I was going to write a lesson today about the first 60 pages of The Goldfinch and show everyone exactly what story authority looks like, and how it works, and how you can employ it in your own writing, whether you are writing fiction, memoir or non-fiction, but I’m going to save that idea for next week, because the truth of the matter is that I was not really thinking in books this week.
I have a high school senior and this was the week that college admissions came down. Instead of books, I was thinking in colleges. I was thinking of the heart and soul and hopes and dreams of a certain sweet and stubborn 18-year-old. I was thinking about how, no matter how well you plan and how hard you work and how hard you dream, some of the biggest decisions in life come down to a roll of the dice. At a certain point, it’s just sheer luck.
This is as true with books as it is with college admissions. (I said I wasn’t thinking in books this week, but I guess that was a lie, because here I am, back to books…) You can work for years and years and years on a book, pour everything you have into it, roll the dice for agents, publishers and readers, and come up short for no other reason than bad timing or bad luck.
This happened to me with one of my books – my breast cancer memoir. It was published on September 9, 2001. Two days later, on 9/11, I was slated to attend a VIP event in Hollywood with Ford Motor Company, with whom I had struck a fabulous cross-promotional deal. They were giving away 100,000 copies of my book to young survivors, and touring me around the country to speak at Komen Race for the Cure Events. That night was the kickoff party. I had an appointment to get my nails done, which was not a normal thing for me to do. My publicist, however, had explained to me in no uncertain terms that I should get my nails done whenever I was going to be on TV or on stage at an event, and I was being a dutiful author.
A friend from Maine woke us up with a phone call early that morning and told us to turn on the TV. I’m not proud to admit this, but I remember watching the footage of the twin towers collapsing and thinking, I wonder if I should cancel my nail appointment? I wonder if they’ll still have the party? It hadn’t yet registered in my mind that the world had utterly changed. I hadn’t yet realized that there would be no party – or that, in the midst of the chaos and the tragedy and the terror, a book about breast cancer would warrant no one’s attention, and rightfully so.
That was bad luck for my book, but my goodness -- I was still alive, and my family was still alive, and our country was strong and resilient. It was easy to know what mattered most.
That is not always the case for many writers. The bad luck isn’t about a tragic, historical event. It’s just garden-variety bad luck. The agent says no. The publisher says no. The big sales never come.
If that happens, however, do you just put the dice away and stop playing the game? Do you just say, “Well, I guess I wasn’t meant to be a writer?”
What struck me this week was that college applicants don’t do that – not by a long shot. They may apply to exceptionally selective schools, but if they are not selected, they don’t suddenly say, “I guess I wasn’t meant to be a college graduate.” They look at what college admissions they DID get, and then they go and they build their lives on that reality.
I think writers can take a page from this playbook. Writing a book is, in many ways, a roll of the dice. You can control an enormous amount of the process – what you write, when you write it, how you write it, and much more – but at the end of the day, when you make the decision to take that book out into the world, you are just rolling the dice. It may or may not work out the way you hope. You may or may not get selected. Don’t let this randomness stop you from your dream. Don’t even let it slow you down.
A teenager applying to college has no idea where they will go to college, but they know they will go somewhere. Adopt that same kind of conviction about your writing. Know you will be a writer. And if a certain agent or publisher says no to a certain book, if the universe of readers says no to a certain book, write another book and go build your life around that reality.
P.S. My daughter did not land the one college she had (somewhat arbitrarily) set out as her #1 pick, but she received a handful of excellent and exciting choices and she is now happily sifting through them, trying to decide if she wants to spend the next four years in flip flop or snow boots….