The Shart Heard 'Round the World: On Subjectivity, Reviews, and Emotional Roller Coasters
This past month has been a whirlwind of activity for me.
Sometimes, I look back on my blog posts from a year ago and I marvel at how little I knew. I read everything – I devour books about the industry like candy, and yet, there appears to be an infinite amount of publishing info I have yet to learn.
So, here are the updates.
The first thing I learned this month was that filters are a real thing on Instagram that can make you look younger and less exhausted. I participated in an Instagram Live on January 18th with two insanely talented authors (Lauren H. Mae and Mia Heintzelman) and a real-live bookstagrammer. To prepare for this event, I busted out the good makeup, purchased a ring light on Amazon and spent more hours than I’m comfortable disclosing figuring out HOW FILTERS WORK. Alas, you are a reader of the 21st century; therefore, you already know this information. I am the one just crawling out from under the rock where I’ve been living, so I will not bore you with the details of stuff you already are well-versed in. All I have to say is: damn. If only I had known about it all sooner.
Okay, so the IG Live thing happened and I tried not to have a full-tilt-on-screen-meltdown, and I would say I was fairly successful at that. Once it was over, I felt significant relief. But that was a thing for maybe like 24 hours, because, genius that I am, I booked myself to read aloud for my first time ever (in front of living humans who are not relatives of mine) a mere two days after the IG Live.
If you are a new author reading this, heed my advice: give yourself a week between events when you’re just starting out. Unless you have nerves of steel, in which case, perhaps you can slide into my DMs and consider becoming my personal life coach.
Okay, so back to January. I did a reading. From my book. Out loud. I have no idea where I summoned up the audacity, but I didn’t just read the thing, I performed it. Credit where credit is due: I was blissfully lucky to have found an Open Mic situation led by two spectacular alumni from my MFA program, Chris Belden (whose novel, Shriver, is now a movie starring Kate Hudson and other famous people) and Katie Schneider, who is one of the most welcoming, encouraging people *on Earth*. I read the prologue, and people laughed, and my husband filmed it so it’s on the events page of my website for any and all to see. I stumbled over my words only once while reading, but kept it moving so it was hardly noticeable. The adrenaline coursing through my body was next-level, and between that and the IG Live, I was on top of the world.
Now. Let’s back track a second.
My publicist and I had previously discussed the plans I had for these events, and she looked for ways to leverage them utilizing outlets that she has access to (and I do not). So, the first thing she did was to post a Goodreads giveaway. That stayed up for a month, and ended the day before the IG live. Over 8,000 people entered the giveaway. I did some research. 8,000 is a lot for a debut. The book was garnering interest. Then, on January 18th, she launched something called a NetGalley Read Now. NetGalley, for those who are not familiar, is a website where book people (booksellers, librarians, influencers, etc.) can go to get advance reader’s copies of books they’re interested in. For people in the book world, early reading can help one determine if your book is a good fit for the clientele who frequent a particular bookstore, or if a library will want to carry your title. It’s potentially good for early reviews, etc., etc. There are lots of reasons to be excited about this type of thing: essentially, you’re looking to create buzz for your book.
When my publicist asked me how many copies of the book she should release, I said, “As many as possible!” thinking that the more people who read it, the more potential buzz.
But, you guys. I did not realize the amount of mental fortitude that would be required of me in order to handle early reviews. Or – to be fair – any reviews that were less than five stars.
So, ever the bibliophile, the first thing I did was to read the following page out of Courtney Maum’s gem, Before and After the Book Deal, a title which I have mentioned before as it sits on my nightstand for daily consumption akin to the Holy Bible for my religious peeps out there.
Here is the page which I had to LAMINATE AND TAPE TO MY DESK.
Why did I need this kind of affirmation to live on the edge of my writing space? Well, literally hours after making people laugh at the Open Mic, thinking that my writing was quite possibly good and that maybe I do have a future as an author, I got a one-star review with comments attached to it. I took a deep breath and read it… and it was So. Fucking. Hurtful.
My book is a romantic comedy, but I like to think that it’s heavy on the comedy – in movie-language, I would relate it to Bad Moms or Bridesmaids or Forgetting Sarah Marshall. So, do you remember the scene in Bridesmaids where the whole bridal party gets violently ill after eating bad sushi? (I think it’s sushi; to be honest, I can’t remember.) And Maya Rudolph shits herself in a giant Cinderella-style wedding gown in the middle of the street? I wrote a scene around 20 pages into my story where my female main character, Gracie, goes out for a jog after a night of indulging in far too much fettucine alfredo. And she sharts. It’s not explosive, but in her mind it’s a new level of rock bottom, as we learn prior to this scene that things have not been going well for Gracie. This is nowhere near the Bridesmaids debacle. It’s just a shart. But evidently, it was THE MOST OFFENSIVE SHART TO EVER EXIST, and it resulted in not just 1 but 5 one-star reviews. There was one reader who couldn’t move past that page. She was so awestruck that such a thing could happen to a MC that she DNF’d the book. (God bless that reader and her perfect gastrointestinal tract.) Another reviewer called me “deranged.” As if having a digestive system is a ludicrous construct that has no place in fiction writing.
I should also mention that during the constant refreshing of Goodreads (which quickly descended into a personal hell for me), I was also trying to begin a new manuscript. Well, nothing scrambles your brain more than reviewers who say you can’t write. They burrow into your gray matter like fucking maggots, eating you alive from the inside out, ensuring that in fact, yes, you can’t write anything that makes any sense, because all you do is second guess yourself.
There have been five-star reviews, also. In fact, there have been significantly more 5- and 4-star reviews than 2- or 1-star. And for these, I could not be more grateful, because they come from readers who are obviously my people. They get my sense of humor. They enjoyed watching Gracie stumble and fall, and rejoiced with her when she found her happily ever after. But their voices were inevitably muted by the louder minority who would prefer to douse my laptop with gasoline and light it on fire.
In an attempt to avoid a nervous breakdown, I reached out to a handful of author friends over the next few days. “How do you deal with nasty reviews?” I asked. Advice flowed in: Don’t even look at reviews, my friends said. Haters gonna hate. Art is so subjective. There’s no one-size-fits-all. Author Jessica Payne offered the following piece of brilliant advice: “Once your book is out there,” she said, “it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It belongs to the readers.” I wrote that down on a post-it note and stuck it right next to the Courtney Maum page on my desk. Sanity, folks. That’s all we’re after, here.
As my stomach continued to clench on my glutton-for-punishment-roller-coaster-review-ride, I decided to assemble a launch team to help me birth this book into the world properly. I am obviously not strong enough to do it on my own; I will need to lean on friends and family to help me. Anyone reading this who knows me can attest to the fact that I hate asking for help. But, I also don’t fail good, and you only get to be a debut author once. I will be damned if I’m not going to give it every last bit of energy I’ve got.
I spent the last 48 hours assembling a launch team. I am genuinely excited for the work we’re going to do together to bring Gracie and her story to the world, replete with her bodily imperfections. My roller coaster, which was at a new low at the end of January, felt like it was beginning to rise towards a different apex.
Then, Saturday morning happened.
My husband and I were having coffee at the dining room table when my phone buzzed. It was an e-mail, and normally I would have ignored it, only this was from my publicist – on a Saturday. The subject line of the message screamed at me in all caps: STARRED REVIEW FOR THE BOOK PROPOSAL FROM PUBLISHERS WEEKLY!
A new apex, indeed.
I will try to stop looking at Goodreads now. I will try to take Courtney Maum’s suggestion to “Read your trade reviews. Read your reviews in magazines. In short, read the reviews of professional reviewers. Do not read the reviews of overcaffeinated strangers who just want to vent online.”
And hopefully, this review, which has been printed and framed and hangs in my office, will allow me to stop second-guessing my writing and just do my thing.
Sharts and all.