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Guest Post: Sarah Dessen on the Highs and Lows of Writing

What_happened_to_goodbyeIf you look up “Sarah Dessen” on either or it’s clear that she is beloved among young adult fiction readers. Excitement over her tenth novel is practically palpable and more than one fan has professed his/her love for her tenderly-crafted stories brimming with true-to-life characters. It’s no wonder then why we chose What Happened to Goodbye as our Best of the Month in young adult pick for May. McClean’s journey towards self-discovery will ring true to nearly anyone 12-years-old and up, showing us that coming-of-age and finding out who one is doesn’t stop at the age of eighteen. Naturally, I would assume that a woman who is able to traverse this emotional landscape so well would, after living through the release of nine novels, be some sort of an indestructible force with the nerves of steel. But, in this exclusive Amazon blog post, Dessen shares what it’s like to wait for the day of publication, when all the world is suddenly--and very publicly--allowed to talk about a project she’s been working on for years. Does she celebrate with a big bowl of ice cream or a reality TV marathon? No, as Dessen explains, she tends to spend her time working on projects like cleaning her closet. For more from Dessen herself, read below:

My tenth book, What Happened to Goodbye, is about to be published, and here’s something you might not guess: just TYPING that fact gives me an anxiety spike. Crazy, I know. You would think, by the tenth time you do something, it becomes at least comfortable, if not outright habit. If I’d been married nine times, by the tenth I’d probably not even sweat the dress. Ditto for having my tenth kid: forget being anxious about germs on little hands, I’d most likely let the kid lick the floor outright. But there is something about creating, honing and then releasing a novel into the world to which I, at least, have never been able to adjust. Each time is like the first time. But better and worse, all at once. Why is that?

When my first novel came out, I was twenty-six and a professional waitress. I lost money skipping my most lucrative shift, Friday night, to do a signing at a local bookstore. My press packet--which my parents paid for--consisted of a color copy of the cover, my author picture, and the one review I’d gotten, which I stapled together while standing at the counter at Kinko’s. Book tour was every local store that would have me, sales were miniscule, and I was back slinging salsa a couple of days later. Nothing much was different except now I was a waitress with a published book, which still didn’t make me as cool as everyone else I worked with, most of whom were in bands.

Fast forward fifteen years, and a lot is different. I’m a full time writer, a mother, and most people don’t even have actual paper press packets anymore. The day after my book is published, I’ll begin a tour that will take me around the country to bookstores I didn’t even have to beg to have me. What hasn’t changed, however, is the panic that sets in as the pub day approaches. Book one or four or seven or ten, it’s the same. I have a hard time describing it, other than to say it’s this perfect mix of wild expectation and panicked, crushing dread. Kind of like going on a big roller coaster at warp speed, non-stop, for, oh, about six months. Up, down. High, low. Yay! OH MY GOD. You get the idea. Back when the only people invested in the book’s success were myself and my Kinko’s subsidizing parents, I really wanted my novel to be accepted and do well. Now, there are just a few more folks involved who I also don’t want to disappoint, like, say, all my fabulous readers. And my entire publishing company. And those really nice bookstore owners who will set up great events where I pray said fab readers will 1) show up and 2) possibly buy books.

Then there’s the own bar I set. I think any author has high expectations for their work, and no matter how much other people like a novel, you always see the flaws and weak spots. Which, of course, you are sure everyone else will spot immediately as well. Add in the fact that by a book’s release, I’ve been living with it for over two years--writing, editing, proofreading--and have also lost all possible perspective. It’s like the perfect storm of self doubt, and what makes the hills on that internal rollercoaster so steep. People are so excited (yay!) but what if the book still disappoints them (oh, no!)? Not that I can stop this thing, it’s already in motion. Best I can do is hang on and hope for the best.

That said, there are things you can do to survive your pub day. Personally, I find having a paper bag to breathe into to be helpful. Also, do not Google yourself or your book for reader reviews, at least not that first day: it is like looking for your name on the bathroom wall. No good can come of it. If you go to a local bookstore, do your best not to hover around the shelf or table where your book is, especially if someone picks it up. Would you want Jane Austen breathing down your neck while you perused Pride and Prejudice? If you must stalk your book, try to be stealth about it. And don’t ever try to move it to a better spot, or a table closer to the door: the bookstore employees will see you, pity you and move it back where it belongs.

So I can’t stalk, Google or rearrange inventory, you say. What can I do? Personally, I find tasks that give me a false sense of control to be very helpful. Clean out a closet. Pair and ball socks. These are days reality television marathons were made for.

The bottom line is, no matter how anxious or exhilarated you are about your book release--and you will be either, and both, at various points during the day--it doesn’t belong to you anymore. For me, every one of my books begins as this great big secret. It’s all mine. Then, when I finish a draft and send it to my agent and editor, I let a bit of the world in. As reviewers and bloggers get advance copies, the group gets even bigger. By pub day, everyone is welcome, and I officially have to let it go. The closest thing I’ve experienced to this feeling, actually, was watching my daughter from afar on the preschool playground. Did I want to go out there and get back the shovel some kid took from her, or wipe the sand off her after she fell? Of course. But hopefully, if I’ve done my job the best I can, she’ll do just fine without me. And so will my book.

So the best advice, really, doesn’t involve paper bags or chocolate or red wine (although all of these can be helpful). Instead, go back to the place where this all began. If you haven’t done it already, make the time, in the midst of your Googling and Amazon rank checking (oh, come on, we both know we’re both going to do it) to click over and open up a fresh document. Quiet the creaking of that roller coaster as it climbs another hill in your head, if only for a moment. Then take a deep breath, stare down the blinking cursor, and start all over again. --Sarah Dessen


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Thank your for sharing your wonderful article. I very agree with your views from here.

In most cases, I agree with the published cover. A Gate at the Stairs, though. Eh, the crayons aren't great, but they're better than the real cover.

It's refreshing to read that even hugely successful authors still get nervous. I can't wait to get the book on Tuesday. I'm so excited! I doubt it'll disappoint because I love all of your books. I can't wait to add What Happened to Goodbye to my collection.

P.S. That first book you wrote, That Summer, is my favorite! Totally life-changing.

This post is simultaneously a huge relief (YES, even SARAH DESSEN feels this way sometimes!) and hugely panic-inducing (you mean these feelings never go away? Never ever?). Thanks for the honesty and the glimpse into the writing rollercoaster ten books down the line. I'm sure Sarah's new book is wonderful!

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