Naked and vulnerable

I recently received this email from an author who’s just had her first book published:

“This is an unnerving time for me.  Reviews (some positive, some negative, some mixed) and reader and bookseller comments are coming at me on all sides.  All of this conspires to create a sense of vulnerability.  Just navigating it tends to make one thin-skinned.”

Oh honey, I know just what you mean.

Non-writers probably think that having your book go on sale means you bask in glory while rave reviews pour in and adoring fans greet you at every bookstore.  They think it’s all champagne and triumph. 

What it really feels like is a nervous breakdown.

The anticipation of your book’s release is so much better.  In the months before reality cruelly whaps you in the face, you can still daydream about starred reviews and bestseller lists and excited calls from your editor informing you that your sales are through the roof.  I’ve experienced that high with every one of my books, those heady weeks when all things are possible, when you love being a writer because the work is done and now you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor.

Then the daydreams start to crack and crumble away.  Maybe it starts with a bad review in PW.  (And I’ve had more than a few of those.)  Then some cranky anonymous reader posts a one-star review on Amazon.  Hey, it’s fun to throw stones at naked and vulnerable authors, because they can’t fight back.  They just curl up into little balls and whimper. Then you hear from your editor that “it’s just a slow week in all the bookstores” or “maybe we should have gone with a different cover”.  Or even worse, she stops calling you at all, because she just doesn’t want to talk to a suicidal author. 

Oh yes, I know what all this is like because I’ve been there, done that.  And no, it never gets easier to take.  All it gets is more predictable.  I allow myself the happy daydreams, but I know full well that the chances are they’ll come to nothing and I’ll end up on book tour lying depressed on some hotel bed, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if there isn’t some other occupation I could be successful at because the writing thing is clearly not working out.  It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting out or you’re 12 books into your career, you will probably experience this gnawing, existential doubt about your ability as a writer.   And it’s no wonder you’re feeling this way, because there are too many critics eager to tell you your writing sucks. 

And maybe for a day or a week or, God forbid, for the rest of your life, you believe them.

Whenever I hear complaints about “arrogant authors”, I’m surprised because I don’t know how any author could still be arrogant after having one’s ego repeatedly ripped to shreds by the critics and the marketplace.  Perhaps the arrogant authors are young literary darlings who’ve heard only praise.  The rest of us know it’s a rough and tumble out there, and no matter how many battle scars we may have, the thrust of the critic’s sword still hurts. 

If you’re a new author, this probably isn’t very encouraging to hear. But it’s got to be a comfort knowing that you’re not the only depressed writer staring at the ceiling.

21 replies
  1. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess,

    No, it’s definitely not encouraging to hear the truth (can’t we just live in that bubble a little while longer?), but it is a real comfort to know that even “seasoned professionals” have their doubts.

    I remember the discussion you, Matthew Pearl, Michael Palmer and Joseph Finder had at GlobeTalks, about how unfair critics can be (this was especially true for Matt, if I remember!). Do you really think that’s true, that a lot of the critics out there have personal agendas and critique to that affect?

    Do you try and avoid what people say about you and your books? I read an interview with JK Rowling about how she never searched for Harry Potter online until after the fourth book was puiblished, and then she almost fell out of her chair in shock of it all… Have you checked to see if there are any Tess fansites out there or anything? What was your reaction to them if you did?

  2. Frank Hood
    Frank Hood says:

    Tess,

    As to arrogant authors, I’ve always known there’s a good reason for authors to be arrogant. It’s much more likely for the arrogant author to survive to write again after her work is savaged by sometimes even well-meaning critics. Some turn their response into anger. That at least can give one energy, but it runs the danger of going too far.

    I’ve heard of one author who wall-papered his bathroom with rejection slips to remind him to be angry and that he had something to prove. Some authors’ anger is so strong they can be cruel to innocent bystanders, but whenever I hear stories about authors interfering with the wonderful executives and managers who just “know better,” I remember it’s a damn thin pancake that doesn’t have 2 sides.

  3. struggler
    struggler says:

    Well, Tess, may I assure you that I’ve been flying the Gerritsen flag proudly on the Amazon UK website for a couple of years now. I created a ‘Listmania’ of 24 of your novels in chronological order with a brief synopsis of each one – as I write these words this list has had 2495 views and of the 125 who voted, every single one of them declared it ‘helpful’, and to get 125/125 here in the UK, where the Amazon site is a fraction of the size of its American parent, that’s exceptionally high. As for reviews, my write-ups are typically 2000 words long (sometimes 3500) and of the twelve TG novels I have reviewed, a total of 53 ‘stars’ applied means an average of almost 4.5 per novel – the max bing 5 – and I consider myself objective and unbiased as an amateur hack. So I’m pleased to have done my bit to support you, and I have to confess once again that I get a little thrill every time I get a message from you. I call out to my (rather uninterested) wife “I’ve got an email from Tess!!” and get a grunt in response – but as I’m sure many of your fans will agree, it’s your honesty and humility that we love as much as your writing, and I will be doing my little bit to help you achieve success with THE BONE GARDEN. So whenever you’re lying in one of those hotel rooms wondering if life is worth living, just think of us guys on here, think of the pleasure you have given us and will continue to give, and for every negative piece of feedback you get there are 100 positive but unspoken ones because for some reason people are more willing to give voice to their criticisms than their blessings. I don’t know about any other contributors to your blog, but in my case I can honestly say (as a struggling writer-to-be) that you really do give me hope.

  4. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    You pretty much have to approach this business with a thick skin, I think. Sure, rejections and negative criticism hurt, but I don’t think it’s wise to allow those opinions to penetrate your soul. There’s no way to please everyone, so you have to take the bad along with the good. Nature of the beast.

    I’m fighting a different battle right now. My novel is on submission, getting a lot of praise from editors, but no contract offers yet. To me, the praise is empty until someone decides to move off the dime. It’s a sort of Writer Purgatory, just one of the many frustrations involved in the publishing biz. If you let it get to you, though, it’ll drive you nuts. Gotta have a thick skin to even hope for survival, IMHO.

  5. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Boy did you peg my life with this post! I should be feeling discouraged by the reality of the author’s life, but you got me laughing about it.

    With my debut novel having just debuted in the UK (and getting a couple of bizarre 1-stars on Amazon UK) I’m getting a taste of how I’ll feel next spring when it’s released here.

    Only here, it will be much higher profile…so I’m looking into some mail-order magic solution for growing thicker skin. 🙂

  6. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Tess-

    This sounds a lot like childbirth: painful, difficult process with an amazingly wonderful outcome.

    I hope your newest “baby” brings you great happiness.

  7. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess!

    I just wanted to let you know that I got your bookmarks in the mail today… I can’t believe you signed them all! I already gave one to a friend of mine and she was thrilled!

    Thanks again! I’ll be sure to hand these out to people who’ll help you reach #1 this time around!

  8. terri
    terri says:

    One’s actions cannot please everyone else. It’s definitely right to present any story the way you wanted it to be- that’s really you. Critics may say anything they like, because they know that it hurts their intended target. But it’s really obvious that when you look back at them, it’ll somehow be hilariously stupid and it’d be water off a duck’s back.

    Well, in time to come, those critics will just get bored with trying to humiliate the author (that’s not working) and then, you’ll see your name in lights. Its all in the mind, the brain chooses what it wants to perceive. Since there’s nothing one could do to stop the rain of arrows from descending, it’s only appropriate that one learns how to build a shield.

  9. Michelle
    Michelle says:

    Tess,

    thank you for your post! I’m in that situation right now, not even two months until my new book is out. I’m really nervous, because I don’t know, if readers will like it, if it will sell good enough to get me new contracts, if the press will finally realize I’m alive.

    This ist not my first book, but the fifth and somehow I can’t imagine that someday I will feel different when another book comes out.

    So I absolutely agree to your post.

    Greetings,

    Michelle

  10. ec
    ec says:

    When I finish a book and send it off to the production phase, I know a short time of elation (aka “The Happydance of Doneness”) followed by a period of dread. It’s not the reviews or even the sales. Publication feels like a sudden and devastating invasion of privacy. A story you lived with for months, characters whose only existance was in your mind and on your computer screen, are suddenly public domain. They start living independant lives, as it were. They succeed or fail according to criteria assigned by the individual readers. It’s a very odd experience.

    And let’s face it, some of the things readers come up with can be mind-boggling.

    For example, there was a passage in one of my fantasy books in which two young men–both acolytes in a order of scholar-warriors–ended a friendly argument by wrestling “like puppies at play.” This phrase exactly fit the characters and the moment: fighting was a big part of their training, but it was also a form of competative play. Anyone who has seen brothers–human OR canine–tussling for fun knows exactly what was meant. But one young male reader took umbrage at this phrase. “Puppies…lick. These guys must be gay!” He went from review site to review site, message board to message board, loudly proclaiming this theory every time discussion of this trilogy came up. To the audience for sword & sorcery books–largely adolescent males–a lable of “OMG theez peeple r gay” can be deadly. And not just because of adolescent sexual intolerance–in teenspeak, “gay” is a perjorative term quite apart from any sexual reference.

    So in addition to all the usual suspects–mixed reviews, a conservative print run, lower than anticipated sales–there’s the occasional reader reaction that is so bizarre you couldn’t possibly anticipate it.

    A friend of mine, also a fantasy writer, received several letters from a guy doing time. The inmate asked my friend if he’d ever killed anyone. He assumed this was the case, as my friend wrote about it in a highly realistic fashion. He suggested getting together to compare notes once his debt to society was paid. Yikes.

    I’m sure everyone who has ever published a book has several stories that include the words, “As God is my witness, I never saw THAT coming….”

  11. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    Hi Tess et al,
    Right to tackle this from how Ive come to understand things. Perhaps the best advice to give is that either do or dont read reviews, if you do choose to read them you have to accept the bad along with the good, you cant choose one or the other which is what a number of other authors have done.

    Likewise what other people have to realise is that your writing is like bearing your soul to the world. Youve unleashed that little gem of you that if its attacked really does emotional damage. Having a hard shell is one way that people deal with it, however the odd reviewer does come up with some relevant points and can help improve an authors work.

    How you react to critism is perhaps the most showing thing about an author. If you cant take it dont do it. Harsh advice but its a lesson that needs to be learned early on. How many authors that we know now have had thier work rejected for years only to suddenly be discovered as the next best thing since sliced bread. It happens but had they buckled at the first bit of pressure they never would have been discovered or written subsequent books.

    Other than that the only other thing I can say is write what you want to read and dont try to copy anyone else. Undoubtably there will be influences within your work but if you cant stand what your doing it will show, this really harks back to the other comment I wrote a little earlier about enjoying your work.

    Perhaps the best thing an author needs is a motto to live by. I always find Nil Illegetto Carborundum to work for me, it may for you. Likewise Ive always subscribed to the theory of the quickest way to anyones heart is through the ribcage.

    Anyway to all writers, just have fun and to be honest if people enjoy your work and love to read it what the hell does it matter if you dont win awards or critical acclaim. One author I knew was constantly critiqued by the reviewers as being a simplistic writer, likewise after being rejected time and time again he kept on writing as he enjoyed it. What mattered to him though was that it was all about the fans, he loved to tour to meet them, they kept him going and it meant a hell of a lot to him to have the honour of doing a tour. Thats what its about and personally the attitude I will take if I ever get published. Sod the critics its what the public think that matters to me and if I get fans for what I write I will continue to turn out what turned them on to me in the first place. I want to have fun and if I win an award its gravy, if I dont and as long as the fans are happy then so to am I. Perhaps the best way to be and it should hopefully stop alot of the heartache. After all you know what they say, those who Write are Authors, those who cant are Critics. LOL

    Just have the fun you deserve and sod everyone else,

    Gareth

  12. Patricia Wood
    Patricia Wood says:

    Thank you Thank you Thank you Tess!!!
    I ‘fess up! I am the first time author who emailed Tess with my angst and I want to know how amazing it is for her to respond in this way.
    I appreciated her approachability at the Maui Writers Retreat and Conference in 2005 and I so appreciate her willingness to come to my rescue with some great advice today.
    We all think we are impervious and then a sentence or word can trigger that playground mentality of name calling from our pasts.
    The only problem there is no teacher to tattle to!
    My editor told me not to read any of my reviews.
    Oh.
    Except these:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/08/15/AR2007081502228.html

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/16/books/16newl.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&oref=sl

  13. Julie K. Trevelyan
    Julie K. Trevelyan says:

    Wow, what fun to read the post and all the replies to it! The one about the odd reaction to the “puppies at play” left me sympathizing with the befuddled author as well as laughing at the inherent absurdity of being human. People are just weird sometimes.

    Anyway, I have not yet published a book, and I must admit that the thought of real-life reviews (that is, not the glowing ones that sometimes appear in my head for my as-yet unwritten masterpieces!) does sometimes give me pause. Although I do keep writing.

    I have garnered many a rejection for my short stories, however, and some of those were rather bizarre as well. And as far as reviews go: I’ve reviewed quite a few books on amazon and I like to think the very few to which I’ve awarded one star heartily deserved them–but I also leave glowing reviews for those books that moved me somehow. I also used to write reviews for Publishers Weekly (in Forecasts, which do not name the reviewer because they often re-word or sometimes even completely rewrite the review in-house), and I did my best to be honest and accurate. Which one can only hope for from all reviewers!

    Ultimately, damn the torpedoes, keep going, chin up, tut tut and all that. At least, that’s what I tell myself. Thanks for injecting yet more humor into the writer’s life, even if it’s of the “naked and vulnerable, depressed writer staring at the ceiling” sort. I needed that bit of a smile today as I tackle yet more of my own writing!

  14. Tess
    Tess says:

    I used to watch my sons wrestle with each other and I think “puppies at play” is precisely the description I would have used for them.

    Yep, readers are sometimes very odd indeed. And the anonymity of the internet allows them to be cruel, without worrying about the consequences.

  15. ec
    ec says:

    I try to learn from reviews, both good and bad. One online reviewer of SHADOWS IN THE STARLIGHT, a paranormal mystery, gave the book a low score because she read this book, second in a series, before the first and found it difficult to follow. That is a valid observation, one that convinced me of the need to make sure each book in a series can stand alone.

    What I find most difficult to deal with in reviews are personal observations, when readers assume that a book and the characters therein are extensions of the author’s opinions, values, and morals. I was dumbfounded by complaints about young people in the Harry Potter books finding their true loves at an early age. These invariably point to J.K. Rowling’s divorce and claim that “she should know better.” I find that incredibly intrusive and offensive, not to mention just plain boneheaded. Hello? Young adult fiction? A fantasy story, which is grounded in a long history of happily-ever-afters? When you claim that this writer despises authority because she writes about rogues, or that writer is a pervert because his characters are sexually active, you have ceased being a reviewer and have descended to the level of meanspirited, church-lady gossip.

    If you’re going to review a book, focus on the story, the writing, the characters. Don’t assume that someone who writes about psychics wears a purple turban and reads palms. And if you MUST make such assumptions, don’t share them with the world as stated fact.

  16. ZanyMom
    ZanyMom says:

    Sounds on par for what I already face in my day job — people calling me a crook, greedy, and that I don’t care (none of which is true, though I do deserve to be paid for my help and knowledge). So becoming a writer is no different. Bummer. But I’ll write anyway.

  17. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    i try to only put in amazon reviews for books or films that i like,because i want to share a pleasant reading or watching experience with others-why would anyone care to know about what i don’t like?it’s not like i am some well known person with a following such as the people who often do reviews in the nyt-i am certain that many books and films i don’t care for are liked very much by lots of people-i only made one exception-a lukewarm review for a stephen king book-and it’s not as if he could give a damn about anything i would write-why should he?i guess some people who post reviews on amazon or imdb are legends in their own minds(like my wife’s former brother in law)

  18. ec
    ec says:

    I once read an observation (can’t remember the source–sorry!) that compared critics to eunichs. They see it being done, they assume they know how it SHOULD be done, but they can’t do it themselves….and they’re pissed.

    Not universally applicable, certainly, but amusing none the less.

  19. tambo
    tambo says:

    Hey Tess.

    I know this is a really late response – my life is insane! Arrgh! – but I remember the day my first book hit the shelves.

    I spent the day in bed, bawling. It’s gotten better. Book two arrived with me moping around the house and weeping only occasionally while I ate too much stuff that was bad for me, book three with a mere mope and an intent to ‘distract myself’ from the fact of it being release day. There’s a weird dichotomy involved for me; an eager need to read reviews, even the nasty Amazon ones, yet a sick aprehension as I click on the link or open the magazine. Yet I’m helpless to not click. Same thing with fan letters and hate mail. Fwiw, I manage the bad reviews and hate mail better, they kick in the ‘heh, I’ll show you!’ mindset.

    Good reviews and gushing fans are the worst for me, they seriously mess me up, often for days. Usually they point out something I never intended, or didn’t realize was there, and I get panicky, thinking that I screwed up, that I really don’t know what I’m doing… Sure, they liked it, but that’s NOT what I thought I wrote, so they’re wrong, but they LIKED it, so maybe I’m wrong, maybe my conceptual belief was mistaken, but if so what the hell am I doing writing if I can’t understand what it is I wrote?!? Round and round we go! Whee!

    Anyway, I love the process of creation, I even love the whole slog of editing, production, proofs, and whatnot. It’s the letters and reviews that mess me up, and release day is a day best spent watching DVD’s with a box of kleenex and a quart of double-chocolate ice cream.

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