weaknesses in ways you may not be comfortable with. (I don’t mean in explicit ways).

  2. You 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.

  3. Other 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 matters.

  4. You 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.

  5. You 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.

  6. You may worry that you will never write anything this good again. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t.

  7. You 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.

  8. Your 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.

  9. People 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.

  10. You 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.

I 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.

But it was different when I wrote The Bishop’s Wife, 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.

This 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.

I 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.

The 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.

For 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.

It 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.

Of 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.

The 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.

So 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

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