25 May 2014

Guest post: Reviews, Validation, and Other Identity Crises Experienced by Indie Authors - written by Marie Chow

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Marie is a former teacher, education evaluator, and engineer. A lifelong student, she has degrees in degrees in chemical engineering, teaching, an MFA in writing, and a doctorate in educational leadership. Her writing focuses on bilingual and English-only children's books that feature mixed families, as well as literary and contemporary fiction focused on Asian and Asian American characters.
I recently read and reviewed Unwell by Marie, you can read the review here

As an author, I admit that I have a hard time not taking reviews too seriously. Though I have many odd quirks and OCD tendencies, in this, at least, I know I am not alone: all writers need a certain amount of validation. Regardless of whether we write zombie-apocalypse-romance, contemporary women’s or kid’s lit, writing is creation, and as such, it’s intensely personal.

When someone says something critical about my writing, my first gut reaction is akin to when someone makes a critical remark about my son. Never mind that the child in question is going through a terrible-twos where he will start roaring, in the middle of a restaurant, quite loudly, like a dinosaur (and then giggling madly at his own behavior). Criticism directed towards my children, like criticism about my writing, is deeply personal. It’s hard not to be defensive. It’s hard to step back and say: you’re right, my toddler’s a bit of a monster right now, or yes, perhaps I did overuse that particular word or trope.

Yet whereas parenthood has its own sets of associated benefits and costs (for every “monster” moment there’s at least one gooey-Hallmark-sticky-kiss-moment), the highs and lows of being an indie author (especially when we’re in control of not only the writing, but also the publicity, marketing and all of those associated pitfalls) is less clearly defined.

This is my first year as an “indie author.” If I can close the year having sold enough copies (not counting the ones I’ve paid for myself, shipping to reviewers and for giveaways) to pay for the cover art of Unwell I’ll be happy. If I could break even on the illustration costs of Because Dragons Love Milk, I’d learn how to dance a jig, and then post evidence of said jig on YouTube.

My point here is this: Writing, and then publishing, is so very personal, that our identities become intricately woven into everything we create. As such, every criticism becomes not merely a criticism of a particular chapter, section, plot device or work, but rather, a criticism on us. And, it’s hard sometimes, when the writing isn’t flowing, when it’s all starting to feel so… very… hard not to sit and obsess about the negative reviews, to wonder whether this entire journey, writing, publishing, marketing, repeat, is worth it.

I think it’s an identity crisis that indie authors suffer far more than traditional ones. After all, we have, by definition, started off as outcasts. Though there are always the outliers (Jim Carrey, who decided to self-publish because he wanted complete control and knew he had the name recognition to succeed), most of the indie authors I’ve talked to will admit, in their more honest moments, that they tried traditional publishing first. That they got rejected, or tired of getting rejected, and eventually, decided to branch out on their own.

That was certainly my path.

And, because I wasn’t first accepted by the mainstays, the establishment, because I started my life not only as an indie author but as someone who had to pick between indie-or-nothing, I think that poor reviews (despite the good ones that also come along), can be particularly identity-crisis-inducing.

At moments like these, I know I have to ask myself, as well as other indie authors: Why bother?

The answers I received were varied and perhaps unsurprising. Many enjoy the process (or are unable to stop themselves), and will keep writing as long as there’s a way to share and publish. Just as they might share a picture of their loved ones on Facebook, they’re happy that they now have an easy way to upload their works to reach a larger audience. Others used good reviews as their inspiration (advice that I really, really should take to heart), while several responded with a bravado that I, at least, have never been able to feel: Validation? Who needs validation?

Me? I’m less brave. I crave validation. Not merely now (in the form of readers who have enjoyed my work) but also eventually (in the hope and dream of one day “making a living”).

More importantly, I can’t seem to quit.

I’ve tried to stop-writing for days, weeks, and sometimes months at a time. Since I’ve found myself to be an utter failure in terms of quitting, I’ve really had no choice but to commit to the process. To say, okay, writing is a skill, a craft, and like anything else out there, it can (and will!) be conquered by the sheer force of my persistence. My willingness to practice and hone my craft. My unrelenting stubbornness about the entire enterprise.

This then, has been my takeaways of my life as indie author:

1. Whereas good reviews make me smile, poor reviews lead to identity crises. Thus, perhaps it would be best to not read reviews, as the costs outweigh the benefits.

2. Though validation matters, and is very, very important, in the short term, it is force of will and sheer (perhaps stupid) stubbornness that carries that day.

3. We’re a very odd, borderline masochistic breed. Proceed with caution.

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