Off the Shelf met with Debbie Stier, a veteran of book publishing who, before she left to become a writer, was responsible for publicizing dozens of iconic books ranging from The Notebook to Marley and Me. Debbie regularly speaks on topics pertaining to social media and technology and, most recently, standardized testing. You can find her writing daily advice about education and SAT test prep at www.theperfectscoreproject.com. Debbie has just published The Perfect Score: Uncovering the Secrets of the SAT. We wanted to find out from someone who knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the book what publishing her first book felt like.
Your book is about helping your son through the SATs by taking them repeatedly yourself. Beside test-prep books, did you read any books to help your test-taking?
Yes! I actually want to make a bookshelf on Goodreads of all the books that I used when A) prepping for the test, and B) writing the book. I’ve often thought, “There’s an entire forest baked into my book.”
Do you have any favorite books from your high school reading lists that you remembered when you were studying?
Interesting question. Not really. I had a whole bunch that I wished I could have remembered better and wanted to go back and read (for the essay), but never found the time.
The “high-school-book-list-I-wish-I’d-remembered-enough-to-use-on-my-SAT-essay-list” included:
• The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
• 1984 by George Orwell
• The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
• Lord of the Flies by William Golding
What are some things that surprised you about being the publishee rather than the publisher?
How flipping hard it is to write a book.
What was the hardest thing for you while writing your book?
I always say, “The hardest part of writing the book is … writing the book.”
Seriously though, turning off the entire world (except for my family and one or two close friends) was the only way I managed to get the book done. I had the hardest year of my life for personal reasons and there was simply no way for me to write a book with the internet or the phone available to me. I literally had to shut down all communication. There were a few times when I went to Kripalu, by myself, and spent a day in silence.
What book would you slip into a child’s bag who is heading to college?
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
What book has taught you the most about the world?
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, because he managed to make me understand and feel empathy for men fighting in a war – a circumstance I’d never been in and really had no desire to get to know more about. Or, any/all Mary Oliver poetry. What on earth does that woman take to make life seem so great? For a few years, I read one Mary Oliver poem every morning right after I’d wake up.
Is there a book that you re-read often?
I keep a shelf of “favorites” that I re-read at least once a year. The Things They Carried and Mary Oliver’s books are on it. Also, all Anne Lamotte non-fiction. I read those over and over. They’re like mac & cheese for me – total comfort. I read Joan Didion’s books again and again and Eat, Pray Love.
What would you tell someone who wants to write?
Only do it if:
A) You must. I’m not sure writing a book can possibly be “easy” for anyone, now that I’ve finished – and it’s not like childbirth, where you “forget.” I remember! I will say this though: I do have another story that I know that I must tell, despite the fact that I still remember the pain of writing the last book.
B) Assume that it will be harder and take twice as long as you think it will.
C) Do not compromise. Write the best book you can possibly write.
D) Trust yourself – first and last. Everyone has opinions and often they are conflicting and confusing; fine to listen to other opinions, but ultimately, stay true to yourself and honor your own, inner guide.