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When you are a writer (or other creative person), your job is to

1—Do things that no one else has done before.

2—Mesh things in a way no one else has done before.

3—Say things that other people don’t dare say.

4—Make art out of things that other people don’t consider art and may never consider art.

5—Tell about the lives of people others consider unattractive or unartistic.

6—Subvert expectations at every turn.

7—Offer a different kind of pleasure.

8—Do things in a way that looks messy, sloppy, or accidental.

9—Refuse to follow the rules that everyone else considers impossible to live without.

10—Argue and make a stink and tell people they’re wrong.

So, it shouldn’t be surprising that it feels like you are failing. Being truly innovative isn’t going to work a lot of the time. You may be close some of the time. You may be way off some of the time. Or you may simply be different in a way that no one appreciates but you.

But if you spend all of your time wondering if what you’re doing is “right” or if other people will like it, or comparing it to people in the past who have been innovative or people who are deemed “successful” right now, you are going to fail all the time instead of most of the time. Looking back or at those who are already successful is exactly the wrong way to be innovative.

And good art is always innovative in one way or another. Even pulpy, trashy art that professors in colleges refuse to study (right now, anyway) is innovative in some truly important way. Sure, art can also do some things that are expected. It can be less than subversive. But most of the time, if you see something artistic hundreds of years later and people call it “classic,” they’ve just forgotten how subversive it was at the time because that artist was so successful that his way has become the norm.

If you think Van Gogh or Picasso are classic, you forget how hated they were in their own day. Every great artist had and has and will have those who hate their work. The more hatred you get, it’s possible that the better your work is.

So, fail. Fail spectacularly. Fail where everyone can see you. Fail and fail and fail. Because that is the only way you will ever succeed.

16 December 2014 @ 03:50 pm
(I've been super lucky with publishers, but after talking to authors who haven't been so lucky, I wrote up this list. If your publisher isn't going to do these things, I'm not sure there's really a point. You might as well self-publish)
1. Sends out ARCs to reviewers.
2. Asks me for names of contacts that could help with blurbs for the book. This should be a collaborative effort, not left completely to either side.
3. Has a small enough team of people that they can all get excited about the book.
4. Treats me well. This encompasses a variety of things. I appreciate contract flexibility. I also appreciate being asked to a company party if I happen to be in town for a conference. And it’s nice to be occasionally flown to conferences, as well.
5. Doesn’t jerk me around when it comes to reversion. If you’re not selling it anymore, why can’t you just give the rights back to me?
6. Has ebooks available at the same time as the physical book. I don’t get why this doesn’t always happen, but it seems odd to me as a reader and as an author.
7. Gives me good cover art. I don’t expect to be given an unlimited budget, but I’d also like some consultation. Please?
8. Is willing to grow with me. Some authors may be content to write a long series or similar books for a long time. I need the space to try different genres, to write against expectation.
9. Sends timely royalty checks. This is just good business, right? If I know that I’ve sold x number of books at a signing and then get a check that doesn’t account for that, I’m going to think someone is cheating.
10. Makes sure the contract is signed and executed and I am paid my advance before the book is published. Again, you would be surprised at how often this rule is not followed.
11. Pays for real copy editors, and not just students. Makes sure I get to see copy edits before they go to press. And makes the changes I request.
12. Gives editors time to actually do good work on the books.
13. Keeps books in print and sends them out from the warehouse when stores request them.
14. Maintains a webpage with ways to purchase the book and also links to my own website. Hopefully also has a bit of information about me and the book on site.
15. Maintains some kind of media presence.
16. Gives good ebook royalty rates.
17. Sells audio rights.
18. Consults with me about promotion for the book.
19. Loyalty. If one book goes badly, it's nice to feel like the publisher is willing to give me another chance before I’m kicked to the curb.
12 December 2014 @ 08:16 am

You can feel this problem in a book, movie or TV show, even if you aren't exactly sure what's wrong. Most of the time, it ends up feeling like the characters aren't doing anything. Some of the time, it feels like the characters are just reacting rather than propelling things to happen. Or the end of the story can just feel meaningless or flat because the audience wasn't as invested in the outcome as they could have been. Sure, there are stories in which that is what the author intends. But most of the time, it's not.

If you have a cool idea about the climax of the story, you might have this problem. If you are thinking about stuff that happens rather than the characters, you may end up with this problem. If you are planning the book around a particular popular "plotting" method, you may end up with this problem.

The solution to the problem? It's usually painful. It means starting over again (most revision means this, by the way). It means going back to the beginning and figuring out at each turn what your character wants and how your character would uniquely solve the problem of the world or people in the world not giving in to what she wants immediately.

Now, you may be thinking that your main character doesn't know what she wants at the beginning of the story. Or that your main character wants something very different at the beginning of the story than she turns out to want at the end of the story. And this is actually very much a part of plotting with the character at the forefront. This is called character change. It's what the audience expects, and yet it can also be very satisfying and feel like an exciting  "switch" at the end of the story.

Still, as a writer what you have to do is have the character (no matter how unsure or how wrong at the beginning) driving each scene as it unfolds. If you are doing a multi-character arc, then the way you choose which scene to tell from which pov is by showing the scene from the pov of the character who is propelling the action in that scene, or who has the most at stake in the outcome (at stake meaning they have the most to lose or they want the most out of the scene).

I feel like one of the biggest problems I see in story telling is that the main character is rather bland, a sort of character who can be fit into a plot already imagined. This kind of character wants rather broad, generalized good things, like "justice" or "to save the planet" or "to change the world." Yeah, well, I think readers want a very specific character who is propelled to change the world in a very specific way. You tell the story about one specific character's hurts and losses and it propels the reverse of the story, which is trying to correct those hurts and losses.

Maybe this isn't always realistic, but isn't that why we crave story, because story is our way of changing the world when it won't change in any other way?
08 December 2014 @ 12:14 pm

Many, many manuscripts need to be cut at the beginning in order to speed the intro to the world and main character. Some manuscripts actually need to add a chapter in before the non-stop action begins, though I think this happens less often. Here’s a handy list of questions to ask yourself, in order to decide which solution you should use for your WIP.

1. Is your first chapter an intro to the world where nothing happens to begin the plot? (Delete Chapter 1)

2. Is your first chapter an action scene where lots of people die or things get destroyed that really matter to the main character? (Add Chapter 1)

3. Is your first chapter several small scenes that make the main character seem like a good person? (Delete Chapter 1)

4. Does your first chapter contain more than a dozen new words that you have to explain? (Add Chapter 1)

5. Does your first chapter contain descriptions of people eating, cleaning, or waking up? (Delete Chapter 1)

6. Is your first chapter backstory? (Delete Chapter 1)

7. Is your first chapter from the point of view of someone other than the main character? (Delete Chapter 1—possibly make into a prologue)

8. Is your first chapter taken out of sequence so that the climax actually is masquerading as a first chapter? (Add Chapter 1 and tell the story in the proper order)

9. Is your first chapter a birthday party or similar life event where the main character is thinking back on her life and deciding what to do to start the main narrative? (Delete Chapter 1)

10. Is your first chapter about the main character’s infancy or very early childhood when the real story starts years later? (Delete Chapter 1)

Note: This is a bit tongue in cheek. I know there are good first chapters where people eat and good first chapters where people die. But as a generalization, I think these rules work.

05 December 2014 @ 01:10 pm

I have been working on a slightly tricky lace knitting pattern for Christmas and this has necessitated me doing a small version of the pattern in a different yarn to try it out, and trying the first five rows now for the fourth time, after repeatedly having to undo them all and throw away sections of the yarn that became too tangled to use anymore. I'm really hoping that this fourth time is the charm.

The longer I am a knitter, the more I think that knitting is like writing, especially when you are doing a very complicated pattern. You're really better off going back and starting over rather than soldiering on just to get it done. Eventually, you figure out what you're going and you feel confident in it. But the first few chapters can be agony. If it's easy for you, you're probably not challenging yourself.

If your novel is a mess, or if your knitting is, you have to undo it and go back to the beginning. Write yourself a plan (again!) and have the courage to try again. Don't give up because it's hard or because you've tried it and couldn't get it before. You're learning new skills with all these mistakes, I promise! Learning by failure does not feel fun, but it's important to go through.

Sometimes you need to set the project aside for a while and let the back part of your brain take over and work on it. Sometimes the waiting can take months or even years. Sometimes you need to find better yarn to work with, or the right needles. Sometimes you need a friend (or a youtube video or another novelist) to show you how to do the stitches that way because it's complicated. Sometimes you may even tell yourself that you weren't born to be a knitter, that it's useless keeping at this, that you should go do something that actually has a chance of paying.

The beauty of the finished project is what everyone else notices, but when you are finished, you will remember every flaw that is still there. If you point them out to other people, they will laugh and tell you that you're being too particular. Ignore them. Those tiny mistakes that only you see--those are the real bits of beauty in your project. Those are the things that make it yours, that remind you that the real work of art is letting the art work on you, to make you into the kind of project that will one day be seen as proof of beauty in the world, despite the tiny flaws.

04 December 2014 @ 07:39 am

I have noticed in real life as well as in novels that strong characters attract other strong characters. If you want your protagonist to be kick-ass, make sure that the people around your character are the same way. You can’t have a strong protagonist surrounded by weak-willed, uninteresting people. It doesn’t work in terms of plot and character development and it just doesn’t make sense. Likewise, you can’t have strong side characters trying to support a weak protagonist.

In real life, strong people are surrounded by other strong people. I don’t mean to suggest that they are the same kinds of strong. They usually aren’t. You can have a loud-mouthed person with a very soft-spoken person, but who is steely-minded and stubborn like no one else. There are many kinds of strength.

If you see someone who appears strong with someone who is subservient and submissive, what you have is someone who is pretending to be strong, but isn’t really. If that person were really strong, then guess what? They would be strong enough to attract other strong people, and they would want strong people around them to challenge them and make them grow. That’s what real strong people do. They’re not afraid of anyone, and they like people who demand more of them.

When you have a strong character, you usually have a character who makes things happen, who wants and demands that the world change to be better. But be aware that there are strong supporting characters, as well. There are people whose strength is to follow, but who follow while asking questions. Not everyone wants or needs to be the leader, the one who is in front, drawing fire, so to speak.

Really strong characters will have conflicts with each other because they  see the world differently. they may not necessarily fight or yell at each other, but they express themselves.

And then there are the strong characters who simply endure what life brings to them. This is a difficult kind of strength to write, but it exists. When I see people like this, they are not always the ones who talk about what endurance is, but as a writer, it is important to make sure that a character like this is given some kind of voice, so she doesn’t appear weak.

03 December 2014 @ 08:32 am

I can’t tell you how many critique sessions I have sat through where the critiquer isn’t trying to make *this* book better, but rather to transform it into *that* book. It’s mostly unconscious (though occasionally, real evil will come out). The critiquer simply likes *that* kind of book better than *this* kind of book. And beginning writers will occasionally be swayed by the enthusiasm of the critiquer, as they carefully write up their notes.


I have done this oh, so many times. I have decided that I needed to write a completely different book because *this* book was clearly wrong because all my critiquers said that it was wrong, so I had to believe them, right? Well, maybe and maybe not.

If you think there is something wrong with your book, make it a better book by fixing the problems, but don’t write a completely different book. Make it more itself, more of you, more of the good stuff that you love, not less.

Or if you truly believe that there is no way to fix the book, let it go. Don’t keep trying to rework it into the better book. Just start over. And maybe you can go back to the first book when you have a clearer head or when you are a better writer. Or maybe not.

Revision is a lot of work, yes. Revision may sometimes feel like you are changing things so much it’s like a different book. But like a different book is not the same as actually writing a different book.

Your book may not be good enough. It may not sell. But writing a different book out of it isn’t going to make it better. It’s just going to delay the rejection, which is possibly the reason that we writers tend to do this thing where we start from scratch again.

Give your book a chance. Give yourself a chance. Pour more of yourself into this book. Bleed and cry and dance and make a fool of yourself. Because that’s the only way that you’re going to really see if you’re a writer or not.

02 December 2014 @ 09:11 am

I remember when I was an aspiring author, I thought a lot about the mistakes I saw successful writers supposedly making. I hated it when a successful author would insist on writing a book outside of the series that I loved. I also hated it when a series ended up veering off in the “wrong” direction, or if it felt to me like the author had lost interest in a series and was just “phoning it in.”

Things look a lot different from the perspective of the publishing writer, let me tell you. What seems obvious to a reader’s perspective (that a writer is doing it “wrong”) is not at all clear from the writer’s perspective.

I remember writing a couple of letters to authors I admired about books that I didn’t love. One author kindly wrote back to explain to me that other readers had very much liked the book I had not liked, and that even if she agreed with some of my criticisms of said book, not every reader had the same tastes.

And guess what? This is so true. I have since talked to other fans of the same series and discovered to my surprise that the very books I found weakest were their favorites. And the books I loved that took a few chances (but not too many), these readers didn’t like.

Just because you don’t love something doesn’t mean that the author has given up writing good books and doesn’t care about readers anymore. Just because an author decides to write something different that isn’t in your favorite series doesn’t mean the author has become too big for regular readers and doesn’t care about anything but indulging herself.

Writers need to try new things. Sometimes that is the only way they can keep writing. Sometimes writers are still loving a series even if you aren’t. Sometimes writers are forced by economic concerns to continue writing a series that they wish they could end. That doesn’t make the writer a jerk or money-grubbing. It makes a writer a real human being.

I hate the idea that if a writer isn’t doing what a readers wants, that writer is either a hack or a jerk. Some writers will write to a different audience for a while, and that’s OK. Some writers will try something else and then come back to an old, familiar series when it feels fresh again. That’s not selling out necessarily.

I am terrified sometimes at the idea that a reader will dislike one book, after liking five or six of them, and never try another book of mine again because I’ve become a hack or a jerk. I’m not saying any reader is obligated to buy every book a writer publishes. Of course not. Readers can choose and sometimes readers will get tired of a series for reasons unrelated to the writer’s skill or commitment to the series. But please don’t make assumptions about the writer after one book you didn’t like.

01 December 2014 @ 04:55 pm
You know how you’re always thinking up the “right” way to zing back at someone, two years or twenty years after the fact? Or how you see a movie a million times and then you realize how it SHOULD have ended?

Yeah, that’s why we writer invented revision. NaNoWriMo is great. I love that people bang out a quick, first draft. It can be exhilarating and it can be exhausting. But now that you have a great draft, make it better!

December should be National Novel Revision Month. And January, too. And maybe February and March. Hell, the rest of the year should be National Revision Months and you get a new first draft for Novembers only. Because it will likely take you a year or so to get the novel right.

In fact, if you’re like me, you’ll still be thinking up the RIGHT ending to the book, and the RIGHT conversation for those two characters ten years after it’s published. It’s the biggest reasons authors do not spend time reading their own published books. Because it drives us crazy we can’t revise anymore.

Yes, writers write. But even more than that, what I think brings writers together is that we revise. A lot.

28 November 2014 @ 08:05 am

My teenage niece asked me about her high school English teacher who had been teaching her students to find symbols in novels and poetry. Since I am an author, she wanted to know if I really put that stuff in there on purpose or if her teacher (as she suspected) was making it up. It seemed hard to believe that it was real.

I told her that

1. It doesn’t matter if the author puts that stuff in on purpose. It can still be there. The work of the author is often to let the unconscious speak, and the author does not always control how the unconscious forms thoughts. Therefore, the author is often speaking for the culture rather than for one person.

2. Don’t ask the author what the book means. The author doesn’t know what the book means. That’s not the job of the author. The job of the author is to create. If an author says that a book means this or means that, do we take that as guaranteed? Of course not. If the author of a book insisted that there was no racism in it, but there is clearly racism in it, does the intention erase it? No.

3. The job of the critic is just as creative as the job of the author, and it is to find meaning where no one had seen it before. I talked a bit about Dadaism and how the point there was that anyone can be an artist, using ordinary kinds of text and image, and that the creativity was in bringing the same kind of vision to ordinary life as to that deemed "high art."

4. Be kind to teachers of literature and writing. It’s a hard job and it’s an important one. I believe that art of every kind is important. As important as food. As important as shelter. I know not everyone agrees with me, but the ability to make life make sense matters a lot. Also, the way that we can change the world by first imagining the change in art is the way humans work. Why do you think that we landed on the moon after we imagined we did?