Giving Thanks for Books

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful holiday!

I’m writing today to urge everyone to give books this holiday season (who doesn’t love a good book?) and to tell you about a fun way to do it.

As you know, this Saturday, the 30th, is “small business Saturday,” a day when we are encouraged to shop local and support independent businesses. This year, indie booksellers are staging an amazing nationwide event called Indies First, where they have invited authors to spend the day hand-selling books in the stores. Check out the Facebook page to find your local independent bookstore and see who’s going to be around. More than 1,000 authors are participating and there are some big names out there — James Patterson, Cheryl Strayed. It should be really fun.

I will be in the mix in the middle of the day. I will be at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Redondo Beach from 1 to 4 on Saturday.  I’ll be signing my own books and recommending many others.  If you happen to be out and about in the South Bay, please stop by and say hi.

Here are some of the books on my to-read list:

*****

I love reading business books, and learn so much from them about how to be a writer in a world of commerce. I think all authors should get in the same habit. I plan on reading The $100 Start Up because I’m so tired of hearing everyone else talk about it and having no clue what they are saying. (Peer pressure! It’s the reason I read a surprising number of books…) I am also very eager to read Start With Why because the author’s Ted talk, which some of you have seen in my classes, has reinforced a lot of my beliefs about telling good stories.

For non-fiction, I am looking at The Telling Room, the epic tale about a legendary cheese. I heard the author on NPR and was totally smitten. I want to read The Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, and Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt, because no one writes better about grief. There is a book called My Life in Middle March about one woman’s relationship with a great novel, and I so deeply love that idea that I think I have to read it, even though I have never been able to get through Middle March itself.

For fiction, I am eager to read the new Norman Rush novel, Subtle Bodies. It’s been ten years since his last one, but it has stuck with me all this time. I also want to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tart and  of course, the latest Alice Munro collection. She is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I was so thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize a few months ago.

For poetry, I am going to get the latest book from Richard Wilbur. I heard him read in person this fall, by complete accident, and the poem he read about mourning his wife brought tears to my eyes. He is 93 years old and the room was completely riveted by his performance. It is not the first time Richard Wilbur’s words have made me cry. I have had a poem of his on my bulletin board by my computer for many years. (I will share it with yo, below, because it’s spectacular, and because it’s called “The Writer" which means that it's speaking to you.) The president of my daughter’s college read this to the parents right after we left our kids freshman year. I almost fell over when he began to read. I mean, the poem is on my bulletin board! I cried so hard that I had to leave the room.

That same child is home this week, about to head into the home stretch of her senior year. I have so much to be thankful for.

 

The Writer by Richard Wilbur

 

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

 

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

 

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

 

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

 

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

 

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

 

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

 

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

 

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

 

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

 

What Rejection Feels Like


My oldest daughter is a senior in college and my youngest is a senior in high school. One is applying for her first-ever real job and the other is applying to college. There's a lot of anxiety in my house because both kids are aiming very high—and why not, right?

Shoot for the moon, you might land on a star. You might even make it to the moon. I am the queen of encouraging people to take big risks, whether those people are my children or my clients. Nothing risked, nothing gained. You miss 100% of the shots you don't take. I could go on and on— and I do. But here's the thing: It's pretty easy to sit back and cheer other people to put their neck on the line. It's even easy, once they fail to say, "No big deal! Get back up! Try, try again!" I said this just a few days ago to the college senior whose first-ever interview resulted in a "No, thank you."

But I would be a fraud if all I ever did was cheer, if all I ever did was sit back and encourage risk without ever risking anything myself. My cheerleading would be empty words. And so, about six months ago, I entered my self-published novel, Perfect Red, in a contest for self-published books. I picked theWriters' Digest contest because it's prestigious and because Iiked some of the editors doing the judging and because the winners get some pretty great stuff.

I thought I would win. I mean I actually really did think I would win. And once I won, and my book went on to be a giant seller and I went on to become a spokesperson for not giving up and for not taking no for an answer, I would get to sweetly and humbly stand before the editors and publishing houses who rejected my novel in the first place, and say, "SEE? You were all wrong about me! You were wrong about my book! I am awesome and you are stupid for not having seen it." I'm not proud that this is what I imagined, but this is exactly what I imagined.

The winners were supposed to have been notified by Monday. I was not notified. I imagined that there had been a tiny glitch in the system, that they were late getting the notice out to the winners. But on Tuesday, all entrants got an email saying that they winners had been notified and that they appreciated our having entered, blah blah blah. I actually did not win. Anything. Not even runner up. Not even honorable mention. I was, needless to say, shocked. Perfect Red is my seventh book. The first six were published by major New York houses. I'm not some newbie. I've put in my 10,000 hours and then some. What were these judges thinking?

Well, today, I got the official judges report and I know exactly what they were thinking. On a scale of 5, here is what my book was rated:

  • Structure and Organization: 3
  • Grammar: 4
  • Production Quality and Cover Design: 4
  • Plot (if applicable): 4
  • Character Development (if applicable): 3

And here is a sample of the words that went along with that report card:

"This is an intriguing concept for a novel. The protagonist, central conflict, and setting all work together in compelling ways, and the plot is carefully paced. However, there are some issues with structure and language that impede the reader's full immersion into the world of the story..."

I had to laugh when I read these words. They sound exactly like the words I might say to one of my clients—one of you—on any given day. The truth is that Perfect Red is a good book but it is not a great book. I see that now. I get it. I think I might have known it a year or so ago when the auction date my agent set for the book ended up with a flurry of interest, and then nothing but the sound of silence. I just didn't want to admit it. Admitting it is embarrassing. I mean, I spent four years working on that book. I poured my heart and soul into it. I loved it.

Even before I got the news about the contest, I decided to take a sabbatical from my own writing. Some of the students in my 30-Day Book Start-Up best test, which just finished last week—and which was, I think, a huge success—got to hear me talk about this. I need time to stop, and breathe, and let the soil replenish. And now, I realize, I also need time to lick my wounds and wrap my mind around the reality that my last book was good but not great.

Is there a danger that, because of this knowledge, I won't write again? None whatsoever. I think we know when we are done. Alice Munro, the awesome short story writer who just so thrillingly won the Nobel prize, recently declared that she is done. Phillip Roth, too. But not me. I may never write another book that the world deems great, but that's not why I do it.

What about you? Are you done? Are you ready to call it a day on your writing—perhaps before you even got a chance to see how it might be received by the world? My guess is no.

And so press on, regardless. Doing what we do. Because, for whatever reason, we are called to do it.