Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
July 2017

Write A New Book

One of the most frequent pieces of advice I give to aspiring writers is to write a new book. This is because so many aspiring writers I meet are working on the same book from ten, even twenty years before. And it shows. That is, you can see that the idea of the book is immature, with bits and pieces of more maturity tacked on. The book itself shows a hodge-podge of skill, scenes that are done well (particularly in the beginning, which has been revised a lot), and then other scenes that don’t match at all and make no sense because they only partly worked when they were first written and they have little to do with what the book is now.

So I often tell people that it’s time to put the old book away and to begin work on something new and better, something that will be conceived with a much wiser, more mature, more experienced, more skilled writer mind. And maybe, just maybe, with the experience of writing that book, perhaps selling it and working with a skilled editor, a writer might be able to go back and see how to fix the old book (though honestly, I doubt it).

Being so attached to an old book that you can’t allow yourself to try out other ideas is a big part of the problem. There’s something scary about letting go of the book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer way back when. It’s scary, too, to try to start over from scratch, with none of the same characters, worlds, or words. You have to reinvent everything. You have to reinvent yourself as a writer. And yes, this is a good thing. It’s an important moment. You aren’t this book. You aren’t any one book that you write. You aren’t the imaginary world you created when you were twelve. You’re bigger than any of those things, and you need to give yourself permission to prove it.

Here it is: You have my permission to let go of that first, beloved book and move on to something bigger and better. You aren’t married to that book. You don’t have to keep working on it to prove that you’re a real writer. You’re not giving up because you’ve decided you learned what you needed to learn from that one book. You’re not saying that everyone who told you you’d never be a writer was right. You’re doing the opposite of that, in fact.

Write a new book. Try it. Just write a paragraph at first. Write one sentence. Or don’t try writing a sentence at all. Doodle about it a bit. Draw a map. Look on-line and find some images of the mountains, or of streams. Find some images of new characters you want to write about. Write a list for yourself of all the things you love in your favorite movies, books, TV or other media, and how you’re going to put them all in your new book. Or let yourself write something you never thought you’d write before. Write some dialog. Write a funny joke in your new world. Imagine what school would be like there. Write a newspaper article about a tragedy. Write a poem from a new character’s point of view.

You can be just as excited about something new as you were about something old. More excited, really. You’re going to be able to write better characters without the problems your old characters had (for instance, villains who have no reason to be villainous, heroes who have massive egos to overcome, or overly gendered stereotypes). You’re going to be able to craft things better from the first. Even if you don’t outline, you’ll be able to see how plots work because you’ve written a book before and you know what doesn’t work and you’ve probably seen other people’s books that don’t work and you’ve thought a lot about this.

Yes, I’ve seen authors who have published books that they first conceived when they were young teens. It’s pretty rare, but Sherwood Smith has done it, for instance. But that was after she’d written and published a bunch of other books and seen how it was done. I suspect (though I haven’t asked her) that she used very little of the actual words she’d written as a teen, even if she did use the scaffolding, worldbuilding, and even characters. You can do this, too. But continuing to hit your head against this wall now might not be the best thing for your career.

In fact, any time you as a writer feel like your creativity has been sucked from you by a project, I recommend giving yourself permission to make writing play again. If you absolutely have to finish a book because of a contract and deadline, maybe give yourself fifteen minutes a day to work on a secret project, just for you.

This isn’t a recommendation for those of you who haven’t finished your book, however. If you’re in the midst of the murky middles of a book and you want to give up and start something shiny and new—I don’t give your permission to do that. The reason for this is that you have no perspective on how good or bad your book is. I say this as someone who has hated a book for weeks or months as I worked through tricky problems, and then, after letting time pass and going back to the manuscript, realized it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.

There is something to be learned from writing a book from beginning to end. Every writer needs to work through some of the messy stuff. If you keep starting new books, you are likely to never learn how to end one. Instead, you’ll have a vast collection of first chapters, first halves and character sketches. You can’t sell these. For many writers, the fun part of writing is the beginning and if you never push yourself past this difficult part, you’ll never figure out how to wrap your head around the idea of a whole book, a complete plot. You’ll think that the new idea is going to be perfect, but you will quickly find out it isn’t.

Finish a book. Work on it for a while. Then move on to something else. You can always go back. But give yourself a chance to go forward, too.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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