"Here I sit, >this< close to published and I'm terrified. What if everyone else thinks it sucks? What if they don't? What if--?
Is this a normal way to feel at this point?"
I think so.
Frankly, one reason that I adopted the 'net name, sysop-ette name, and pen name "Shalanna Collins" (made from aunt Sheila, aunt LanaBelle, and family name on Mama's side Collins) MANY years ago was so that "Shalanna" would take the heat and anger that a woman on the 'net who put her writing out there was definitely going to garner. I never have liked my birth name (the kids did a lot with "Denise" that went further than "DeNephew" and in odd ways), and my last name from Daddy was too hard to spell and pronounce, so I knew I would need a pen name. It insulated me from the hate.
So they said Shalanna was a loudmouthed be-yotch who thought she knew it all? Well, that wasn't ME, and I didn't have to have palpitations, chills, and the sweats over the thought that hate and anger were pointed at me. So what if they hated Shalanna's prose? It could be fixed. The fragile inner child of ME could say, "They aimed that at her, not at me."**
So possibly a pen name is a good thing for some of us.
If, however, you want to publish under your legal driver's license name, that's fine. You just have to know that there WILL be haters. There WILL be people who, just for fun, just to see if they can get a rise out of you, will write bad reviews or poke at you on FB or wherever they can. They get their jollies this way. You have to rise above it. You have to let that initial rush of self-hate, anger, wildness, and so forth just crash over you in waves, and then calm yourself down. What does it matter? It's just the Internet. In 200 years, who will remember or give a hoot? The art is what matters. It stands the test of time. These people fall away and go to dust. The art does not. You and the art ascend into Heaven and are written in the Book of Life and in earthly history. So there! Take that, dust!!
Now, I think I am a special case, way out there, because all my life, all through school, people who were not my immediate family were blown away because I had mastered the mechanics of spelling, then of punctuation, then of grammar, then of style/diction, and had developed a distinctive voice that I can't hide. I tried having sockpuppets LONG LONG AGO on other online venues, but it never worked, as someone would come along and say, "Shalanna, that is you." (heh) I have a writing voice, and in addition each of my books has a somewhat distinctive voice because the character (or its originating archetype) has a voice of her/his own, but you can usually tell I wrote whatever it is. That's partly because I do not buy into the workshoppers' and minimalists' "rules," and in this sense I'm kind of like the UK and Australian writers who still have strong voices and haven't been damped down to the faux-Hemingway level. (And it IS faux. These people have apparently never READ Papa. Never read _A Moveable Feast,_ definitely. And God forbid they ever run across Henry Miller!!)
So I've always BELIEVED. What the teachers said, what the workshop leaders said, the remarks of contest judges, the encouragements of all the agents who ultimately didn't take me on but who said they loved my voice and were sure someone else would pick up my work posthaste . . . I believed it all. I still do. I still think my work is good and will find an audience. But not everyone likes every book. If your book does not ever reach those people who will love it, it's not going to get that word of mouth and it'll remain obscure. No matter how great it is.
All of this means that there WILL be people who just DO NOT GET IT. They are honest. They really ARE bemused. Why WOULD anyone ever use the words "numinous" or "exegesis" when some dumber word that doesn't mean quite the same thing (but that they may already know) would "do"? Never mind Mark Twain (pen name of Samuel Clemens, for similar reasons to many of ours!) and the lightning/lightning bug analogy. What is going on with these metaphors, these classical and pop cultural allusions, these passages that contain subtext and are nuanced? They want simple, direct, easy to read. Period. And they shake their heads in true confusion. My work does not fit into the bestseller mainstream. So why wouldn't I want to change it to fit?
I can't explain it to those people. I merely have to listen to the little voice that says, "Only Believe." The little flame inside that says, "The work is good. Never mind them." The knowledge that I will fulfill my mission in life, even if that mission doesn't seem useful to most of the others.
That is what you must keep as your vision, fellow striver. If they say bad things . . . if they don't like the book . . . if it takes a long time to find its audience . . . so be it (as Christian Slater's "Pump Up the Volume" dude said). This makes no difference because it doesn't have anything to do with the work's true quality and value. It's just the way it is. If the book actually IS bad (and it isn't!), it's still better than other bad books because it has YOUR voice and is a tour of YOUR mind and doesn't have silly howlers ("As a policeman, the criminal doesn't respect me.") It was not just dashed off like so many of the dollar Kindle books that make me roll my eyes ("and then make me grit my teeth"!) It is a work of art. Always remember that.
Art does not match the sofa!
Be strong. They're going to ignore you, mock you, or whatever. It happens to everyone. (Look at Joanne Rowling and her mystery career.) You can't let it deter you from your mission.
When you finally hold the published hardcopy in your hands--it'll be worth all the effort!
FOOTNOTES (who writes a post with footnotes?!)
* To join our mailing list and benefit from the craziness, leave a comment and I'll tell you where to send the blank e-mail.
**After all these years--since around 1984 on my own BBS and on CompuServe--"Shalanna" is now me, and it no longer shields me. Hubby first met me on my BBS and knew me only as "Shalanna." Many people call me Shalanna/Denise interchangeably. I may pick up a new pen name for edgy stuff, though, someday. Everyone needs a suit of armor.