When the Book Stops Being Mine and Becomes Yours

I’m spending the month of August in limbo. Part of this is due to my Macbook breaking, which kind of derailed my plan to spend all of August offline at a café writing retreat of my own making, but I will restrain myself from complaining about that here. (And also, as of yesterday, E fixed it enough for me to be able to use Scrivener to write!! MS Word I can’t use, so I can’t freelance right now.)

Besides, my feeling of being in limbo is so much more than my computer blahs.

My newest book—17 & Gone—is about to slip out of my fingers. This very weekend is my last chance to look at the pages and make changes before it releases for ARCs. This is that frightening moment when the book is still mine and part of me doesn’t want to let it go just yet, and the other part of me wants to set it flying and share it and see what happens, and these two parts jumble up together to make me so conflicted and confused, I really don’t know what I want anymore except to carry the pages around with me all weekend.

I will have to let go, obviously. I have to give any final comments to my publisher on Monday. Then the interior will be released to make ARCs. And then I guess the terror, um I mean the excitement, yay!, sets in.

It’s different this time, for me. The first time, with Dani Noir, I wasn’t a part of any author community or connected to bloggers or reviewers or anything. (This was before Twitter was a big thing!) So when there were ARCs, I gave one to my mom and kept one for myself and just waited for reviews to come in from places like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and that was pretty much the extent of my nerves. Not much was made of the book, and barely anyone knew of it, so there wasn’t anything to expect or wish for. The first time I knew someone was reading was when a coworker came downstairs to tell me she’d reviewed it on Goodreads (and she liked it!), and that was handled all to my face and seemed small and contained, and easier to deal with.

There was the book. And there was me. And I was able to separate the two without much issue.

My second experience with ARCs was with Imaginary Girls, and this was far more intense. There were more expectations—on my part, because this was the book of my heart, and on the part of others involved because I had an agent this time and this time I had a publisher who was more invested in the book. More ARCs were printed, more people were paying attention. Then the reactions started coming, some awesome and blush-inducing, but also I guess maybe some people thought the book was one thing (more straightforward? Not paranormal… or more obviously paranormal? Easily able to fit into a certain kind of box? I am not sure) and their reactions were sometimes more about that than what the book actually was. Also, at this point, Twitter was in full-force, and I was a Goodreads Author, so the reviews were more in my face—like right there in my face, being rated and tweeted with me tagged so I couldn’t help but see—and this affected my experience and excitement. I felt steeped in it and unable to escape. Even the little things, like if I knew someone—an author I admired, for instance—had read the book and never said a word about it, I felt sure I knew what that meant and knew what s/he truly thought and I buried this and felt worse about myself. This changed my feelings of achievement of having a book published to something more conflicted and mealy and spotted and, yes, truly fantastic at times and other times kind of ugly because it exposed all my worst insecurities and silly ability to hear only the bad things, like that scene from Pretty Woman. It was an experience in extremes.

You see, this time there was the book. And there was me. And they were—to my detriment—one and the same.

And I guess I never got over it. Ever since those moments when Imaginary Girls entered the world and people started reading it—starting with the day ARCs were released and then through all the months that followed, with trade reviews and reader reviews and the months after the book came out—my writing was filtered through that noise. I questioned everything. About my writing. About my personal taste. About my style. About who I was. I lost my confidence and sense of self-assurance. I had an exceptionally difficult time writing, and I still am having a hard time. I lost the ease.

My writing suffered immensely from this, which is absolutely and entirely my fault.

So you can see why having 17 & Gone become an ARC has me full of nerves right now.

On a smaller scale, all this reminds me of workshops in my MFA program. I got off easily at Columbia University; some workshops were cruel, and more than once I discovered the writers crying in bathroom stalls after class. But for the most part during my time in grad school, people were constructive but kind to me—never cruel, never making me question my entire being and think of giving up writing, which happened to some students I know. (Aside from my experience with my thesis, which I’ll leave aside for now.) I was one of the youngest students in the program, fresh from my tiny college in the Midwest, and such a newbie and used to praise, so it’s surprising that I wasn’t crushed my first month there. But I remember one workshop where my piece was getting praised and good suggestions were being made around the giant rectangle table in Dodge Hall overlooking the beautiful university campus… until we came to the guy sitting beside me to my right.

He was usually a soft-spoken guy. But that day, he spat out his reactions with brutal honesty. He hated my piece. Hated it. Hated my voice. Hated the subject matter. Hated the title. Hated the character. Hated the setting. Probably hated the font, too, who knows. Really he hated it all, and he had quite detailed reasons as to why. I don’t remember the reasons. I don’t even remember the piece itself for sure. What I remember is his impassioned hatred for my writing, and how close he was sitting to me in the room, so I could feel this hatred radiating off of him in waves.

But then some other students in class passionately defended me, and stood up for my work, arguing with him on my behalf, for my piece and for me as a writer—my style, my voice. I remember one guy in particular, across the table from me, who loved the piece so much and thought it was the best thing I’d written all year. (I couldn’t stand up for myself at that point; we were not allowed to talk while being workshopped; only to take in and listen.) But afterward, I remember being just as stunned by the students who loved my work enough to defend me as by the person who hated it so much. It was the same piece. We were all in the same room. It was a lesson in extremes, one I know we authors face all the time when it comes to reviews.

Even so, after that jarring workshop, I kept on the way I was. I still wrote the way I wrote, about the characters and places I liked to write about. The voice I had when I was 22 and just starting out at Columbia has been honed and polished and grown as I’ve grown, I hope, but it’s the same root voice I had in the beginning. I didn’t let that guy’s hate affect my writing. I simply knew it wasn’t his thing, and that was fine. So what’s different now?

A year or so after that memorable workshop, I remember being at a party with the guy who despised my writing, and then taking a cab home. The cab was packed, and he was in the front seat. He was turning around in his seat, being nice to me and joking and kind of normal, like we were friends or something—because, maybe, to him, that first-year workshop was gone and forgotten, or at least not something he thought about every time he looked at me. Maybe because he was mature and could separate the writing from the person who wrote it. But the thing is, I hadn’t forgotten, so I was reserved with him and didn’t want to be friendly that night. I guess I’d taken it personally. Even now, when I hear about his published books, I don’t wish him ill or anything, but I’m not a supporter of his. I’ve bought many books written by my MFA classmates, pretty much every one I’ve seen in a store. But not his. I’ll always remember him for being my most impassioned hater, so I have no interest in reading what he’s writing now.

I think of this a lot when it comes time for my books to be read and reviewed. How there will be extreme reactions. How some people will hate what I’ve done just as much as some people might just love it. How I have no control either way. And how all I can control is my reaction and behavior—and my knowledge of reviews, by staying away from Goodreads, which I do, and Amazon, which I do, and not clicking blog reviews, which I do not click unless told by someone I trust to read it. But more, I should be like 22-year-old me. I can remember the bad reactions all I want.

But I should not let it affect my writing, or my confidence.

So this is where my nerves about 17 & Gone come in. Soon the book will be yours—no longer mine. Soon you can read it and see what you think, and I do hope you read it and are honest about what you think. And speaking of, if you want to request an ARC, here’s a place where you can.

Look… we are so close! The book is almost yours:

And while all that is going on, I just want to keep my eyes on my own paper and keep writing.

After writing this post and getting this all out, I’m weirdly excited to reach this next step. Which I’ll take as a good sign that I’ve grown as a writer and as a person.

21 responses to “When the Book Stops Being Mine and Becomes Yours”

  1. I think what you’re going through plagues everyone in any profession really. Learning how to remain true to yourself, despite what others think…a lesson for the ages! 😉 That guy with the mean streak seemed more threatened by your work, than anything else, btw.

    I love your voice…if it’s anything like your blog, i find it to be warm, honest, vulnerable, but with just a hint of wisdom.

    I envy the confidence you had at such a young age. At 22, I was rife with insecurities…so consumed by what others thought of me, that I practically lost myself in the attempt to fulfill to what they expected of me, or trying to go the other extreme, and conpletely rejecting it to prove a point, to no good end. Regardless, I was a prisoner to it, and it was often paralyzing. I’m slowly discovering myself now (I’m 31 now…late bloomer lol), but I still have my bouts of insecurities looming its ugly and uninvited head.

    I don’t have much to go on from my youth and early 20’s…no memory of confidence and silent knowing of myself. But you, my dear, do. I think this is that phase of necessary discomfort that we all have to get through (and it seems more prominent in creative type careers) where you find yourself questioning and doubting almost every action. Filtering through their criticisms, as you say. But I think you’ll get past it, and on the other side, a more confident, stronger, and more true writer (with her signiture voice) will emerge. It’s kinda inevitable 😉


  2. That’s a very long and honest piece of writing, and it was lovely to read. First of all I just want to emphasise how amazing you should feel about yourself that this is your (I think?) third book about to be published? That’s really just an amazing feat, and you should be so proud.

    But I do see how reviews, positive and negative, can have a profound effect. After all, we write for the reader, not for ourselves, right? But if you can’t find anything in bad reviews/comments that you can actually take on board and learn from, then disregard them. If it’s not constructive, throw it away.

    And I’d like to add, don’t be too harsh on the guy who hated your work years ago. He probably would feel awful if he read this post and realised how much of an effect he had on you. I imagine he didn’t mean you harm 🙂 But what do I know!



    • Thanks, Vera! No worries, I don’t have a vendetta against the guy from workshop—writing workshops can be like that; it’s just part of the MFA experience.

      My point was really only that I’ve never forgotten because it was such a good lesson in intense extremes: love/hate, and how one piece of writing can induce both reactions at the same time. I think it’s a good lesson to have learned.

      I do want to add, though, that I don’t actually write for other people—for readers, or an audience, or the marketplace or anything else.

      I write for myself, and always have.


      • I admire you then! Because to be published yet to only write for yourself is a really fantastic thing.

        Whenever I write I am primarily thinking about what the audience will and won’t like..


  3. This post literally just took my stress headache away. I feel like I need to tack it up it over my desk and look at it every day. Thank you, Nova! And I am so excited for 17 & Gone that I’m practically drooling.


  4. I’m SO EXCITED to read the new novel, Nova!

    Your MFA workshop story is precisely why I wanted to start a workshop of my own. As Anne Lamott says, “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it too.” Why would somebody want to make a classmate run for the restroom the second class is over to cry in relative privacy? Yeah, okay, maybe people like him don’t consciously think “I want to make this person feel shitty for having written and shared this story,” but that’s the upshot. I don’t agree that it’s just part and parcel of the workshop experience—it doesn’t have to be, if people can give up working their angles (i.e., needing to feel like the best writer in the room) and, y’know, actually be willing to make themselves useful. You get what you give, after all—and that is why people love to recommend YOUR books!

    Also, AMEN to not reading Goodreads and Amazon reviews. I’m a much happier author for it. :}

    (p.s. Sorry if that came out as a rant—I just get so worked up when I hear about someone treated badly in a workshop setting!)


    • Camille, you are so very right! Workshops like this may have been the norm, those years ago back when I was in grad school, but that absolutely doesn’t mean they are good or helpful. It really doesn’t have to be this way—and you’re right, so much of this is people working the angles (like kissing up to professors to ultimately get referrals to their agents, etc. etc.).

      I wish you did start your workshop!


      • Oh, I actually meant the workshop I started at my local library! It’s over now because I needed to focus on getting my manuscript ready, but I’m doing a three-hour workshop at an artists’ retreat next month, and after that, who knows? More good things, I just don’t know their form yet. 🙂


  5. Thanks for sharing this, Nova. I’m getting to close to my first ARC and sort of freaking about it (but excited too.) I like your approach to criticism (as someone who also sat in a workshop like yours!) I guess the key is to separate yourself from your writing. Not that that is easy…


  6. I’m in the ‘question everything’ stage right now and it’s totally stalled my writing. I can’t tell you how nice it is to see that other writers feel the same way and end up in the same place. Both times I’ve had a book come out, I’ve been so invested in that book and the reaction to it that I haven’t been able to write anything new for months. I’ve never taken a writing course, but Goodreads is that to me – the surly guy sitting next to me that hates my very being and questions my ability to ever write anything decent. Which, of course, has me doing the same thing.

    Can’t wait for the new book! We all get past this (I hope) and then get to start all over again.


  7. This post is almost everything I can say for my own experience save the published part (yet…), I spent undergrad and grad pursuing creative writing. Graduate school almost broke my confidence. Somewhere deep inside I knew I would continue writing somehow, but I questioned everything. I submitted chapters from my heart novel only to have it all but trashed, but I’m moving forward regardless. Though I wish no one experienced bouts of self doubt, it feels good to know I’m not the only one, that even beautiful writers like yourself have these moments. Thanks for this post, and your blog, really.


  8. One of the biggest surprises of my life post-publication is to discover how common these feelings are, how taking reviews in stride is much, much easier said than done. Before publication, people tend to say, “Well, I’ll just have to have a thick skin and be professional. Some people won’t like my work and that’s okay. I can shrug it off; after all, I’ve had years of rejection letters!” And then they get those first reviews, and they realize getting reviewed is totally different from rejection letters. Rejection letters tend to be polite, formal, and private, while reviews can be vitriolic, personal, and public. And then there’s the fact that even when reviews are glowing, they can lead us to be just as self-conscious. Focusing too much on reviews takes the focus off the stories in our heads, and lets in too many other voices. “What will they think of this? Will this disappoint my fans? Will this finally earn the respect of those who looked down on my earlier work? How ya like me now?”

    It really is a joy to hear from people who like my work, and I love to sit in with book clubs when they discuss my books. But like you, I also draw a line around how much feedback I get, because there’s a time when I have to put the story in my head first, and listen to it before I listen to anyone else.

    Btw, I was in a bookstore today and wishing 17 & GONE was out already so I could’ve gotten it!


  9. I LOVE your books and your blog. I LOVE your unique voice. Thanks for sharing so much of everything. I wish the best for you and can’t wait to read the new book!!


  10. I went through the same thing with ALL THAT WAS LOST. It’s taken me far longer than I expected to finish it because there were days (weeks) when I was just crippled with self-doubt because of something I read–even in nice reviews–about SOMETHING LIKE NORMAL. It’s this secret feeling that THIS person knows THE TRUTH in a way others don’t. And it can be absolutely paralyzing.


  11. Not that I’m an author or anything, so I wouldn’t know, but… I think you shouldn’t be as nervous this time. It sounds like an insanely-stressful time for you, but now you have people (like me!) who loved Imaginary Girls, who love your writing and style, who absolutely will not be disappointed. Nothing you write can suck. I write plenty, and some novels/stories are good, others not as good, but there is never SO much difference between the goods and bads that someone who loved the better ones would hate the bad ones. What I’m trying to say is, now you have fans. And the fans aren’t likely to just walk out on you.


  12. I’m not far enough along to have ARCs on my horizon quite yet, but I imagine I’ll have the same love/hate relationship with them that you do. I’ll remember your story and advice when the time comes. Thank you so much for sharing it with us!


  13. What a wonderful post. I’m still finding it hard to sustain my belief in my ability after vitriolic and dismissive reviews. They’re like a terrible drug, I click on them just to see how much people can run my work down, and then I sit there paralysed because I hate everything I’ve ever written and I can’t finish a book because all I can see is the negative.

    I’ve been feeling rather worthless for a while, and it’s comforting to know that it’s a trial that many writers go through, and it I just have to somehow learn to not let any of it matter.

    So thank you for sharing, and here’s a raised glass to 17 & Gone. 😀


  14. […] 3. You have probably already read this essay, but since some of us are behind the times thanks to Bread Loaf, here it is: “Explicit Violence.” I love Lidia Yuknavitch. And here are a few other older links worth sharing: The Rejectionist writes about spending five days on a yacht (and the nature of creation and storytelling and truth) and Nova Ren Suma remembers the MFA classmate who hated her writing style and admits how she feels about him now. […]


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