A Session with Emily Sue Harvey
Why do you want to write? For an aspiring writer, that’s a loaded question. And that’s my intention—to prod you to analyze the reasons. I’ve heard many answers to that through the years, from the passionate “I cannot not write” to the lackadaisical “it’s better than a nine-to-five job.”
Me? Initially, I wrote nonfiction because it saved my sanity many, many times in the past forty-plus years and, along the way, it evolved into fiction and much more.
But if you want to write because you want to have a bestseller and get rich quick, then you’d be better off buying lottery tickets. That’s a lot less work and the odds are about the same. Some agents review as many as 200 submissions a week, every week of an entire year. That’s more than 10,000 submissions annually.
From those submissions, an average of four to six clients are accepted. When presented to publishers, all of those don’t make it to publication. Even more disheartening to aspiring writers is the fact that less than ten per cent of the above earn enough to make their living at writing.
One editor for a major New York publisher, speaking at a past Southeastern Writers workshop told students that writers rate only above migrant workers in pay scale. Laughter rippled through the audience. “I’m not joking,” he told them.
Being married to an ordained man of the cloth exposed me to lots of dreamy eyed romantics who felt “the call” on their lives. Some of the calls were genuine, just as the writer-bug-bite often reaps sincere dedication. In my national bestseller Homefires, Pastor Kirk Crenshaw’s wife, Janeece, faced overwhelming challenges at Kirk’s “High Calling.” In this scene, she’s just learned of his call to the ministry, which will affect her well-ordered life in terrifying ways.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax, to let my mind go. Lord help me. Several deep breaths later, I felt the tension begin to loosen…. Rationale kicked in. I handled the facts. Tradition and religion dictated that a man dislocate the universe, sell all, if necessary, to follow the High Call—a wife or children never being mentioned in the variables. Only thing I’d ever heard was that a man forsake all to take the gospel to the world. And woe unto that wife who dared interfere or come between her husband and the Hand of the Almighty. But what about me? My life? I never dreamed I’d end up living in a glass house.
Janeece’s sacrifices soon shifted into perspective, and the crisis passed.
In my personal identity-change case, new pastor Lee and I thought that selling our home and possessions to launch out to change the world for Christ was the only way. That’s a noble view and not entirely wrong. However, we made some bad decisions in not allowing that we needed a livelihood to sustain us in years to come. Rather than keeping our property as an investment for later retirement, we sold it immediately to—get this—another minister friend, who collected rent from it for years and later sold it at a great profit as commercial property.
A big mistake on our part.
The same can happen when someone feels that their destiny is to write. Time becomes a precious commodity. I always counsel novice writers to not quit their day job. For years after she became a bestselling author, my friend Iris Johansen got up at four in the morning to write until eight a.m., when she went to her day job.
Several years ago, my good friend Steve Berry came straight from his law office to speak at our Southeastern Writers Conference. Steve was already a New York Times bestselling author at the time. I was a little surprised that he still maintained office hours. He later did retire from law to devote full time to his writing. But this came only after his time-worth as a writer superseded that of an attorney.
Another report claims that Michael Crichton said when he was thinking about deciding between medical school and writing, he was dismayed to discover that only two hundred people in America make their living writing novels. He then went to medical school.
Another writer friend, Bob Mayer, quoted Stephen Coonts making an interesting point that, simply based on numbers, in any given year, your odds of becoming elected to the US Senate are higher than of becoming a New York Times bestselling author.
I said all that to say this; I’ll quote my pastor husband counseling young men: “if you can do anything else with your life and be happy, other than preach, do not preach.” The same goes with being a writer. If you can do anything else and find fulfillment, don’t become a writer.
However, there is, I’m convinced, a writer-destiny that cannot be quenched without pursuit. You write for your own joy. That story inside you must come out. This is the heart of the art of writing.
On the positive side, I’ll quote Pearl Buck: “The truly sensitive mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create—so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out his creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency, he is not really alive unless he is creating.”
All of the above can be summed up in one word: PASSION.
Passion cannot be taught. It either is or is not. But it can be unearthed.
A cold person, a genuine cynic, misanthrope, and misogynist—any person who doesn’t brim with love for at least some of the people in their life—will find it nigh impossible to create fictional characters deeply involved with each other. And it’s only about such characters that readers care.
In Unto These Hills, my national bestselling novel of mill hill heroine, Sunny Acklin’s struggle to overcome scandal, her worst nightmare, she makes horrible choices. Yet, long after the twists and turns of the story, what we remember most about Sunny is her avid passion and courage. In this emotional scene from Unto These Hills, Muffin, Sunny and Walter’s drug-addicted adult daughter, has just burst into her brain-damaged, terminally ill father’s room to hatefully misrepresent the goodbye scene between her mother and Daniel, who was Sunny’s fiancé years ago, before she and Walter married:
“Muffin, it’s not what you think!”
“Stuff if, Mama,” she said flatly….
I stiffened. “Don’t you dare upset your Daddy over – ” Seeing she ignored me, I rushed to block her. But considering her ER ordeal, she was remarkably strong, plowing past me as if I were no more than a floating feather.
She plodded through the darkened room, bumping into furniture in her path. “Daddy!” she called as a glass on his little TV tray went crashing to the floor, bringing Walter upright in his bed and, despite the earlier tranquilizer, quaking, his eyes wide with terror.
I could have killed her in that moment. Instead, I stood frozen in the doorway, hand pressed to mouth, dreading….
“Daddy,” Muffin plopped down onto his bedside, right in his face, “there’s something’ you gotta know–”
“Muffin. Don’t.” I rushed to Walter, on the opposite side of the bed. He turned frightened eyes to me and I took his hands in mine. “Don’t listen to her, Walter.”
Muffin snorted, slurring words. “I’ll jus’ bet you don’ want ‘im to hear this. I’m sick o’ your lyin’ and pretending to be so good when – hell, you’re no better’n your sisters.”
All this time, Walter’s head moved frantically to and fro, watching us each in turn, trying to decipher what horror poised to pounce. “What’s she talkin’ ‘bout, Sunny?” His voice trembled. His eyes beseeched me, puddling.
Muffin roughly caught his chin and tugged, forcing him to look into her wild eyes, only a breath from his. “She’s a whore, Daddy. I saw her carrying on with Daniel, your own brother.”
I felt her words impact Walter in the way his fingers squeezed mine till I felt pain, in the way his gaze swung to lock with mine. “Wha—what’s she sayin’, Sunny?”
“Don’t listen, Walter. She’s only trying to hurt me. It’s not true. I was only telling Daniel goodbye. He’s leaving and won’t be back for a long time.”
“D-Daniel was here?” Walter sat up straighter, his senses visibly keening.
“Yeh,” snorted Muffin, bobbing her head. “But you notice, he wadn’ interested in you, Daddy. Only Mama. Don’t that tell you somethin’?” Another snort. “That was some goodbye, all that huggin’ and them sayin’ how they’re in love and – ”
“That’s enough, Muffin.” I glared at her, horrified, wishing in that moment that she weren’t my daughter. “This time, you’ve surpassed yourself. Even if you don’t love me, why this cruelty to your father? He doesn’t deserve this.”
“Yeh, like you love him.” The bed shifted as she struggled to her feet and groped her way across the floor. She cursed when her bare foot connected with a shard of broken glass. I didn’t care. Wished, in fact, that she’d feel just a little of the pain she so glibly inflicted on others. A zigzag trail of bloodstains marked her wobbly departure.
Walter dropped my hands and peered at me as though he’d been shot between the eyes and just hadn’t fallen yet. “You don’t love me, Sunny?” he croaked, as innocently as Jason or Gracie.
My heart lurched. “Of course I do, Walter.” I gathered him into my arms and cuddled him, rocked him gently. “You can’t believe Muffin. She’s – her mind’s sick and she says bad things to hurt people.”
“Like mine?” he asked quietly, so naïve my heart splintered.
“What?” I asked, rearing back to gauge him. How pitiful he looked, the blue eyes tortured. Oh, how I wanted to throttle Muffin.
“Like my mind. Sick.” He seemed to cave in as his eyes drifted to stare into space.
“No! Your mind might be a little slow, Walter, but it’s not sick. You’re a good person who loves people. Muffin just – for some reason, can’t stand to see others happy.”
Walter stunned me by saying, “It’s all that stuff she takes. Them pills an’ all.”
He sees, hears, and perceives more than I’ve accredited to him.
“You’re right, it is. Somewhere deep down inside her, there’s that sweet little girl of ours, Walter, the one who loved like no tomorrow.”
He looked at me then, puzzled. I smiled and brushed back that crazy curl that still, after all these years, sprang free to lay on his forehead. “I keep forgetting. You don’t remember, do you hone? She was a real sweetie-pie. A real Daddy’s-Girl….” I went on to talk about the baby, toddler, child Muffin. It was, to him, like a fairytale, his favorite one. As always, he began to grin and grin and watch me expectantly for the next funny or touching anecdote from those early years. I talked until his eyelids drooped. Then closed. Only then did I start to move away—
“Sunny?” He caught my hand as I shifted to stand. I lowered myself again, seeing the troubled look on his face.
“You’re not gon’ leave me, are you? Muffin said you don’t love me and – Daniel don’t like me. Why don’t Daniel like me, like Lee Roy does, Sunny? You’re not gon’ leave, are you?” His breathing grew labored as tears rushed to his eyes.
I leaned to quickly hug him. “Dear God, no. And I do love you. And Daniel likes you. How could he not? You’re his brother” I gently touched his cheek. “I love you very much.” And I did, in a motherly, nurturing way. “You must believe that, Walter.” I looked at him imploringly, hating that Muffin had done this to him, hating myself that I’d given her fodder by allowing myself to feel when Daniel –
“You do, don’t you? Believe me?” Please, Lord, don’t let this wound be forever. I held my breath for long moments, dying a thousand deaths.
Then suddenly he smiled. “Yeh, I believe you, Sunny.” Relief flooded me till I felt dizzy with it and I hugged him again. I had my best friend back and we grinned hugely at each other.
Then his smile faded. “Muffin’s just – sick.” He gazed into my eyes solemnly and I felt our souls connect in mutual sorrow. “But she’ll get better, won’t she?” His eyes beseeched me for reassurance.
I forced a smile. “Sure.” He relaxed and his lids shut.
My smile faded. Will we ever have her back – our Muffin?
In that moment, I had serious doubts.
And in Pat Conroy’s The Great Santini, he writes dreadful things about his father, his mother, and his entire family. Yet, in the end, we see that his genius is in making each of them sympathetic characters, despite the love/hate relationships. Creating sympathetic characters is a must for novelists. Readers cannot accept less.
Early in my SWA workshop days, Pamela Browning, bestselling Harlequin author who later became one of my best friends, critiqued my work and handed me an invaluable enlightenment. “Your work has such energy,” she told me during our critique session. That validated my efforts in unprecedented ways.
I became aware of that mystifying force because I analyzed and studied the words and phrases of masters. I don’t think energy can be taught. It must be sniffed out, felt. I simply knew when passages moved me in an electrical-awareness way.
Willpower and stubbornness are also qualities of the novelist that cannot be taught. They are predominately innate. However, I’m convinced that where there is passion, these qualities can be cultivated. Anyone who thinks writing novels is a quick way to money is deluding himself. Perseverance and grit to hack your way through a jungle of words, paragraphs, chapters, and plots is what is involved in completing a great novel.
A final note on basic qualities essential to becoming a novelist: a writer must be more literate than the average reader. I keep a book in my purse and on my bedside table at all times. Not just any book, a bestseller if possible. Sometimes, it hasn’t reached bestseller status but if I find a writer I love, I will read all their books I can scrounge up. I feel that some marvelous writers are overlooked in the scuttle for bestseller rank.
I talk with aspiring writers often and, without exception, I can spot the ones with the writer gene, that innate magic that drives them to a computer or pen and writing pad. Most of them are voracious readers. They are in love with books. Without that romance, writer gene or not, one will not develop the traits needed to write.
A good example is my late father, who was a wonderful storyteller and armchair journalist. I suspect my writer gene came directly from James Miller because he loved to scribble in longhand anything from song lyrics to poems to memoirs to letters to his children. He even typed a complete novel on a cranky old manual typewriter. A real man’s book. And for a WWII veteran who finished high school under the GI Bill to finish a manuscript was phenomenal in itself. Only thing, Dad didn’t read much. He worked long hours in his barbershop and when he had a little free time, he spent it writing rather than reading.
He asked me to read his manuscript—which, by the way, had already received one rejection. I read it and found that he had great raw talent. His imagination was rampant and colorful and the storyteller in him was alive and glowing. But because he’d never really fallen in love with words and books, he lacked the skills needed to create quality word pictures.
Dad didn’t know what worked because he’d never analyzed good literature to find out. When pressed, I told him his story was good. I mean, how can you tell your own father his book doesn’t cut it? Lands sakes alive! I don’t tell any other writer their work stinks, so why would I tell my dad? As it turned out, he gave up on it anyway, sensing the truth of the matter.
Though Dad possessed the gift of storytelling and imagination, he lacked the other two; love of literature and stubbornness to hang in there. I’m amazed that some people want to be writers, yet don’t bother to learn the basics. And even more amazing, the people who want to be a writer but don’t read.
I’m not trying to discourage you from writing. I’m simply pointing out reality. To me, it is a wonder that writers create something out of nothing. Writing is the only art form that is not sensual. You can see color and strokes of paintings, see and feel sculpture, hear music, and the way these affect each individual is unique.
On the other hand, all writers use the same twenty-six alphabetic letters on paper. The playing field is level. The idea starts in a writer’s head, unseen. It’s the way we weave the words together that make the difference. The medium of the printed word moves the story from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The book comes alive in the reader’s mind.
A marvelous concept: something from nothing.
I pointed out some grim odds of getting published earlier. But at the same time, I believe that if you’re willing to put in the time and effort and recognize the realities of the writing and publishing world, you’ll be far ahead of those who think there’s a mystical force at work.
Personally, I write more for the enjoyment of creating than earning money.
Why do you want to write?
The following survey, created by Brian Jay Corrigan, is intended to help you analyze your reasons for writing and determine if they are the right ones to sustain and carry you to fruition.
Exercise: WHY DO YOU WRITE? WHY DO YOU WRITE? A Survey Answer each question as honestly as you can. Often, several answers will appeal to you (in some cases, all answers might appeal). Choose the one that best reflects your innermost response to the question. Important: Answer all questions.
Given the chance, which would you rather do?
Sit beside the South Sea Island swimming pool that you’ve just purchased with your writing wealth and give a telephone interview to an Associated Press syndicated columnist.
Sign autographs at a mobbed Beverly Hills bookstore event featuring you.
Read a highly favorable review of your latest novel in an important newspaper.
Cash the next big royalty check from your book.
Tell your story to an interested, raptly attentive group.
Which statement most closely approximates your hopes for yourself as a writer?
I want my story told.
I want my book to sell.
I want my book to find an appreciative audience.
I want to show everybody that I can really write.
I want to parlay writing into a jet-set lifestyle.
How would you most like other people to think about your writing?
Absolutely everybody’s reading this author’s book.
This is my favorite author of all time.
This book just took me away.
This book was worth every penny.
This book makes me really want to know the writer.
Which headline would you most like to see attached to a review of your book?
A book to read again and again.
The start of a fabulous career.
Brilliantly conceived and executed.
This is a writer to remember and watch.
Destined to become the breakout star author of the decade.
What would you most like to hear truthfully spoken by a future fan?
You have got to be the most important person I’ve ever met!
I want your autograph because my friends are never going to believe I actually met you!
I wish I could write like you.
I’m buying copies for all my friends.
I loved your story. It touched me deeply.
Which of the following would give you the most satisfaction?
Seeing your book listed as “my favorite” on a huge number of personal websites and blogs.
Receiving a giant advance from your publisher.
Seeing your book critically acclaimed in every important publication both nationally and internationally.
Seeing your name over the title of the big-budget Hollywood version of your book.
Becoming friends with famous and influential people because of your writing.
If you could look into a crystal ball and see a title for your future successful self, which is closest to the one you would most like to see?
The world’s wealthiest writer.
The most respected person in the world of literature.
The twenty-first century’s greatest talent.
The six-figure marvel
The nation’s most sincere writer.
Which of the following is the book you’d most like to write?
The penetrating story that touches every heart that reads it.
The solid, “evergreen” book that never goes out of print, selling well year after year.
The lauded book that becomes a classic work of literature.
The important book that propels you into the limelight.
The runaway bestseller that makes you a household name and sets you up for life.
As a writer, which of the following would you most like to achieve?
Write books that regularly become best sellers and blockbuster movies.
Write books that make people equate you with the literary giants.
Write books that demonstrate great skill and penetrating insight.
Write successful series of books that becomes a “cash cow” and brings in a steady, solid, reliable income.
Write one book and make it a gem, precisely what you want to say.
If you could write any of the following choices (pretending for the moment that they have not already been written and are furthermore destined to achieve the same success that they come to enjoy), which would you choose? (Note: do not “vote” for your favorite book or author; answer the question as asked—which type of success do you most desire?)
To Kill a Mockingbird.
The collected works of Agatha Christie.
Huckleberry Finn, the Great Gatsby, and Pride and Prejudice.
The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.
The Da Vinci Cod and Gone With the Wind.
On a beautiful summer’s day, which would you rather do?
Appear at a star-studded Hollywood fund-raiser for literacy awareness where you are the featured speaker.
Attend a big New York literary gathering to receive a major award for your collected writings.
Successfully finish a well-crafted book based upon a really super idea, knowing that you turned some genuinely beautiful phrases all the way through it.
Receive a telephone call from your agent informing you that your latest book has just gone into an auction that will push its price to more than a hundred thousand dollars.
Lie out under a tree and read aloud from your book to a large gathering of sincerely interested, appreciative readers.
How would you most like to be remembered as a writer?
As a true voice.
As a successful moneymaker.
As a poet with words.
As a respected author.
As a famous writer.
Now, calculate your score using the following point values:
For even-numbered questions: A=1 point B=2 points C=3 points D=4 points E=5 points
For odd-numbered questions: A=5 points B=4 points C=3 points D=2 points E=1 point
After you have determined your score, check the next section. INTERPRETING YOUR SCORE 0-20= “I have a book in me.” You have a chance if you are good, but beware. Publishers are little interested in the author who wishes to write one book. It costs money and time to build interest in and an audience for an author, and if that writer stops after the first book, that’s money and time wasted. Most publishers will pass if it becomes clear that your good book is likely your only book. There are, of course, exceptions (such as A Confederacy of Dunces, which was published after John Kennedy Toole was dead and probably not planning to write a follow-up). The odds of seeing your one and only book in print are against you unless you self-publish. 21-28= “I want to make good money.” You might make money, but you are writing for the wrong reason. Writing is not a nine-to-five occupation, and even when the money is good, it is not regular. Sometimes, a $75,000 bonanza has to hold you for the next three or four years until you can hit with another book. That’s not a good way to live. A few writers become rich; not many. A goodly number can actually make a living with their writing, but they really hustle for sales and write on a ninety-hour-a-week schedule (or more). That’s a full-time job. The vast majority of writers can make no more than a pleasant additional income. They cannot afford to quit the day job. If money is your goal, you stand a good chance of being rather disappointed with writing—readers stand an excellent chance of being very disappointed with your mercenary writing. 29-45=”I want to write well-received books of which I can be proud.” You have a writer’s attitude. You don’t care primarily about the money (although money is quite, quite lovely). You care about words and craft. You are interested in sharing your thoughts and art. The whole process of having the ideas and then crafting the words is a joy for you (even when it becomes frustrating and difficult). You love the process. It is almost more pleasant to do the writing itself than to see the book finally published. However, you also find that is agreeable to meet readers who have responded favorably to your writing. You welcome the respect. You don’t shun the idea of fame. But none of that is your final goal. You take satisfaction from being a writer just for yourself. For you, the book is everything. Words well crated are your utmost delight. That is what writing is really all about, and you are where you ought to be. 46-53= “I want to be recognized and respected.” If you are in the writing profession to stroke your ego, then find legions of rabid, devoted fans, and to bask in the glory of your accomplishments, then your focus is misdirected. Writing is about ideas, craft, and art; it is not about you. Most of the really big, best-selling authors are not recognized by sight or even by name, so writing will not ultimately give you what you are seeking. People scream, cry and tear their clothing at rock concerts, not while reading your book. This is a mistake that Truman Capote made. He made a caricature of himself on the talk show circuit; it ruined him as a writer—and he was a genius. It also destroyed him as a man. 54-60= “I want to be rich and famous.” You need to get real. Of the 2525,000 books published between 2003-2006, there was only one Dan Brown—and he got lucky. The right book at the right time, that’s all. If you respond to his name by saying, “Who’s Dan Brown?” then you realize how fleeting even The DaVinci Code author’s fame has been. Writing will be your heartbreak unless you reorganize your priorities. Write for the words, not for the diamonds and silk.
Survey source: THE SHAPE OF WORDS: A MASTER CLASS ON NOVEL WRITING , Brian Jay Corrigan, J.D., PhD, 2006 Author of the Year, Georgia Writers Association, Senior Professor: Renaissance Literature, General Edition, The Compendium of Renaissance Drama, Georgia Board of Regents Outstanding Professor of the Year. Republished with permission.
About the Author…
Emily Sue Harvey’s writing to make a difference. Her upbeat stories have appeared in dozens of anthologies including “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” “Chocolate for Women,” “From Eulogy to Joy,” “A Father’s Embrace,” “True Story,” “Compassionate Friends Magazine,” and “Woman’s World.” Emily Sue served as president of Southeastern Writers Association in 2008-2009. Her first novel, Song of Renewal, published by Story Plant, was released in the spring of 2009. http://emilysueharvey.com