How to Deal: Writing for Public Consumption

courtneycracked up to be, fall for anything, Featured, some girls are (your mom), writing

Not long ago, I got a great email from a writer who wanted to know what it was like having three books out–more specifically, they wanted to know if it was difficult to put myself out there for the world to judge and how I cope with it. This has been on my mind a little because Fall for Anything is O-U-T now (you should buy it!) and there’s no going back from that, unless I build a time machine or make a deal with the devil and I’d like to think I’d build a time machine for far nobler purposes than to unpublish a book and strike a deal with the devil for much less nobler purposes than to unpublish a book, which is my convoluted and dramatic way of saying I would not do either of these things but I thought I would blog a little about the topic.

I get a little consumed by reader response a couple months before and after one of my books is released, not going to lie. Fall for Anything is in that tender stage where I want everyone to like it. I’ve gone through this with all of my books. Of course you want people to like what you’re putting out there–I think that’s a very natural and human thing to want–but as The Rolling Stones say…

I think most writers realize that the moment you start submitting your work, you are going to get well acquainted with rejection. There is the good kind–I like this, but…–but there’s also the not-so-great kind that feels like a direct and very personal commentary on what you have created: no, I don’t like this. How could it feel like anything else?

When I decided I’d write with the eye of hopefully getting published, the first thing I did was prepare myself for People Not Liking My Work and the word ‘no.’ Every writer knows this and knows it well–want agent? Want book deal? You’re going to hear the word no in your quest for both–a lot. And yes is never guaranteed.

(Sometimes no is even delivered by a stabby knife that stabs you directly in the heart stabbingly and you just have to try not to bleed all over the furniture while you send your next query and sometimes you’ve just barely stopped bleeding when the next no comes and you’re like HOW AM I STILL ALIVE? HOW IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE?)

What got me through the query stage was reminding myself that fiction is subjective. When Cracked Up to Be sold to St. Martin’s, I immediately started Phase 2 of this line of thinking, which means I thought the same thing but much harder and consequently gave myself forehead wrinkles and headaches. By the time December 23rd, 2008 rolled around–Cracked Up to Be’s release date–I thought I was totally ready for whatever people had to say about Parker Fadley and her bitchy disposition.

Ha ha ha!

I don’t think you can ever truly be prepared to have your work out there, whether people ultimately end up loving it or hating it. Even if you do your absolute best to ignore the stuff people say about yer stuff, it’s hard to be unaware of the fact that people are out there, saying stuff about yer stuff. It’s a nearly impossible concept to wrap your head around. For me, it was much easier to understand in theory, but experiencing it was something else ENTIRELY.

So Cracked Up to Be hopped off the presses and promptly ran face first into one of The Worst Reviews I’ve Ever Received (So Far) and I immediately forgot all of my own advice. The funny thing is, I even had an inkling this review was coming and tried to steel myself for it–fiction is subjective! It is subjectivvve!–but this review took my breath away with its utter loathing of my writing.

The first thing I did was email it to my agent to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. What if it was one of those reviews that was actually not so much mean as it was critically even-handed and I was just too close to my book and not seeing that? My agent and I quickly established this wasn’t the case. That settled, I stepped back from the computer and thought, there! It wasn’t just me! So that’s it! My first really terrible review and I survived!

And then I got REALLY upset!

How to describe it–I kind of felt like I’d shown up at a prom full of a bunch of strangers with my dress tucked into my pantyhose and also I am wearing really, really ugly underwear in this nightmare. I felt very naked and looked at and the people who were looking at me hated what they were seeing and I didn’t even know them!

On the flipside, the good reviews were similarly overwhelming. Some Girls Are was not finished (edit for clarification: the first draft of the book was finished, but it was so rough, it was completely overhauled–imagine almost writing an entirely new book–and I hadn’t finished yet) at the time of Cracked Up to Be’s release–in fact, it was going through some insanely tough revisions I wasn’t sure I’d get through–and every time I got pinged by a positive review, the only thing I could think was: How do I top that? How can I not disappoint this person with my next book? How can I find whoever coined the term ‘sophomore slump’ and kill them?

That’s a really humbling feeling. It’s good to be humbled. But like I said, it’s also a bit overwhelming. After I had My Moment and then My Moment (Extended Version) and then My Moment (Remix) and then My Moment (Extended Version Remix) I did a lot of thinking. I’m a person who Likes Things A Certain Way (read: control freak) and I was quickly learning that I could not control what other people thought of my work. That was quite the personal epiphany.

So was I going to let a bad review be the worst thing that ever happened to me? Well, no. Would I let the expectations surrounding a positive review paralyze my writing? Absolutely not–I have a lot more stories I wanna tell. And then came the mental smackdown: like Jen Trynin said and which I like to remind myself of a lot: “No one deserves anything.”

No one deserves anything, let alone a book deal. I didn’t want to spit in the face of the hard work and luck involved in getting my own or the hard work of people who are in the process of pursuing one. I decided I needed to learn the fine art of compartmentalizing (or ‘sucking it up’ as the Canadians call it).

But how does a writer do that? How do they cope? Well… I don’t know. I don’t like speaking for all writers!

So I can only tell you what this one did.

I am three books into my writing career (hopefully there will be more) and I’ve received my share of reader response–both good and bad. I have been called irresponsible. I’ve received emails that praise my first book in one paragraph and ask me why my second was so terribly written in the next. But I’ve also been told Parker’s story inspired someone to get help. I’ve been told Regina’s enabled a reader to speak up about their own bullying. Someone told me my books made them realize they wanted to write. That’s crazy–but good crazy. In three books, I have learned to view all responses as positive ones–even the negative ones. If you’ve written a book that causes people to react, that’s a very good thing. It’s something I’ve learned not to take lightly.

But I also can’t let any response get in the way of my writing and I think at the end of the day it’s important to write a book YOU, as its creator, love and believe in above all else, because other people’s praise and criticism will only take you so far. You will likely never believe your best review and it’s way too easy to talk yourself into believing your worst. It can also be a dangerous thing to get completely caught up in positive responses and dismiss all your critics as haters…

… But to have the certainty of your own feelings behind what you’ve done is a very important and very powerful thing. Like they say: you can’t please everyone, so you might as well please yourself. And as I am very fond of saying, the moment I stop writing for me is the moment I stop writing for you.

Ani Difranco has this great song called Tamburitza Lingua. It is pretty depressing but it ends on this great (albeit sad) note: Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three two one and kerplooey, you’re done, you’re done for, you’re done for good now tell me did you do did you do all you could? Uhm, like I said, depressing–but worth thinking about in terms of writing. Did you write the story you wanted to? Did you say everything that was in your heart? If you answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions, realize how amazing that is, objectively. It’s a gift and you should take it seriously.

Finally, I could never overstate the importance of WORKING ON SOMETHING NEW. When you’re fully invested in a new story, you’re detaching, on some level, from the last one. Allowing yourself distance from your previous work makes the response it gets feel like not so much of a ‘hit.’

But it’s still intimidating to be judged. Of course it’s scary. And even more comforting: it’s inevitable. NO MATTER WHAT YOU ARE DOING. And in spite of all I’ve written here, as I said–I’m currently in a tender stage of Fall for Anything’s release, where I want everyone to like it. I still have My Moments and their Extended Versions and their Remixes over some of the feedback I get. But I know now it will pass and I try to remember the only thing you can do is let the chips fall where they may and then turn your attention forward.

You HAVE to, or at least I do, because above all, I firmly believe that once a book is released, it’s not mine anymore. I’ve had my time with those characters and now it is over. Such a big part of putting your work out there is letting it go. And I think in this particular case, letting go is just something you have to learn over and over again but that you maybe hopefully get better at the more and more you do it.

Lest you become this Duffy song.