I hope your summer looks like this.
It’s been a crazy few weeks, with lots of good stuff, bad stuff, and holy mother of moly isn’t it summer YET stuff? But we are on the home stretch, people! And I’ll post one or two times more before taking a much-needed break from the internet.
So, I’ve been thinking about this post for a few weeks, and today’s blog over at Writer Unboxed made me decide to put it out there. (Go read it, btw, it’s an excellent, balanced view of the cranky pants contest Amazon and Hachette are having. Plus, Kevin Cronin always manages the snappy titles.)
Here goes: My son is nine and has turned into a reader, so my life’s work is complete. Books have lots of competition in his world — there’s soccer, baseball, throwing a random ball against the house, video games on the weekend, eating, teasing the Slobbering Beast — so I’m always trying to find books I can sneakily leave in the car that will suck him in during our morning commute. I found one such book recently, and oh joy of joys — it was a Series. With SIX books. Which, after he read the first one from the library and proclaimed it good, I immediately set out to purchase.
By immediately, I mean he said “Great book, Mom, thanks,” and by the time the car door closed behind him I was already ordering my personal assistant to call our local bookstore. I do enough business there that Siri has it on speed dial. They opened at 9 a.m., and at 9:15 I was chatting with the sales clerk.
Me: “Hi, I’d like to order the complete set of series X. I can’t remember the author’s name, but it begins with X, and there’s six books.
Clerk: “What’s the title again?”
Me: “It’s X. Author starts with X. It’s for middle school readers.”
Long pause. “I’m not familiar with it.”
Me: “Okay, but could you check? My son really likes it and I want to order the series.”
Longer pause. “I don’t see it on the computer. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, it just means I can’t find it here. I need more information. “
Me (thinking loudly — no #$#$ it exists — my son just read one): “The title is X. The author’s name begins with X. There are six of them. It’s for middle school.”
“There’s too many authors that start with X. I can’t find it. Sorry.”
Now, maybe what she meant was that their distributor didn’t carry this particular book. Maybe she was having an off day and couldn’t be bothered to take my information, do some research, and call me back. Maybe a $50 sale in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean that much to her store, or maybe she’s not personally invested in her store’s success, or maybe she doesn’t like middle school stories that start with X. But I have to tell you, as a reader who has spent plenty of time and money at that shop, I was pretty pissed off. And as an author, I was appalled. What if that had been my book? A single sale of $15 may not mean much to that store, but every single copy I sell means a great deal to my future as an author.
When I finished driving I pulled over, googled the book, and found the series on Amazon. It took me less than a minute.
I’m not the only one who has had this experience. Several friends, some authors, some not, have been kvetching about the quality of service at their local stores, how snobbery some are, how disinterested in their needs. I’m the first to say I’ve had great experiences and support from this store and others like it — but the taste I’m left with after this is a bit sour.
I support indie bookstores. But they need to do more than just tell me Amazon is killing their business and how unfair that is. They need to give me a reason to shop with them. Every single time. Because if they make it hard, it’s far, far too easy to go somewhere else.
New Englanders are a reserved bunch. My sister-in-law down South moved to a new home at the same time I moved to where I live now. Within a week, she had five pies on her doorstep. Here, it took me three months to meet my first neighbor.
Which is why spring in New England is so important. It’s the time of year when we get a little giddy, when we throw caution to the wind, when our faith through the dark winter days is rewarded. This morning I drove past a house I’ve gone by almost every single day since September, a tiny nondescript ranch a long way from better times. But I’m not sure I’ve ever really seen it before today, when the front yard was a riot of color, brilliant sunshine yellow daffodils against the bright pink of cherry blossoms.
Someone had to plant each one of those bulbs, digging down into the hardening earth, had to imagine how the flowers would look against a tree decked in its finest. I hope the thought gave them a quiet chuckle, hope it helped them get through what seemed like an endless winter. It’s a gray day here today, but I’m carrying that image with me as a promise that spring is really here, even if there’s not much evidence yet.
Because sometimes all you can do is hope for better, more brilliant times, for something lovely to awaken from the darkness.
I was going to link to this poem today — it is one of my favorites and I try to read it every spring. But it is gray and rainy here, so I thought we needed something more upbeat.
In my family, I am notorious for becoming infatuated with a song and playing it obsessively, until EVERYONE including the Slobbering Beast groans when they hear the first few notes. (My son recently reminded my husband how lucky he was not to carpool with us in the morning because “You don’t have to hear about Jane and that dude wearing a corset all the time. Which is just weird.” Lou Reed, wherever you are, I salute you.)
But sometimes I hit on a winner, like this one. It has become our morning wake-up song, our roll down the windows and sing on the way home from school song, our dance around the kitchen after dinner song. Play it a few hundred times — it grows on you. (And read the ticker tape at the bottom if you need a laugh.)
I’ve been riding horses, off and on, since I got my first paycheck out of college. One of the reasons I can still get on and (kind of) giddyup after years away from the barn is because I had great instructors. No matter how high my rent was, or what odd expenses came my way, I almost always managed to scrape together the money for a weekly lesson. One woman I rode with for over 10 years — she helped me find the first horse I ever owned free and clear, she taught me how to fall, she even came to my wedding, one of the few times I saw her dressed in something other than boots and breeches.
Another instructor helped me regain my confidence after some bad falls. She taught me how to observe what the horse was saying, not just what I wanted him to do. A third found me my dream horse and went out of her way to bring us together. Although there were other teachers, these three are the ones who mattered the most.
I’ve moved on from that part of my life, but I still remember them all every time I climb into a saddle, and at other moments as well. I learned so much from them, some of it about riding, most of it not.
My new instructor is funny and sharp, with her own ways of teaching, her own equine hangups. She’s threatening to get a video camera system, so she can show those of us in her class how we really look, not just how we appear in our own heads. And it’s true — the way we think we ride, straight and tall, loose and limber, isn’t the reality at all. This week, something she said reminded me of an exchange I had a long time ago with my first instructor, who had seated me on a horse that was ready to leave the ground at any moment. She kept telling me to turn him in circles and not to throw away my outside rein. After the fifth or sixth time, I remember snapping that I was using the outside rein just #$#$ fine, thankyouverymuch.
“Well the horse disagrees,” she snapped back. “And so do I.”
In my last lesson, the current instructor was trying to help me get the horse on the bit going forward, and suddenly, I could hear the old instructor yelling at me not to give away that rein. From the distance of 10 years or so, it suddenly made perfect sense. So I shortened up the rein when I was turning, kept the tension in it as we circled, and voila! I had a horse on the bit, moving forward nicely. (At least, that’s what I’m choosing to believe in lieu of videotaped evidence.)
Revisions in writing can be a bit like riding. How you think it looks, how it appears in your own head, can be radically different from what is actually on the page. If you have beta readers, resist the urge to tell them “That’s exactly what I’ve done,” if they suggest you need to tighten up the plot, increase the love interest, or ground it in a more realistic setting. Remind yourself that you’ve asked for their advice because you have respect for their abilities and judgement. Say “thank you” to them and as little as possible of anything else. Then put their comments away, along with your manuscript, for as long as you possibly can.
When you come back to it with fresh eyes, you just may see that they were right.