Please welcome returning guest author Margaret Dilloway to Writer Unboxed today! Margaret is the author of Sisters of Heart and Snow, releasing TODAY! It’s a story about two estranged sisters who are inspired and brought together by reading the history of real-life 12th century samurai woman Tomoe Gozen. Said Booklist of the novel:
Spanning centuries, Dilloway’s intricate, multigenerational saga of repressive family dynamics offers a timeless look at the bonds of sisterhood.
Margaret is also the author of the middle grade fantasy novel Momotaro (Disney-Hyperion, 2016), as well as The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns and How to Be an American Housewife. She lives in San Diego with her three children, husband, and her personal trainer, a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby.
The Stomach-Churning, Lump-o’-Coal Fearing Path to Publication Day
Today I await the publication of my third book, Sisters of Heart and Snow, with a mix of pleasant anticipation and stomach-churning dread. A mix like it’s about to be Christmas morning and I’m hoping there will be a few brightly wrapped packages, but suspecting that there might just be fat lumps of coal waiting for me, too.
Why coal? As a writer, you work for years on a project, not knowing if it’ll ever be published. Dozens of drafts later, it’s finally good enough for a non-relative to read. By the time it’s out on bookstore shelves, it’s been parsed dozens of times—by your agent, your editor, the editorial board, the foreign rights agents, copy editors, sales and marketing and design teams. And since none of these professionals has called up the president of the publishing company during the year or two the book’s been in production to tell him stop the presses because you’re a horrible hack, you ought to be golden with confidence by the time readers actually get their hands on it. Right?
Nope! We still feel as vulnerable as newborn kittens, our eyes closed, handing off our book babies from the warmth of our fuzzy blankets out into the cold world. Its eyes are still closed! Be gentle.
So what is this coal I speak of? It’s the people who give you one-star reviews. It’s the cold journal review that tells you all the things you could have done better—and yes, maybe a couple of the points are correct, but there’s nothing you can do about them now. It’s easy to be run over by the great freight train of anxiety, to worry over each tidbit as relentlessly as my dog chews his rawhide, down to a dangerous choking nub.
I don’t much like this feeling.
To prepare for the Big Day, I’ve been compiling a list for how to deal with this negativity, asking other authors how they do it. Here are some ways to cope with the coal:
- Limit the reviews you read. Or have a friend read them first (I make my husband do the dirty work). If you happen to read one that pierces the heart, reread the good ones before moving on, as author Erika Marks does, “kind of like swigging something sweet to get the taste of a bad bite out of the mouth.”
- Phone a friend. Author Jan Ellison says, “It helps knowing we’re all in the same boat. So I share it with another writer friend immediately.” After a few minutes of commiseration and righteous indignation on your behalf, you can move on with your life.
- Remember that reading is subjective. Author Barbara Claypole White remarks, “I’m darkly quirky…and some people are never going to get my style.” Author Lisa Wingate agrees, “Book love is a little like romance. Sometimes people decide without really giving it a chance. Sometimes the chemistry’s not there.”
- Remember that most reviewers are not writers, and are not out to get you. One writer tells me that before she became a published author, she happily left three-star reviews for books she enjoyed, not knowing how skewing the author’s average lower might negatively affect sales.
- Shrug and move on, perhaps after employing one of the above coping mechanisms.
Let me expound on number 5 for a bit, because for a lot of people, including me, moving on is the hardest part. I actually have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, so have been working on this whole “moving on” thing for a long time, and finally found some practical advice that helped me.
Recently I watched the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything. One of my favorite scenes is when Hawking lectures about his big black holes breakthrough. Some of the audience members storm out of the lecture hall when he’s done, visibly upset. One man stops and downright berates Hawking, telling him that his work is utter rubbish, the dumbest thing he’s ever heard.
Hawking doesn’t burst into tears or tell the guy that was an awfully mean thing to say. He doesn’t ignore all the other people congratulating him to focus on the one guy who disagreed. He knows that not everyone’s going to like his theory, and there’s not a blasted thing he can do about it.
So, as the man finishes his tirade and whirls around to exit, Hawking grins up at him from his wheelchair. “Was it something I said?”
The reality is, you can no more control how others react to your work or what they say about it than you can control the sun. We can control how we react. That’s why I liked that scene in the movie so much.
Put it this way: If it’s raining and you need to take the dog for a walk, do you sit inside all day, berating the clouds, shaking your fist at the sky, telling the weather it’s stupid? Of course not—you know it wouldn’t do any good. You might dislike the rain and wish that it’d stop, but you know you’re not the Greek god of weather—you can’t control it. It’s the weather—you might as well command your dog to meow instead of bark. Sooner or later it’ll stop raining, and you’ll forget that it rained.
No, you throw on a rain coat and some boots and you deal with the rain while it lasts.
Getting angry at someone for having an opinion is about as productive as getting angry at rain for existing. Everything—and everyone—who is not you is out of your control.
Let’s say you get a bad review. You spend ten minutes fretting about it. Twenty fretting about it with a friend. Thirty more fretting about it with your Facebook friends. An hour fretting about it with your better half. A half hour fretting about it during the car pool, when your kid wonders why you’re so cranky. Congratulations—you’ve now relived the bad review a whopping five times, and gave it two and a half hours of your precious day. The person who wrote it only lived it once. Yikes. Why give someone who doesn’t matter such power? That’s not being very fair to yourself.
Wouldn’t it be better to take a deep breath, and realize that those words uttered really affect your reality no more than a little light rain?
The more you practice this—with every annoyance you come across, not just bad reviews—the easier it gets. For example, when I was in Japan recently, I found out that my feet are Sasquatchian by Japanese standards—the store I went to only had up to a size 8, and I wear a 10. The salesgirls tittered as I left. I heard them laughing and wondered briefly if my feelings ought to be hurt. But why should they? My feet are big. I’m also a foot taller than most of those women. That’s just how the genetics worked out. Heck, if I spoke Japanese better this is exactly what I would have told them, too. Maybe I’d been practicing letting go of other peoples’ reactions long enough, because I truly did not care.
Applying this attitude to writing, you know that you cannot write as a slave to your readers—not to the person who thinks your fiction should be more literary, or the person who thinks it should have a quicker plot; the person who thinks you should have fewer curse words; the person who complains about your shoddy research or the person who hates all your careful historical details. It’s impossible. Somebody, somewhere, is going to hate your work.
So the next time someone offers up an opinion, shrug your shoulders, say, “Meh, I could do without this rain, but I do have an umbrella,” and know that the raindrops will all, eventually, melt into the ground.
Have publication-day coping measures? The floor is yours.