Writer Anxieties

It’s now more than a year since Magic or Madness was first published which means I’ve been a published novelist for more than a year—something I’ve wanted since I was a littlie. All sorts of things have happened since then that I hadn’t anticipated, and trust me, I anticipated a lot: bestseller status, a multi-million dollar film option, the nobel prize. (Clearly, that’s all being saved for later.) I’m not entirely delusional, I also imagined less over-the-top stuff: good reviews, selling well enough that my publisher wouldn’t drop me. So far so good: there’s a tick beside both of those boxes.

What I didn’t anticipate was how having a book out can mess with your writing other books. Once Magic or Madness was published I began to scan the subject headers of my email looking for reviews, a hint of a foreign sale, a conference invite, any kind of recognition and/or praise. I started googling, technorating, blogpulsing, icerocketing myself and my book with unseemly regularity as well as engaging in a ludicrous amount of amazonomancy.

I was exhibiting all the signs of praise addiction.

A week without a good review, discussion of MorM on someone’s blog, a fan letter, a foreign sale, being named to a best-of-the-year list, or being shortlisted for an award was a hideously naff week. And a week with BAD reviews? And the many weeks my books continue to NOT be banned? Well, let us not speak of it.

I was not heeding the wise words of a much-published and much-lauded writer who told me I shouldn’t take any of that stuff seriously. “You should write the very best books you can,” she told me, “and forget about the rest. If your book doesn’t sell in multiple markets, doesn’t get good reviews, or any award nominations does that mean that you and your book are worthless? There are many fabulous books that are poorly reviewed and win no awards. If you listen to the negativity it will mess with your writing; if you become addicted to the praise it will mess with your writing. Best to forget it all and concentrate on writing.”

At the time I thought she was just being a killjoy. Now I know she was right.

As I wrote the first draft of Magic’s Child I thought about fan/reviewer/award judge/foreign publisher responses to Magic or Madness and Magic Lessons. I imagined their responses to Magic’s Child, and worse, started figuring out how to circumvent these wholly imaginary criticisms. In other words I panicked all over the page.

Magic’s Child is the first book I’ve written knowing who the audience is. (Fortunately, Magic Lessons was already written before Magic or Madness came out.) I have had letters from readers, comments about the books on my blog. Teachers, librarians and booksellers have also passed on comments. There have been reviews (in journals, magazines, newspapers, blogs and on sites like amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com) as well as comments and discussion on other people’s blogs.

I’ve heard from a bunch of folk how they want the trilogy to end, who it’s okay for me to kill (Esmeralda, Danny), and who it mostly definitely is not (Reason, Tom and Jay-Tee); who should be a couple (Reason and Tom) and who shouldn’t (Reason and Danny). All the praise, suggestions, and criticism echos in my head as I rewrite Magic’s Child: What if this book isn’t as good as the first two? What if I can’t wrap up everything in a way that pleases my existing readers? What if there are no readers by the time the third book comes out?

These are not thoughts that are conducive to happy writing. For me the only way to cope has been to stop reading any of it. Sadly I’m not very strong, so the only way I can do that is to turn the internet off, which is why I’m behind with emails, and am not blogging as much as I’d like.

How do you other writers cope? How do you manage not to think about bad (and good) reviews? Do any of you not read them? Is this just a sign of my newbieness? Will this phase pass as I write and publish more books? Or is this just part of being a writer?

Or is it that writing the third book of a trilogy is ridiculously difficult? I’m leaning that way on account of writing the Great Australian Elvis Mangosteen Cricket Fairy YA Novel has been (relatively) dead easy. Sigh.

Or am I merely learning that one of the central tenets of post-structuralist theory is dead on: a writer has no control over how their text is received. A reader may love your book for the moving romance even though you delibarately wrote it to be romance free; another reader may hate it because it is romance free.

There’s nothing you can do about it except be grateful that you are being read at all.


  1. Cee on #

    I just finished reading a library copy of “Magic or Madness” while on my lunchbreak, and really, really enjoyed it. Of course, now I’m enormously frustrated that the library doesn’t have a copy of “Magic Lessons” for me to devour immediately (and naturally then I’ll be impatiently waiting for “Magic’s Child”). I find it so frustrating reading trilogies while they’re being written – the waiting between volumes! Unbearable.

    I imagine that writing the third book of a trilogy is difficult, especially when you’ve been reading feedback on the first volumes. If it helps, I never have any idea how I want trilogies to end – sometimes I think it would be nice if two characters got together, but usually if they don’t I end up thinking that that was the far better ending. Authors, man – they mess with your head 😉

  2. Justine on #

    Cee: And now you know that readers get to mess right back at the authors’ heads!

    Seriously, now that I know how writers are all google happy, I am so going to post long entries detailing exactly what I want to happen in future volumes of series and trilogies that I read. I bet if I tell Libba Bray that I want the whole boarding school to burn down she’ll listen to me! Or at least sweat over it . . . Mwah ha ha ha! The power!

    P.S. I’m so pleased you liked MorM!

    P.P.S. It does help!

  3. Little Willow on #

    Congrats on your post-one-year-ness! 🙂

  4. cecil on #

    ah Justine. As always you manage to get right to the heart of the matter. Thanks for posting this. You put a lot of things into words that I’ve been feeling and thinking and fretting about.

    xo xo xo cc

  5. Cheryl on #

    stick with those post-structuralists, they are smart cookies. (and yes, it does apply to reviews as well as books.)

  6. tricia sullivan on #

    i loved magic or madness, have passed my copy on to a friend and i’m looking forward to reading the rest of the trilogy. so there’s one tidbit for your day!

    re: your question to other writers. for myself i have never had nearly the attention you have had for morm, but i have had some and i find it destructive, no matter how gratifying, unless it is specific praise coming from a personally known and trusted source–this is always nice.

    i have also (more frequently) had work received with resounding silence from all quarters. that is definitely worse from the point of view of opportunities to drink champagne. it is no fun whatsoever–but it has the hidden advantage of keeping you hungrier as a writer. i find it easier to write when i’m not dealing with that other stuff, so i can guess how you’re finding it hard to field all these great developments and still put on Robson’s tiara (as it were) and get down to it.

    others may disagree, but i suspect that what you are describing is an unavoidable neurosis. i don’t think it can ever go away completely. for me, i’ve learned to at least TRY to do as your writer friend advises. personally i am happier as a writer than as an author, and being an invisible underdog is easier for the writer part because you think, ‘hah! i’ll show them!’ but work is work and it’s always hard. googling oneself is easy, obviously.

    i don’t know about post-structuralist theory, but writers are notoriously control-freaky and that part does kind of end once you turn the final draft in. alas.

  7. Shveta on #

    For what it’s worth, I think if you take that fellow writer’s advice and write the book the way you feel it should be, irrespective of readers’ opinions, it will be great. For example, I myself do not want to see Tom and Reason end up together, but if that is part of the story you have to tell, I will deal with it. Just tell your story, and tell it well. 🙂

  8. cecelia on #

    i never herad of you until today, by going on scott westerfeld’s blog and there i found your website. you know, those books-the triology, sounds really interesting- even though the only magic books i read are the harry potter ones. your books sound amazing, but i also like scott’s triology, Uglies, Pretties and Specials. They rock! ok. gotta go. BYe
    cc 😉

  9. cecelia on #

    u know, computer class sucks right now!! and so does 8th grade.

    p.s: why am i telling you this??

    cecelia :-0

  10. anonymous on #

    Or it could be that all writing is difficult. Difficult if you get praised, difficult if you don’t, difficult if you get ignored. It’s the life you chose, Dr. L.

  11. Jill on #

    Reason/Danny = Love

    Tom/Jay-Tee = Love

    Eh, maybe I’m in the minority here, but the end of Magic Lessons really pleased me.

    Anyway…I wish I could say something constructive about your writing troubles, but I have such limited experience in that field! All I know is that I’ve never been able to get past 4000 words of a novel without giving up in disgust at my own lack of skill, so you’re better off than I am.

  12. Rebecca on #

    And now you know that readers get to mess right back at the authors’ heads!”
    Eep! That’s frightening. Actually, whenever I have some kind of contact with an author, I go out of my was not to say how I want things to end. I’m not published or anything, but when friends read stuff that I’ve written and then say, “If you kill off Soandso I’m going to be so mad at you!” or whatev, it really does screw with my head. Usually it’s just a couple of people here and there, so it doesn’t end up actually affecting whether I do kill off Soandso. Anyway, I would just say, remember that you’re writing the books, not your fans, not your critics, not anyone else, and if you couldn’t write a good story, the first two books wouldn’t have been absolutely wonderful.

  13. Megan on #

    I can’t imagine you not writing a good book! I normally don’t read books that are related to magic since the ones I’ve read before I was “eh” about. Your books are so well-written and I put my full trust in your ability to make Magic Child a superb end to the triology. I’m counting the weeks until March 2007 because I know that Magic Child will be worth the wait, as was MORM and ML. 🙂 Good luck in finishing but I think we all put our trust in you no matter what! btw, I love Tom & Reason together so I’m in the majority but if they don’t end up together, I won’t be too upset. 🙂

  14. Chris S. on #

    A) I have to go with ‘Ignore it all’. Ignoring is good. Especially during the writing process. Afterwards, sure, take time to read the responses. That way you can soak in all the praise (and shout ‘wrong! wrong!’) at any criticism, without distracting yourself from the wip.

    B) Of new writers we’ve had hit our bookstore this past year, you are one who doesn’t need to worry. Staff and reader comments so far have all been of the “excellent! Can’t wait for more!” variety.

    C) Now ignore that, and write on.

  15. oyceter on #

    It’s weird! I think it’s sort of like when I blog about books written by people I know. I have to put on another hat and pretend I don’t know them.

    Um, that was a rather slanty analogy, but given the many ways serialized narratives go off track when they seem to be responding to audience criticism (Joss Whedon, I am pointing to you!!), having the blinders on is probably a good thing, if just for sanity’s sake! Alas, being a definite non-writer, I can’t say anything about the other questions.

    Of course, as a reader, I like the post-structuralist POV myself, since sometimes authors come out with views of their own books that I don’t quite see. But that’s ok too! It’s what makes reading fun!

  16. nalo on #

    Praise addiction is a great way to put it! Bad reviews still make me go cold. Hell, good reviews with a few demurs in them make me go cold. (Ask Scott; he knows.) But eventually I warm up again, and regain my perspective. As to the obssessive ego-surfing, that calms down to a dull roar as well. Though, cynically, maybe that is because there comes a point when you’ve found just about everything on the Internet there is about you to find, and publishing a new book only spikes the chart for a couple of months or so. Plus, the praise and the panning becomes information that you take into consideration, like any critique. You try to sift the comments that will help your writing from those that won’t, and with any luck, it all gets a bit less fraught.

    I’ve discovered that many people are praise addicts; if you think they did something well, they like hearing specifically what they did that you liked. It’s so difficult to see ourselves. I think honest and specific praise gives us a little bit of self-insight. It finally occurred to me a little while ago to tell my editor what I like about her editing, and the art dept what I liked about my most recent cover. Feels really great to give some of the good stuff back.

    The thing that still strikes terror into my heart is when people try to reassure you by saying that they’re confident that your next book will be amazing. For me, *that’s* paralyzing pressure, because it’s entirely possible that it may not be excellent. I need to be able to keep the perspective that my work will vary in quality, and that’s okay. (Not at all aimed at you, Megan; just continuing from the line of thinking your comment brought up. Besides, Justine may not feel as I do about this.)

    And yes, I suspect that writing the third book of a trilogy is difficult.

  17. orangedragonfly on #

    not that this is even close to being on the same scale, but in a teeny-tiny way i kind of know what you mean. i’ve been a writer–for myself–as long as i can remember: stories/poems/random lines on whatever napkin/scrap paper/bit of skin was available for writing on. i have piles of notebooks full of stories and poems, and most of them were filled pretty easily. but when i was in college and had to start writing for classes, had to bring my poems and stories to my peers to be…well…sometimes ripped to shreds, i *freaked out*. writing wasn’t easy anymore. i worked through it and it got a little better, but it was never quite the same. it was *work*. anyway…random ramble, i guess. 🙂

    mostly i just wanted to say that when i read a book (or trilogy or whatever) i try not to *want* something specific to happen. i like to be surprised. magic or madness and magic lessons (i just finished!! 😀 ) did a great job of keeping me on the edge of my seat, and i have complete faith that magic’s child will do the same. you are amazing!!!

    ahh! but it’s so far away!!

    by the way, to people *really* tell you how they want things written? that’s crazy talk…i guess it shouldn’t surprise me too much, but it does.

  18. Justine on #

    I tell you all that I have a terrible praise addiction problem and what do you do? You praise me! Stop!

    Just kidding. All this praise is delicious. Thank you. I really appreciate it. Having an audience, however big or small, is pretty bloody cool.

    Tricia Sullivan: I have a friend whose first few books were largely ignored and then they had a (relative) big hit. They’ve been working on the next book for much much longer than any of the previous books. This friend said they felt much more comfortable writing when it felt like no one was looking.

    Though I have just as many anecdotes about really talented writers who’ve sunk into despair and quit writing because of what they see as total lack of recognition. So, yeah, as you say writers are just neurotic.

    I think you’ve come up with my new fave catchphrase: “work is hard; googling is easy.” Brilliant!

    Shveta: Thanks! Fortunately if I turned in a book that was pandering to what I imagine my audience wants my editors would yell at me and make me rewrite it!

    Cecelia: Glad you’re intrigued! I’m happy to be in the same sentence with the Harry Potter books!

    Anonymous: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

    Jill: My fingers are in my ears! I’m not listening! The book will go its own way!

    I used to not be able to write long stuff either. The more you do it the easier it gets. Except for trilogies obviously. And other hard tricky books. And . . . oh never mind!

    Rebecca: I love the idea of it as a reader and hate the idea of it as a writer.

    But in the end the book will be what it has to be. I have tough, smart editors and critiquers who won’t let me write anything that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit with the first two books, which is part of why it’s so hard . . .

    Megan: Thank you! I’m enjoying the faith you have in me!

    Chris S.: A) Turning the internet off and just writing during the day is a vast improvement. So I’m managing a part-time ignoring.

    B) That’s fab to hear. You’re Bakka books in Toronto, aren’t you? I love that bookshop.

    C) Right. Am ignoring you as I type.

    Oyceter: It’s all odd, isn’t it? I admit I’m cowardly and never post about books I don’t like. Movies yes, books no. If I weren’t a writer I’d definitely bag the books I hate too.

    Absolutely on authors sometimes being completely insane about their own work. Have you ever heard the director of Donnie Darko talking about it? Completely mad!

    Nalo: You mean like being told your prose is occasionally overwrought in a starred review 🙂

    I’m looking forward to going total cold turkey on technorati et al.

    I think you’re right most people are praise addicts. And why not? It’s so lovely. And as you say just as much fun to praise people as it is to be praised.

    So we writers are hopeless then? High expectations terrify us, low expectations piss us off and no expectations send us into an abyss of despair.

    No more trilogies for me!

    Orangedragonfly: It’s very similar indeed. Scary knowing that there are people watching!

    From my point of view March 07 is terrifyingly soon!

    And, yes, people really do tell me how they want the trilogy to end. I stick my fingers in my ears and go “la, la, la!” I’m with you—I like surprises too!

  19. lili on #

    Dear Dr Larbalestier,
    This is how I would like your trilogy to end:

    -tom confesses his love for danny (well he DOES love fashion design…), and he and reason have a duel over him. you can decide who wins.

    -danny isn’t listening. he’s too distracted by the giant butterflies that seem to be following him around after he drank some of esmerelda’s “lemonade”.

    -jay-tee writes a novel about their wacky adventures, and then falls in love with an aussie author who wrote a nyt bestselling spec-fic novel about vampires.

    -all characters are reunited (including dead ones) for an awesome musical dance number. this one may be difficult to do justice to in words.

    Right. Off you go, then.

  20. shana on #

    lili – yes! bollywood-style music dance number, with spewing fountains!

  21. Fuzzy on #

    Ah, but here’s the thing — if I wanted to read a book that ended exactly the way I want it to, I write the dang thing myself. I’m waiting for Magic’s Child because I want to read the book *you* wrote and find out how *you* end it.

  22. Diana on #

    i admit to a lack of shipper preferences in MOrM. i’m very happy with it so far. though here’s another vote for that bollywood musical number. that would be faboo.

    you’ve brought up a lot of my own fears about writing a squel now that i’m getting feedback on the first. and yes, the shipper status is a big one.

  23. Jill on #

    *laugh* Well, you can’t have everything. I’ll stop being a flamboyant shipper now. No matter what happens, the book will no doubt be wonderful. I thought Magic Lessons was an improvement on Magic or Madness (not to say I didn’t like MorM, because I truly did) so Magic’s Child has to be even better. Right? 😀

  24. Lewis on #

    J, just keep on writing – forget/disregard bad reviews cause if you
    become obsessed with them you’ll be wasting your time and energies.
    Some people will like your work; some won’t. And the people who like
    your work will keep on reading them in the future. lewis
    p.s. will you be on jim freund’s program, hour of the wolf, in
    the near future? l

  25. Justine on #

    Hmph!! If you lot want Bollywood musical numbers you should all go read Scott Pilgrim and leave me alone. (Though I did once start a book with lots of musical numbers. It also had a character called the “Crab of God” which was actually the weirdo statue next to St John the Divine.)

    Fuzzy: Indeed! That’s one of the reasons I started writing in the first place. Thanks for reminding me!

    Diana: I’m relieved to hear someone doesn’t have them!

    If it helps writing the first sequel, Magic Lessons was a total cinch compared to this book. So you can relax for at least a book . . .

    Jill: Ship away! It’s fun. Don’t let my writerly anxieties get in your way. I ship other people’s books all the time. (Don’t tell anyone but I think Magic Lessons is better than MorM too. Here’s hoping I can pull off the same with Magic’s Child.)

  26. Yvette on #

    Dear Justine, Magic or Madness … That about sums up some criticism. You book surpasses all. I hot footed it to Bank Street Books to get Magic Lessons only to find it … S-O-L-D O-U-T????!!! Gasps, staggers. Face pressed to window, waiting for promised order … Scared children ask their mothers, who is that mad woman at the window?


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