Oct 2, 2010

Happy Trumps Smart

A few days ago I re-posted an essay I wrote almost a year ago:  Energy. The basic premise set forth there has been guiding my life since I started writing seriously almost two years ago.

As I trimmed and prepared that entry for inclusion on my new web site, I had to ask myself:

How am I doing?

And you know what?  Not bad. I'm doing okay. But, honestly? I've been letting a lot of things on my hate-to-do list crowd forward and stress me out.

I need more days like the one in the picture here--exploring the Wonderful Weird that makes up my world.  This carving is a lion marking the original Fort Boise.  I think he looks like a giant beaver-lion who might affectionately and accidentally hurt you.  He makes me happy.

So why am I not spending more time simply being happy? After some soul-searching, I have to admit I know.  And I've known for some time.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I've been keeping the list of things that make me a good author, a good writer, a marketable writer--and I've been measuring myself against that list, always focusing on my inadequacies.

When I started writing, I broke a big rule.  I did this mostly because I did not know there was a Big Rule.  My mistake?  I fell in love with a series character. I wrote my first book and, high on the experience, I wrote the second.  I was halfway through my third when I started reading the many posts advising writers that this was a waste of time and energy.  The reasoning was solid and logical:  if the first book doesn't sell, you've put all your time and energy into a whole string of books that won't sell.

So I stopped.

The story was still written on my heart, but it wasn't smart to write it.

I spent three months working up other ideas and grieving.  I even wrote a contemporary middle grade novel with characters I love.  But yeah, not as much as I love my series character.

When I went to my first conference this past summer, I went there prepared to pitch my middle grade novel.  That's me, doing the smart thing with my career. I had a couple luke-warm requests, but more suggestions for improvements than anything else.  That's fine.  Farther from my heart, it's easy to make changes.

And yet, somewhere along the way, I started talking to agents about Claire Morgane again.  As soon as I did, everyone asked for pages.  That's me, being happy, not smart. How many more rejections did I need to get for this novel?

In the couple weeks between conferences, I revised my middle grade work, preparing to pitch it.  That's me, being smart. My MG is a stand-alone.  It has a tight focus.  It's a really good, little book.  It's the responsible child of my novel creation.  I know it will get into print eventually because it's just good.

But it's also done. I can sell it now or I can sell it five years from now or ten years from now--and it doesn't really matter. There's simply no hurry.

So you know what I did, right? Yeah, I prepared for two weeks to pitch that MG novel and then I went back to my next conference and I talked about Claire.  More requests.

My rejections for Claire are funny.

The rejections for my middle grade submission are all about the market and whether there's room on the shelf.  My rejections for Claire are always about Claire.  She's not what people expect to see.  I get long rejections that are emotional reader responses to the story and then one line at the end that says, "oh I don't think I can market this."  And I also get rejections from people who I picture tipping their heads as they write, "huh?" or, you know, the professional equivalent.

I did meet an agent at one conference who connected with the creative spark in me. I sent my Claire manuscript and received a different kind of rejection, one that said, "I can't represent this yet."  We talked on the phone about revisions and all the things she suggested made sense to me.  She wasn't looking for a different book; she wanted me to improve the book I'd written.

I spent a month revising and I've resubmitted, but I have no idea what kind of response I'll get.  It's such a big revision and it feels distinctly possible that the story is too much changed from the manuscript I originally submitted.  Of course, I also worried my beta readers would hate this new version too--and all responses have been overwhelmingly positive.  So who knows?

I let manuscript requests sit while I worked on the revision and they're all sent now too.  I've received a couple rejections that made me giggle.  Or they made Claire giggle anyway and her laughter filled my head.

Because here's the thing: after spending a month with Claire, she's back in my head.

And on my list of things that give me energy, writing Claire's story is right up there at the top.  So you know what?

Happy trumps smart.

I'm following my heart.  I can't turn away again.  And I'm so incredibly happy.

So where does happy lead me?

  • I updated Claire's website.

  • I'm directing my enthusiasm for Claire to readers rather than agents.

  • I posted my first Claire short story on her website.  I will add more.  These are not excerpts.  They're stand-alone stories from her world.


  • Because it makes me happy.

  • Because being happy makes my life better and it makes the lives of those around me better.

  • Because I love this character and I really believe others will love her too.

  • Because I don't need an agent to have an audience. Agents want writers with an audience. It's not their job to create one for me. It's not the publisher's job.
I create my own world and see who shows up for the party.

You're all invited.

I can't promise there won't be heartache, but I promise there will be happy along the way.


  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Johanna Harness and Whiz Buzz, Reader Writer. Reader Writer said: Happy Trumps Smart: A few days ago I re-posted an essay I wrote almost a year ago:  Energy. The basic... http://dlvr.it/6LhnM #writerblogs [...]

  2. Great new blog! great post about your writing.

    CONGRATULATIONS on winning the Christopher Al- Aswad prize from Eight Cuts fpr #amwriting. Well deserved.

    All the best to you and for your writing.


  3. Johanna, all I can say is wow. This is an amazing blog post. Thank you for sharing this and putting words to something I think so many of us "pre-published" writers feel. You are awesome!

  4. My latest blog entry: "Happy Trumps Smart" http://johannaharness.com/blog/2010/10/0... #amwriting

  5. Johanna, keep marching forward! Thanks for an honest and genuine blog post. :)

  6. RT @johannaharness: My latest blog entry: "Happy Trumps Smart" http://johannaharness.com/blog/2010/10/0... #amwriting

  7. @johannaharness I think writers need to write what is in their heart, otherwise writing becomes nothing more than a competition or exercise.

  8. RT @johannaharness: My latest blog entry: "Happy Trumps Smart" http://johannaharness.com/blog/2010/10/0... #amwriting

  9. @jas_chronicles Yes! That's just it. :D

  10. @SidniM Thank you, Sidni! And thank you for commenting on the blog too. http://johannaharness.com/blog/2010/10/0... #amwriting

  11. "Happy trumps smart."

    This. A thousand times this.

    Smart for me means finishing off the articles for Triond and, you know, earning some money. But it's not where my heart lies. I don't want to get into the technical details of how to write - I just want to write.

    Readers like a truthful writer, and there's no better why of being truth to yourself than writing what's on your heart.

  12. Misa--We were just having this conversation in our house. There's always a balance. We need work to buy food and shelter and take care of our basic needs, but so many of us get lost in that reality and we forget balance. It's been said again and again that fiction writers especially should not quit their day jobs, that we can't depend on fiction for our only income. So if we're doing this on the side of our regular gigs, the ones that pay the bills, why do we choose anything other than happiness?

  13. This lesson holds a special magic, Johanna. Thank you for sharing it and reminding us what's important. I'll probably revisit this article on occasion to knock the lesson through my hard skull.

  14. Johanna,

    Great post and right on target. I kept on writing about characters I love and the energy I get from that writing actually fuels my other writing too. Thanks.

  15. [...] CapChristopher Al-Aswad Prize – The Amwriting Community on Thank you.Richard Hacker on Happy Trumps SmartJessica Rosen on Happy Trumps SmartRecent [...]