― Wu Wei, I Ching Wisdom: More Guidance from the Book of Answers.
Most likely you’ve heard of Emily Giffin, the bestselling author of novels like Something Borrowed and Baby Proof, but you might not know the story of how she got published. She was an attorney at a high-powered firm but she hated her job. She decided to take a year off to write a novel. The result was Something Borrowed, which sold millions of copies and also became a major motion picture starring Kate Hudson. (It also happens to be one of my all-time favorite novels.)
I’ve always felt an affinity towards Emily because her debut novel came out the same year as mine did, and I remember meeting her at an Atlanta Press Club party where we were among a couple dozen featured authors. I said to her, “I’ve heard a lot of great things about your book.” (Although I hadn’t read it yet). She very kindly returned the sentiment about my novel.
Of course I had no idea how hugely successful she would become. We were just two authors, hanging around, smiling at people and hoping a few people would buy our books. (Clearly her smiles were more effective than mine!)
What Does Emily Have That Most Authors Don’t?
The reason I mention Emily Giffin is because it took an enormous amount of chutzpah for her to chuck a very high paid position and decide to write a book. Honestly, if you know anything about the publishing biz, the chances of her success were extremely low. Most people, including myself, would have advised her against it.
In fact a writer named Ben Fountain had the very same idea to quit his job with a prestigious law firm and write a novel. But there’s one important difference between the two writers. It took Emily a year to write and sell her first successful work. It took Ben Fountain eighteen years. (His wife supported him while he wrote, and his story appears in a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell.)
Ben Fountain’s story is certainly more typical than Emily Giffin’s, i.e., overnight success stories are extremely rare, so for Emily to think she could write and sell a novel within a year’s time (never mind a bestselling novel) was a huge reach. Yet she pulled it off. But how? I think the reason she succeeded was because she honestly believed it was possible.
A year before, she’d written a young adult novel that landed her an agent but didn’t sell. She could have thought, “I wrote one novel and it didn’t find a home so I probably won’t sell the next one.” That would be a limiting belief and would likely hurt her success. Instead she probably thought, “I was so close the last time. I’ll bet the second time is the charm.”
Who knows? If she’d read about Ben Fountain’s story beforehand maybe some doubts would have been planted in her mind and maybe she wouldn’t have pulled off her amazing writing coup. Lucky for her (and her readers) she didn’t.
Believe it; achieve it
I remember when I first entertained the idea of writing a novel, a large part of me thought I was being wildly unrealistic.
Well, I’d never done it before and I never knew anyone who’d written a novel before either. I saw writers as almost mythical creatures with special powers, not everyday people like me.
But then I started going to a few writer’s conferences, and I met people who had literary agents. (Amazing!) and then I met a couple of writers who actually had book contracts. (OMIGOD! Can I buy you a beer? Can I touch the hand that signed the book contract?)
And the more authors I met, the more I realized that they weren’t so different from me. I could actually imagine myself being one of them, and that simple yet profound shift in belief got me closer to realizing my publication dream. Not long afterwards I sold a novel and actually became one of the people who’d previously wowed me.
Once I finally got published I was under the impression that once you became a member of the published author’s club, you were in it for life. But then I was on a panel at a book festival and a veteran author pointed out another newbie to me. She said, “That girl’s doomed. Her Amazon rank is in 300,000s and she’ll never get another book contract.
Whether that was true or not, I couldn’t stop thinking about that poor writer. From then on I became hyper alert to author horror stories and careers gone wrong. I assumed every book was going to be my last. Unfortunately my fears eventually became a self-fulfilling prophecy. After five books I choked and started feeling like a fraud. I convinced myself I didn’t have what it took to achieve. I quit believing.
It took me several years to finally shake loose my limiting beliefs. Now, I avoid gloom and doom stories about midlist authors or any other publishing articles that are less than rosy.
Instead I seek out the positive stories, like Emily’s and others. Does that mean I’m plunging my head in the sand? No! Why look for trouble? The truth is great success can happen to anyone and the people who continually believe in their dreams are ones who are going to find success.
An eye-opening encounter
Speaking of success, a few years ago I was one of the guest authors at a book festival. At this particular festival authors were expected to sit for eight hours, peddling our wares to the public. It made for a long day and few books by unknowns were sold. I got to know the other author sitting next to me, and we spent a long time chatting and dreaming of the day when our book lines would be long, and we would be so well-known no one would dream of asking us to man a table for eight hours.
My new friend bought my book and I bought hers, and we promised to stay in touch but lives get busy and we never followed through. I didn’t think of her for a long time until one day I came across her book at the Barnes and Noble. Her name? Cheryl Strayed. She wrote a book called Wild.
Back then she was a midlist author just like me but clearly she had a bigger vision of herself. She had a belief, and she saw it through.
So what do you believe? What kind of writer do you see yourself as? Do you have something in mind? Good. Now take whatever that vision is, and make it a little bit bigger. Got it? Sorry. That’s too small. Even bigger.
Are you there yet? Wonderful! Continue to feed those beliefs with good news instead of bad. Keep the dream alive, and shake off any doubts. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the next Emily or Cheryl.
Here’s a story about a couple of debut authors with huge book deals to inspire you.
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