Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Book of My Heart

There is a phrase I'm hearing more and more: "book of my heart." It's a term writers are using to explain to others that the particular project they're working on is one that is very personal and dear to them. All books are works of art and take some of ourselves to write, but a "book of your heart" is one that is ripped from your very soul. It's the important one, your baby, the one that you wrote with blood, sweat, and tears; the one that means more to you than any other.

And it's a beautiful sentiment. If an author tells me she's on submission with the "book of her heart," then I know it's a particularly important time in her life. If an author tells me he's just finished the "book of his heart," this calls for more than a toast--it's an all-night celebration of joy.

But I also think there's an important thing for everyone who's a writer (published or not) to know.

The book of your heart doesn't always sell.

I have a book of my heart. I wrote it in college, and it was my third (unpublished) novel. Writing it was like magic. The world consumed me, and despite the fact that I was working on my Master's thesis and writing academically nearly full-time, I would give up sleeping and eating in order to keep working on the book of my heart.

I loved that book. It had everything I loved: magic, a touch of romance, excitement, mystery, family themes, heartache, tough decisions.

It was the first book that was mine. The other two novels I'd written before were not really good, and they were basically copy-cat novels of other books I loved. But the book of my heart was all me. It is still, I think, the most original thing I've ever written.

But it never sold.

Not for lack of trying. And it came close--very close. Thanks to a connection at a writer's conference, it got to the acquisitions table at one of the Big Six publishers (agentless), and I even got a revision request and a ten-page edit letter. I thought the book of my heart would break me into the market; I thought it would be my debut. And--after about a hundred rejections from agents and a rejection from the Big Six publisher I'd been working didn't sell.

I eventually moved on to the next book. And the next. And the next. And as I wrote each subsequent book, I worried that I would never write a book as good as the book of my heart. That that book had been The One, and since it didn't sell, nothing would.

That's why I'm writing this post today. Because I'm starting to see this phrase, "book of my heart," more and more often, and a lot of times it's accompanied by a corollary: "it's the best thing I can ever write."

And too often? People will only write the book of their heart.

Don't do this. Don't do this. A book of your heart comes rarely--and sometimes you'll only ever taste that magic once--but publishing isn't just about the magic. And sometimes the book of your heart? It isn't that good. Despite the fact that my book of my heart is my mother's favorite thing I've ever written, I can look at it objectively now and realize why it didn't get published and why it probably never will. It slips between the cracks of genre, it doesn't really have a home on any shelf, even in YA. It's too weird. Maybe one day I'll be able to revise it, but for now, it's more like "Jabberwocky" than Alice.

If you're a writer who is unpublished, then I hope and pray you will eventually write the book of your heart. It's a wonderful thing, and the closest I've come to touching magic. But I also want you to know something very, very important: the book of your heart is not the apex of your writing. It is not necessarily the best thing you've written, and it's not necessarily your only shot at getting published.

Very often the book of your heart is a practice novel--you've written it too early in your career, and the quality isn't there (even if you can't see that). Or it's so close to your heart that you can't properly edit it. Or it's a story important to you--but not the rest of the world. Or it was easy to write, and the next thing isn't. Or it was hard to write, and you don't want to think of writing the next thing because that will be hard, too. For whatever reason, chances are that the book of your heart just isn't meant to be published. But that doesn't mean it should be the last thing you write.

And also? The magic will come again. ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was not the book of my heart. I know of no writer that has more than one book of her heart. But I felt the magic when I was writing ACROSS THE UNIVERSE. Maybe the point of writing the book of your heart is to open your eyes to see the magic in everything you write, to find the scenes that speak to your artistic soul.

My point is this: don't weigh all your dreams on one book. Don't think you've only got one chance. If you write the book of your heart and it doesn't sell, remember this: not all of them do. And the important thing is not to stagnate at that point, but to try to find the magic again where you can.
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