Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Feelings (and the Lack Thereof)

I sent in my copyedits for book two a couple of weeks ago, and then I shut my laptop and cleaned the bathroom.

Copyedits aren't my favorite part of the whole publishing process. You're not really supposed to change stuff at that stage (that's what the developmental edits are for), but I'm picky and I overthink things, so I end up changing quite a bit and feeling bad for the proofreader and wishing I had many more rounds of edits to go. To shuffle punctuation and change people's clothing and think of different ways to describe their facial expressions. Rewrite whole chapters. Rewrite the book. Etcetera. Do you know how hard it is to commit? To say, yes, you can print it and let it be like this forever. I don't want to change a thing...?

So, upon finally hitting send, I thought I might feel relieved or excited or something. But I didn't feel anything. I couldn't figure out why. It was like when you go to the dentist and they freeze your gums and you go out afterward and you don't realize you're drooling down your shirt because they also kind of froze your lips and chin.

You're so numb you don't even know you're numb.

Writing and publishing my first book was like being in a new relationship. It was full of neon feelings—sitting down to write every day was exhilarating (I was writing a book!), an email asking me to fill out US tax forms was thrilling (I was gonna get paid!), the cover concepts came in (a cover!). Every decision, every email, every meeting felt magical. And every time I sent off a round of edits, I celebrated like I'd climbed a new mountain. I loved all of it, even the hard stuff, because it was all going to culminate in that big day, the day every little girl dreams of and plans for her whole life, that ultimate party—Publication Day.

May 1, 2019 couldn't come soon enough.

And then May 1, 2019 came, and it was...a humbling experience.

(I've always kind of hated when people use that word on social media—it's usually in the context of receiving an award or a lot of recognition for something they did, or a new job or position or promotion. "I'm so humbled to announce..." As if they feel they shouldn't say "proud" so they replace it with...its exact opposite. But when I say now that this has been a humbling experience, I mean it the way I think it should be meant.)

The ironic thing is that my journey to being published began with a good humbling. It was humility boot camp. Publishing is intrinsically deflating. It's hard to get into, it's exclusive. You send off query letters and you're rejected, often, with silence, or with robotic-sounding form letters (which is worse? No one can say!). You move on to being rejected in personal-sounding emails, having your hopes raised by the odd interested agent who wants to read your book (but then doesn't want to sign you). And after you finally accept an offer of representation, you go onto the next Horrible Thing: Submissions, where once again you're rejected over and over, this time by editors and, if you're lucky, whole acquisitions teams! Your book is discussed in meetings, passed around offices, deliberated upon, and you receive emails explaining why your work won't be published by that house.

By the time I finally arrived at my publisher, I was, I thought, firmly 'in my place.' I knew I wasn't the best or the brightest, that I had so much to learn and so much growing to do, that I was very lucky to have gotten this far at all. I was ready for the negative reviews, ready for the awkward IRL conversations, ready for my book to make it onto zero lists and to be read by exactly three people. Ready for anything. I had already had my hopes and dreams crushed many times over and I was now resilient and lowly, with alligator skin and a meek, heavily-armored heart.

I guess I still had further to fall. You should never assume you've been all the way humbled.

Where was I? Oh yeah: May 1, 2019.

The big day came and my book went out into the world. Reviews began to trickle in within 12 hours. People began to send emails and tag me in social media posts. And, it turned out, I wasn't as ready as I thought. Maybe I'd forgotten some of the lessons I'd learned in the prior years? Or maybe I just wasn't ready for Goodreads culture, where the Golden Rule is: if you get your feelings hurt, it's your own fault for reading what we've said about you. I know I wasn't ready for people to make personal judgments about my character or my mental health based on a fictitious person who is, you know, not me. I wasn't ready to be called names. I'd never been in the public eye before, had never received unfiltered feedback about myself in front of other people.

I also didn't come equipped with the ability to not read my reviews. There are at least twenty people reading this who think that's stupid, that everyone has the ability to not read their reviews, and at least ten who actually believe it's wrong for authors to read their reviews—they would say, "If you can't hack it, you shouldn't have become an author." (But how do you know you can't hack it until you've experienced it? Please don't overestimate my self-awareness. It's almost non-existent. Besides, if you were in a coffee shop and you realized the people at the next table were full-on discussing you...wouldn't you be curious about what they were saying? No? Well your self-confidence and self-control are astounding and I applaud you and I wish I was more like you but I'm just not.)

On one of my worst days, I read ten reviews right in a row from people who not only didn't like V&V, but who were downright angry about having read it, as though I'd done something wrong or spiteful or mean in having written it. They used words like 'aggravated' and 'mad' and 'disappointed' and 'furious' and, once, 'waaaaahhhhhh.' They wanted their time back and I actually felt bad that I couldn't give it to them.

I'm trying to think of a way to say this that won't make me sound whiny or unprofessional, but I can't think of that way, so I'm going to say it this way: it killllllled me. It was torture tailor-made for me, and I hated every second of it. It sucked every drop of magic out of the perfect daydream that was becoming an author. I was supposed to be promoting my book and I found that I couldn't because I didn't want more people reading it and saying horrible things about it. I started to feel anxious about writing anything—an instagram caption, an email, a blog post. Let alone, you know, another book.

But also, I was under contract for another book, and that book was due in July. At the time, this felt like the worst thing. I didn't want to write another book, and I didn't want to publish another book, and I began to understand why authors in movies are depicted as grumpy and frumpy and reclusive. I felt stupid and I couldn't think of anything for my characters to do other than sit at tables and frown at each other.

It felt like the worst thing, but maybe it was actually good? I mean, I channeled all of my big stormy feelings into that book and finished it. Maybe it was something akin to getting back on the horse right after you fall off it.

(I don't ride horses but I fell off a bike twelve years ago and have not been on a bike since so that should give you a picture of how self-motivated I am to adhere to this philosophy. I needed that contract.)

People use the phrase 'thick skin' when talking about negative feedback in the publishing realm. Like, "Yes, this sucks, but soon you will have thick skin and this will just roll off your back." I took that to heart, and spent most of this summer waiting for my skin to thicken. When I sent off those copyedits the other day and suddenly didn't feel anything, I thought, maybe this is it? Maybe this state of numbness—no excitement, no anxiety—is thick skin. Maybe I'm a real writer now and I can just do this like it's work and it won't bother me that "BookClubGal53" in some unknown corner of the USA thinks my "prose" is "ham-fisted" or whatever.

I popped over to my Amazon page that night and read some reviews to test the theory out. The good reviews didn't make me smile, but the bad reviews didn't make me sad. So that was it, then. Too bad, I thought passively, my heart is now a frozen, drool-covered chin. The magic is gone. 

But the thing about those needles they give you at the dentist is that they wear off. Nobody's chin stays frozen forever, thank goodness, and you wouldn't want it to. A blocked-off nerve ending keeps you from feeling pain for a few hours, but it doesn't keep you from getting hurt. It's not a long-term solution; it doesn't make you invincible, and it actually inhibits you in a lot of ways. And I bet 'thick skin,' if it even exists, is similar. It's armor you put on, maybe subconsciously, to keep yourself from feeling the root-canal-like sensations that come when someone says something really, really bad about something you've lovingly worked on for four years.

In the past couple of weeks, I've been thinking about this a lot. This new numbness makes for easy review-reading, but it also makes it impossible to write, to enjoy music, to smile at people. The sad feelings made writing cathartic but they pulled a wet blanket over the fun parts of publishing a book—the book clubs, the parties, the promotional stuff, the interviews. I just want to be excited about all this again. I want to figure out a way to read a negative review and hear it and not dismiss it (some of the negative reviews have actually been very enlightening) but also not read it like it's a review of me. And I want to read the positive reviews and trust them and let them make me happy. Because honestly, I think they'd be my favorite part of sending a book out into the world if I wasn't so distracted by the negative ones.

My conclusion? Oh, I have all kinds of conclusions here:

1. Numbness is okay. Self-protection is fine, for a time, and local anesthetics are essential (see also: epidurals). But

2. feelings are good and if I had to choose between thick skin and the vibrant, firework feelings of my pre-published life, I'd choose the FEEEEELINGS. Maybe being a thin-skinned person is actually an advantage for a writer? Like, yes, it sucks when you're getting feedback, but it really helps when you're trying to create a multi-dimensional character with their own emotions and stuff.


4. humility is not a thing that you can achieve once and for all because pride is a living, breathing monster that basically wants to take over your whole entire being. You think it's harmless, but being humbled after going on a pride trip, even if you didn't notice you were on one, is like falling from a skyscraper. Except

5. humiliation is not actually fatal. It's healthy. But you should never presume to have reached the basement because the basement has basements.

You know when you're on your way home from the dentist, and your mouth is frozen, and you wiggle your jaw around to try and get the numbness to wear off faster? I'm not sure if there's a way to do that with your brain, but this was my attempt at it, writing all this out. Fingers crossed it works.