Debut Advice: Self-care, Reviews, and Shifting from Reader to Writer

There’s lots of advice out there for debut authors, and I know maybe some of it gets repetitive after a while. But when I was a debut—even with the information available—I felt so unprepared for everything. I honestly think I could write ten posts entirely devoted to the debut year and still not cover everything I learned. But for this first post, I want to focus on the biggest struggle I had during the debut year—self-care.

Before I get into everything, I want to emphasize here that I’m not trying to scare anyone, or make anyone more nervous than they already are. I debated sugarcoating some of my experience, or not sharing it at all, but honestly? I really could’ve used this info prior to going into the debut year. I think it would’ve helped me take care of myself better. And besides, if you know me and you know my books, you know sugarcoating is not my strong suit.

Note: content warning for anxiety, depression, and brief references to abuse, suicide, and sexual assault.

One of the most important points I hope you’ll take away from this post is that you need to protect your heart. I know so many of us pour our souls into our work, and it’s difficult to detach ourselves from those stories. But for me, detaching is necessary. Because yes, there will be reviews. And yes, there will be bad ones. And yes, some people will think your book is the worst one ever written.

And maybe you’re thinking you’re prepared for that. Maybe you’re thinking you have the ability to tune out the noise, and ignore bad reviews, and focus on the positive. Once upon a time, I did too.

I thought I’d be fine if I just didn’t read bad reviews. If I stayed away from Goodreads. If I didn’t engage with anything negative. Because those were the rules, right? That’s what all the debut advice had said.

But the reality, for me, was a whole lot more complex.

Now, most readers are wonderful, I promise. I have so much love and gratitude for each and every person who takes the time to read my words, and this post is in no way meant to attack readers for having different opinions. Because, to be very clear, readers are entitled to their space. They can interpret your book however they want to, and as authors we have to respect boundaries and remember reading is subjective.

But this post isn’t about the reader—it’s about centering the writer and how to practice self-care.

I don’t want to alarm you, but some people will go out of their way to make sure you hear them. I’ve been tagged in reviews on social media where the person says a bunch of nice things in their message, but when I’d open the link thinking it was safe I’d find out they’d given it 2 stars and hated it. I’ve had people interact with me on Goodreads claiming to be fans, and when I click on their name their most recent review is a rant about my book. And once I had someone ask me an incredibly intrusive question about my history of abuse, and when I clicked on their name to find out who they were, I saw some of the most triggering personal attacks about me and my book by someone who believed an abuse survivor like myself should never have told their story.

I remember at the time feeling like I was being sucked into a black hole. I was trying so hard to do everything right. I didn’t engage with bad reviews—in fact, I was trying my best to avoid them completely. I stayed away from Goodreads. I knew in my heart it was okay for people to not like my book, and I respected that we’re all allowed to have different opinions.

But doing “everything right” wasn’t enough to protect myself, and I ended up in the worst mental health spiral I’d had in years.

Whether these people were right or wrong for doing what they did doesn’t matter—my point here is that I was unprepared. I hadn’t properly thought about all the different ways I could be hurt, and all the different avenues that hurt could come from. I think sometimes we’re told over and over again to be grateful, and to not complain, and we end up being too afraid to talk about how we’re feeling.

And that can be hard.

I think sometimes as writers we don’t realize how writing about heavy, personal topics could shift our ability to protect ourselves from reviews. If I wrote a sci-fi and somebody complained the robots didn’t feel authentic enough, I could shrug it off easily. Remember—reading is subjective. But if I write about what it felt like after I’d attempted suicide as a teen, and someone complains it isn’t believable, or calls it problematic simply for not reflecting their own experience with suicide? Then it’s not so easy to shrug off. Because it’s triggering.

And we don’t talk about this enough because we understandably want readers to feel safe in their own space. But while books can of course be triggering to readers, reviews can be triggering to authors too. And yes, even the good ones can be triggering, however well-meaning they may be.

Remember: REVIEWS ARE FOR READERS. They always, always will be. And you’re allowed to ignore them.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to separate yourself in these spaces. I know it’s hard, because most of us were readers before we were ever writers. And in the debut year, before our books are actually out on shelves, it can still feel like we’re not “authors” yet. It’s a strange sort of limbo where we feel like we don’t quite fit anywhere. But in my experience, the sooner you put up boundaries and make a permanent mental shift from reader to writer, the better.

When my book deal was first announced, I started following everyone. I thought it would be fun to make friends with book bloggers and readers and people who seemed excited about my debut. And I’m not trying to scare you into thinking this is a bad thing, because like I said earlier, most readers are lovely. But here’s what I hadn’t thought about at the time: Some of those readers will not like your book. And, okay, that’s cool, right? Everyone is different! That part is okay. But those bad reviews might then show up on your feed. And with Twitter, you often see things on your feed your mutuals have liked, or interacted with, or have had discussions about. Some of that might also include negative things about your book. And again, if your book is about robots and wizards and friendly-neighborhood-goblins, you might be fine with this. It’s not personal, after all.

But what about when your book is about your childhood abuse? What about when people are critiquing your personal experience with anxiety, or depression, or sexual assault?

Reviews aren’t meant to be personal. But sometimes the subject is too personal.

That took a long time to sink in, for me. Because I felt like I was being too sensitive, or too weak. I was getting mad at myself for not having thicker skin, when the reality was that reviews are not always healthy for writers.

And suddenly I found myself very much within a reader’s space, and I couldn’t breathe. It was too much for me. It was too triggering for me. And I felt like the damage had already been done, and I didn’t know how to repair it.

My mental health was shattered. I didn’t know how to talk about it, so I didn’t. I think in some ways that made it worse.

It took almost an entire year to heal. I’m still recovering. I drastically changed the way I interact with readers and bloggers online, and I’ve had to put up a lot of boundaries to protect myself. And sometimes I feel really guilty about that, because I want so much to be able to let my guard down and interact with everyone more freely. But it’s important to pay attention to our own mental health and needs.

I needed boundaries. A lot of them.

This is what worked for me:

  • I don’t follow reader and blogger accounts unless we’ve had some kind of personal interaction, or if I’m certain I feel safe with them in my feed
  • I don’t read Goodreads/Amazon/reader reviews for my books unless they’ve been vetted by someone I trust
  • I don’t automatically look at strangers’ profiles just because they’ve sent me a message, unless I feel safe to do so
  • I mute as necessary
  • If I unintentionally see anything negative that sets off my anxiety, I do not continue clicking. I turn off the internet and step away, and distract myself with something that makes me happy
  • I remember that I’m a writer, not a reader (even if I still love to read), and that the two spaces are very different
  • I remind myself often that nobody has the power to invalidate your life experience, and that you aren’t ungrateful just because you’re struggling
  • I don’t engage with negative reviews. REVIEWS ARE FOR READERS (repeat as needed)
  • I put my heart into my stories when I’m writing, but as soon as I’m finished, I try to remember to take my heart back out again. Because keeping your heart somewhere safe is important

I hope some of you find this helpful. Remember, this is not intended to be universal advice. Your mileage may vary, and maybe your debut year will go very differently. Maybe you have a completely different personality than me. Maybe your mental health is affected in different ways.

That’s okay. We’re not all the same.

But please, no matter what, remember to take care of yourself.

Comments

  1. E

    This post was invaluable. Thank you so much for deciding to open up. Sometimes it seems we’ve chased the dream for so long that to even entertain the idea of anything being negative about any aspect of the experience is heresy!

    Would also love to hear more from you regards writing for oneself and then getting a deal and ‘having to write’ as A PAID JOB, because… even just the idea of having to write a Book Two is paralysing. (Book 1 *deeply* personal and took many years).

  2. Martine Fournier Watson

    Thank you so much for this post! It must have been hard to write, but it’s so valuable for us. I’m in my debut year (coming out April 2019) and these kinds of posts and discussions are really helpful. Thanks for all the tips and for speaking from the heart <3

  3. Jennifer Santucci

    Thank you so much for sharing your debut experience. I appreciate the debut and publishing experiences that writers have been sharing lately, but it has been hard acknowledging the realities of what author life entails (not just the book deals, signings, and fanart). It’s hard hearing that it’s unlikely you can make a full time career out of writing and transition into being published can take a toll on your mental health, but I’m the type who wants to be prepared. It’s not just me going into this, so is my family. This was very eye opening and I’m sure hard to write about (not many authors talk about this), so I appreciate you writing this. Thank you!

  4. Pingback: 10 Authors I’ve Actually Talked To (Without Freaking Out And Vanishing) Part 2

  5. Maria John

    Oh wow. I’m so sorry you had to experience all of that to the point that your mental health was so detrimentally affected. Thank you so much for sharing something that was obviously very difficult for you
    and Have a good day <3

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.