The Book of Your Heart

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Queen of Kats 1 cover

Before I get to my topic, here’s a most shameless of plugs. It’s my birthday, and I want you to buy yourself a present. Buy a book! Preferably one from one of the folks here at MW, and God knows that gives you plenty to choose from. I’ve provided an image and link to my latest, but go pick up something from one of us – me, David, Faith, Gail, Misty, Emily, Tamsin. Melissa – we’ve all got work out there, and as a gift to me, I want you to buy yourself something pretty. And enjoy! Here’s a link to my latest release – Queen of Kats, Part I

 

It’s THE book.

You know the one I’m talking about. It’s your novel. It’s your Water for Chocolate, your American Gods, your Beloved. It’s the book that will change the way people look at books, at writing, at you. It’s the book you’ve had rolling around in your head since you were a kid. You’ve written it, and re-written it, and polished it over and over again, and once it hits bookstore shelves it’s going to change the world for the better.

And you should never, ever send it to anyone.

I end up speaking to a lot of new writer, up-and-coming writers, and wannabe writers. And one thing I hear a lot is “I’m almost finished with my book. I’ve worked on it for the last ten years, and it’s almost done. What should I do with it?”

My answer is almost always the same – finish it, wrap it in silk, put it in a cedar box so it will smell nice forever, then put it under your bed and never show it to anyone. Then go write a book you can sell. Come back to me when you have a project you love but haven’t invested half your life into, and we’ll talk about publishing.

I can see their faces in front of me even now. The smile as they assume that because I’m a fairly funny guy that I’m joking. Then the raised eyebrow as the get the hint that I might not be joking. Then the crushing disappointment that I didn’t ask to see the copy that we both know is in their backpack right now. Then the anger that I would even suggest that their book might not make it to the top of the bestseller lists. Then the determination that I’m an idiot and know nothing about writing or publishing, and that they’ll show me.

I shit you not, it’s like I’m the Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of publishing (and for the record, I got Kübler-Ross right the first time, even with the dot thingies over the “u,” but had to look up the “Elisabeth”).

I have a very good reason for telling new writers never to show anyone their Great American Novel, and it has nothing to do with me losing sales to them. I firmly believe that publishing is not a zero-sum game, and that every book bought doesn’t mean one fewer book bought from me, it just means another book was bought, so perhaps a new junkie was created. A rising tide of sales lifts all boats, so the last thing I want is fewer books in the market.

But the really, absolutely last thing I want is for some novice writer to stop writing because they got their heart broken over their first book. And that’s why I tell people never to shop the book of their heart. Certainly not as your first book. Because the publishing industry is heartless and sometimes cruel, and I don’t want to see you die creatively because your first novel sucks donkey butt.

The other reason I tell people not to shop the book of their heart is because it probably sucks donkey butt.

And because they’ve wasted a boatload of time on it! I mean, FFS, people, what the hell are you spending ten years working on if your last name isn’t Rothfuss? Look at the level of productivity we’re talking about on this site – we are cranking some words, folks! Tamsin has a couple new releases this year, David has two new novels in the past fifteen minutes, I poop out a novella every time a car backfires in my neighborhood, Melissa has several new novellas out, Faith is working two different series at a time, and Gail has more new releases than I do! The only thing we’ve been working on for a decade has been our careers! And for some of us (me), I haven’t even been working on a writing career that long! Ten years ago I thought I was a lighting designer and a journalist! Or a theatre producer!

Oh yeah, and everybody’s first novel sucks donkey butt. Mine certainly did. The Chosen is a decent story, and with a lot of ruthless hard work and bleeding from the eyeballs, wallet and fingertips, I turned it into a good novel. But it suuuuuuucked at first. But you know what? I figured it would. It was the first thing I’d ever written over 10,000 words long. I started writing it as an exercise just to see if I could write anything longer than 1,000-word blog articles and short stories. So when it came time to edit the book and work on it, I could handle the criticism.

Because I was detached and professional about it. And sure, you can find me one or two corner cases where people can be dispassionate about the book of their heart, but you know as well as I do that it’s about as common as being able to find an editor worth hiring that you share DNA or fluids with. It’s pretty rare.

These delicate flowers, these novels of the heart, they’re something special. They tie to moments that are critical in the author’s life, and I hate to see that get beaten up through the publishing process. And novice writers haven’t found their armor yet, not most of them. You guys have an edge, because you read this site, and it gives you no-BS talk about the business, so you know what to expect. But no matter how many times we’ve done this, the more we put ourselves out there, the more fear there is. There’s a scene in In the Still of the Knight that I wrote just after we buried my mom (like, seriously, that night). And the scene is pretty raw emotionally, for the characters and for me as a writer. I was nervous sending that scene to my editor, and that book was already sold! Publishing is tough, and editors and publishers neither know nor care that you lost your job the week you wrote that chapter, or that the events in the novel actually happened to you, or any of that. They only want to make the best book they can make, to make the most money possible. Your heart and soul are tangential to the process.

And that’s why I tell people to take care of that book, to maybe come back to it after they’ve got a few other books out there. To take another look at it after they’ve sold a couple manuscripts and are able to see it more coldly, like a publisher would. Because then, once they don’t have too many dreams wrapped up in those words, then maybe they can make one or two come true.

 

John G. Hartness is a teller of tales, a righter of wrong, defender of ladies’ virtues, and some people call him Maurice, for he speaks of the pompatus of love. He is also the author of The Black Knight Chronicles from Bell Bridge Books, a comedic urban fantasy series that answers the eternal question “Why aren’t there more fat vampires?” He is also the creator of the comic horror Bubba the Monster Hunter series, and the creator and co-editor of the Big Bad series of horror anthologies from Dark Oak Press and Media. 

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4 comments to The Book of Your Heart

  • Hepseba ALHH

    First, I think your base point is a good one. I think that pretty much every sane person can agree that we all get better (even at the things we’re good at (I say for the people who think they’re the exceptions)) the more we do them. Ergo, if it’s the story that we really really love then it at least makes sense to honor the awesomeness of that story and wait until we *know* we’ve improved before we try to put it out there.

    But. I happened to take eight+ years to write my first book. Because:
    a) During that time I was learning how to write a book, and wrote and edited-and-rewrote that book three times.
    b) During that time I also met my husband, got married, had two kids, and bought a house.
    c) During that time I also went to graduate school and got my astrophysics Ph.D.

    Before you ask, no, I’m not working on shopping that book around. But neither am I going to apologize for taking so – long to write it.

    There is no one right way.

  • Yedra

    Great post, John. When I finally get around to writing the book of my heart, it will go in a drawer the minute it’s done. My problem is that I KNOW it will suck. It’s all shiny and lovely in my head, and of course it’s never that shiny and lovely once written. I don’t want to see it diminished when I put it on the page, so I keep avoiding writing it at all.

    One of these days I’ll suck it up and write it anyway, because I know I have to write that bad book to write a good one, and eventually I’d like to do that. Posts like this help move me closer.

  • Great post, John! Also, happy birthday!

  • Yeah … did that. Excellent advice, John.

    Specifically, I did what Hep did, but I rewrote it at least eight times over thirteen years. It was definitely a learning piece. Then just like you suggested, into the drawer it went. I had the chance to revisit it about a year and a half ago, seven years after putting it aside. I fixed some major plot problems, killed a few darlings … then I put it *back* in the drawer.

    I will get back to it. But I love my heartsong too much to touch it until we’re both ready to work together again.

    Happy birthday!