Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2016

Three Stages of a Writing Career

When you start out as a writer, you often don’t have a lot of ideas. You scramble to find one or two and you pin your hopes on them. You write the same book over and over again, sometimes over the course of a decade. Some writers can never give up that first book (and to be fair, some are right not to, but in my experience, this is a tiny fraction of the people who are still working on the same book after ten years). I think of this as the early years.

You hear other writers give advice about how to get ideas. From TV shows, from news articles, from other books you wish you’d written or think you could have written better, from your childhood, from dreams. You hear that you should keep a notebook by your bedside, by the toilet, that you should get crayons that can write on shower walls, so that any brilliant idea you have, you can scribble down and preserve, because that’s gold there, that’s what you’re going to make you’re living on. You sit in front of the computer screen and sometimes type the phone book, because you’ve heard that it matters that you’re there, telling the muse that you’re available, should she come to visit.

In these early years, you spend lots of time going to conferences, listening eagerly to anyone who is a little further along than you are, taking notes about ways to make your manuscript stand out when you’re submitting it. (Hint: different colored paper or a twenty dollar bill are not among them.) You make lists of the new trends, manuscript wish lists on twitter, hot new agents who are taking new clients, and editors who are finding new talent or getting their authors awards (not that editors do this, but you think that they do).

You buy books about writing by the cartload. You underline advice, try out different plot formulas, chart out your midpoint and climax as if they are going to get you pregnant, and make a checklist of every emotion you’re supposed to elicit in the reader to make sure you’re doing them all at the right time. You try waking up early and staying up late to make sure you’re getting enough hours in. You make daily word count goals and get out stickers for your calendar to motivate yourself. You find a writer’s group and worry about whether that one person who rarely writes is pulling the rest of you down.

And then one day, you get published and you move into a different stage of writing. Suddenly, you’re trying to figure out how to manage school visits or library appearances, how to get people to show up at signings, worrying about what to do if you get lousy reviews, trying to negotiate the social media scene as an author, wondering about your Goodreads presence and wondering how publishers choose which authors go on tour (no one knows this, but go ahead and worry, since you’re going to worry about something anyway).

After that, you worry about fulfilling the second book in your contract (although trust me, you might as well assume that your next book will be rejected, and likely the one after that—not that you should skip over the agony of writing them and being rejected). You worry whether you’re going to do better with your second book than your debut, and you are dealing with jealousy when you see that other authors you think are nastier or worse writers than you are having better sales and being invited to conferences where they’re getting paid while you’re asked to come on your own dime and the bookseller didn’t even bother to bring any copies of your books to sign.

You may also spend this stage looking gloomily at the long list you have now acquired of books that you want to write. It’s a long list. It seems impossible that you will ever actually get to all of those books, considering all of the other things that are now taking up your time that have little to do with writing: fan mail, interviews, keeping up with trends in the market, and on and on. Maybe you’ll get one book written from that list a year. If other authors suggest a collaboration, you practically snarl at them because why would you want to work on a book together when you have your list you have to get through before you die? Writing short stories by invitation is flattering, and so you do it, but that takes more time, and then you’re asked to do copy edits over and over again.

You think that this stage will last forever, that this is the rest of your life as an author, the mentally frenetic need to do more, to squeeze in more time on airplane flights, in hotel rooms, whenever you suffer insomnia, at quiet church meetings, in the middle of dinner prep or while the rest of the family is watching television.

It won’t, though. I’m here to tell you. I was one of those people with the seemingly endless list of books I wanted to write. I pushed away ideas vigorously. If they didn’t come to harass me frequently, I ignored them. I certainly didn’t keep a notebook to write ideas down in after my first book was published. If ideas fell out of my brain after a few minutes, good riddance!

And then, this year, I reached the end of that long list of books. I have drafts of them all, though not very many of them have been published. Some of the drafts need work. Some came as far as I could take them and I’m waiting to see if the publishing world changes and they will fit in somewhere. (No, I’m not interested in self-pubbing them; that takes a lot of energy on my part and promoting books, as an introvert, is excruciating).

I’ve been writing seriously since 1994, when my first child was born. That child is now twenty-two. All through that time, I felt like I was in a rush. I would write “THE END” on one manuscript and then open up an empty file to start a new one, without a day in between to celebrate or take a breath of relief. I had to keep writing because the ideas needed me to work on them. These were stories that mattered to me deeply, even if they didn’t to anyone else. I truly believed that I would never reach the end of the list. I figured that I would never retire, that in my nineties, I’d still be waking up at 5 a.m. so I could get some words in on the new book. I thought that I would die never having finished my list.

But you know what? I’m OK with where I am now. I don’t feel a need to demand more ideas out of my head. And I’ve been trying to figure out why.

I suppose it’s partly that I’ve reached a level of national attention that isn’t always pleasant. The NYT Bestseller status that I once sought doesn’t seem so desirable anymore if it comes with long book tours away from home and family and public appearances that take days for me to recuperate from. It’s also partly that I haven’t published all those books, and it’s going to take me years still to get each manuscript to the place where I want it to be (even excluding publishers’ wishes) or to decide that a few are ready to be given up on.

Do I think more book ideas will come? Maybe. Maybe I will have short story ideas again. I don’t know. I’m enjoying writing personal essays. I’m enjoying letting my life slow down a little, even if it’s only in my own head. I suspect that many writers come to this stage eventually, though it could be that there are other stages to come, or that the stages run in cycles.

I have achieved a lot of what I wanted to achieve when I was a teenager, and a lot of things I never thought to achieve. I’ve come to a place where I’m not sure I want to achieve the rest of the things that used to be on my list to signify “success.” I find happiness in smaller things now, in eating a good meal, in sleeping in, in watching TV without the guilt of feeling like I ought to be reading instead. I guess I’m getting old, but to my surprise, it seems like a good thing.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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