Why The Heck Do We Write?
The most important reason to write fiction is because you like telling stories. If you don’t like telling stories, the lack of enthusiasm will show, and your readers will lose interest and stop following you. In contrast, if you love telling stories, your readers will enjoy your enthusiasm and follow you with equal interest, even if your spleling skills are trrebile.
If you love what you do, then do it. (Provided it harms no one else and breaks no laws, of course, but that’s a given.)
But…after you’ve acknowledged the need to write, most authors feel another need, to share them with others. To share our stories, inflict them on family and friends, offer them like free samples to strangers, and hopefully even get to dangle them like meat over a hungry lion once some of our readers are addicted to the fresh, yummy taste of our prose.
Of course, this analogy brings up the possibility of said lions attempting to bite our arms off in the hunger for more, more, more! Which brings us to the topic of how to behave, both as an author and as a reader.
…By the way, this is a LONG post. I’d break it up into two sections, but it’s all important, and most of it can be applied to online or in person etiquette, so here we go!
Readers & Etiquette
Yep, I’m going after you guys, first. Mainly because all authors are readers, too. We all started out as readers, and we still are readers. Even if the only thing we read that we haven’t written ourselves are the comments posted by other readers, we’re readers. But in specific, I’m talking about what readers should and should not do when posting feedback after having read a story.
You have the right to hold your own opinion. You also have the right to share that opinion in a peaceful discussion. You do not, however, have the right to wield that opinion like a chainsaw, brutally chopping your way through the bodies of the books and the authors in your path. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was only a good idea for an entertaining horror story. It should not be how you live your life.
If you did not like something in a story; that’s alright. It’s your opinion and you are entitled to hold it. You can even share it with friends and family. But if you want your opinion to be respected (even if not everyone will agree with it, which not everyone will), then you need to present it in a way that doesn’t make you look like the back end of a donkey.
Ask yourself why you didn’t like the story? What specific details did you not like? What didn’t work for you? What did work for you? Was there anything you did like, and why did you like it? These specific details about what you did and did not like in a story are the sorts of things you not only could post, but should post. Most good authors will want to read those details, because it will help them as writers to know which areas are weak and need more work.
Do not apply a gallon of gasoline to your commentary prose and set it alight with a bazooka. (I’m speaking figuratively here, but it should also be pretty obvious that doing so literally is also A Very Bad Idea. Don’t try this at home, folks!) Flaming is bad.
What Do You Mean, Flaming?
I mean, writing anything that is inflammatory, derogatory, vituperative, vicious, abusive…so on and so forth. Particularly when you shift your commentary from the story itself to a generalization of all an author’s works, or worse, when you start attacking the author directly.
This applies to private correspondences as well as to the things you post online via social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or via reviewer/commentary boxes on Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. In this day and age, there is very little that is actually private, because emails can be shared—again and again—with just the click of a mouse button.
Readers, one of the things you must keep in mind at all times is that the actions and opinions of characters in a story you didn’t like are just that: actions and opinions of characters in a story. Please do not make the mistake of thinking these actions and opinions are the same as the author’s own words and deeds. Seriously, don’t assume that.
If you go after an author for such things, then you have to go after Stephen King first and foremost for being a perverted sick bastard who murders people and makes little kids find their bodies alongside railroad tracks…which we ALL know is patently absurd and untrue.
He’s just writing those kinds of stories; he’s not actually a serial killer. We’re all just writing these stories as authors; we’re not acting them out ourselves. (Remember, I’m talking about fiction stories here, not the autobiographies of serial killers.)
Another example of this, drawn from my own life: An editor who contacted me for a short story in an anthology (all of which shall remain unnamed) asked me to write a short story. I asked what level of movie-rating it should have, and the editor said I could write whatever level I wanted. So I took them at their word.
I sent in the story, then a short while later received an email back. An email accusing me of having the foulest disposition in existence, disparaging my morals, self-control, and sense of personal etiquette, and accusing me more or less of being the sort of person who would engage in drunken bar brawls at the drop of a hat, with the implication that I would endanger the health and well-being of said editor (NOT my editor at Berkley/Ace, I want to make that perfectly clear)…and that I’d do so in a bout of random violence with the implication that such random bouts are part and parcel of my nature.
Based on a story I wrote? A fiction story? …I’d like to point out at this moment that I almost never drink alcohol, and my personal policy as a practical pacifist is that I prefer not to start fights. I may know how to end them, and am capable of ending them, but I prefer not to fight. I also have not been in a bar in over half a decade…so long as one doesn’t count situations where the bar portion of a restaurant was the only location with seating available. In short, I don’t drink, and I don’t fight.
Of course, I’ll allow that this particular editor who had contacted me for a freelance project didn’t know me that well, and so couldn’t have known whether or not I did the things they were accusing me of. Maybe I was actually the sort of person who would get inebriated and start swinging and swearing like a stereotypical sailor. How could they know? …But then, that’s the point, isn’t it? This reader (editors are readers, too; they’re just pre-readers with a say in the story) was making a personal attack on me, the writer, based on a story I had written, with no knowledge whatsoever of whether or not I personally was indeed capable of such behavior.
I am human; I know I have my flaws and I have buttons which can be pushed. I will admit to being highly offended by this unwarranted personal attack. I still am indignant over the fact that it was a personal attack, though this whole thing took place a few years ago. I wanted to strike back at this perceived attack on my good character.
Who wouldn’t want to defend themselves with such an unjust and utterly wrong accusation being flung at them in an email which looked like it itself had been written in a drunken ranting rage? (Whether or not said editor was inebriated, I have no idea; this is just an analogy of my reaction to it, since I was having a hard time accepting that a professional editor would make such baseless accusations.)
Well, I will admit I rewrote my reply email to said editor a good dozen times before actually hitting Send, striving to find a note between my indignant “oh no you di’n’t!” immediate reaction, and proper professional politeness. What I finally sent, therefore, was far closer to professional politeness than indignation—however righteous it might have been—and I received an email of apology from said freelance work editor…but the damage to that editor’s reputation had already been done in my eyes.
Never make personal attacks against an author…or an editor, or another reviewer, or whoever. It only makes you look like the bad guy.
On the other hand, if you did not like a story, and can express in polite terms the reasons why you did not like a particular story, you do have the right to do so. In polite terms. How an author—or even another reader—responds to that dislike is the other side of the coin.
Authors & Etiquette
Your reputation as a writer is worth your weight in gold. This is because you are selling yourself as a brand. You are like Johnson & Johnson, which is a brand of first aid supplies here in the U.S.
Any old Johnson, singular, would make an American go “meh” and maybe even shrug, not knowing who or what it referenced—especially as there are a lot of us Johnsons running around out there—but put it together with an ampersand, and “Oh, Johnson & Johnson—the bandaid people!” The lightbulb of recognition has popped on, and voila, they know exactly who you’re talking about. (They actually make a lot more than bandaids, but that’s their most famous product.)
The same goes for books, not just commercial products. “Philip K. Dick? Ohhh, Bladerunner! I loved that movie!” “J. K. Rowling? Harry Potter, awesome!” “Stephen King, uhhh, what did he write, again?” (Just teasing.)
By producing a story, you are linking your name to it. Or by producing many stories in a particular genre, you are linking your name to that. This linking brings along a responsibility to link your name carefully. Remember, you are promoting a brand.
With that in mind, the ONLY time an author should ever be rude to an audience or readership is if they are a Shock Jock like Howard Stern, where the audience expects the author to be rude to them. In all other instances, authors should be polite to their readers, critics, reviewers, publishers, editors, agents, copy-editors, so on and so forth. But there really is only one Howard Stern (thank goodness), so let’s remove him and his genre from the equation. With him removed, allow me to restate the above warning:
Authors should be polite to everyone in all instances. Particularly in print, whether via paper or electronic media. Doubly so with electronic media, since print usually goes through some sort of editorial process, whereas Twitter and the like are pretty much instantaneous, from foot-in-mouth to world-wide-web in the click of a mouse button.
In recent history, a handful of authors have…well, flipped and gone off the deep end with posts attacking reviewers, readers, editors, whatever. Most were made in reply to opinions which were posted online, usually posts casting the author’s works in an unfavorable light.
I repeat: These were opinions posted online.
Authors, please remember than an opinion is simply one person’s viewpoint on a subject. That one person does not represent the entire world’s opinion (even if the person posting said opinion claims this, it isn’t true), and there will always be at least one other person who holds the opposite view. Mind you, the ratio of dislikes to likes could be 100 to 1, but that isn’t the thing to look at when considering how to respond to these “I really disliked Author Z’s story, X Goes to Y” posts.
No matter how searingly hot a commenter’s flames may get, do not respond in kind. Do not flame them back. You will trash your reputation faster than you can say, “Hey, there’s a recycle bin!” in the Pacific Northwest. (A mouse click posting a reply takes considerably less time than saying, “Hey, there’s a recycle bin!”, however long it may have taken you to write out your flaming retort.)
You can, of course, write out your retort. I don’t deny it can be cathartic sometimes to get snarky and horrible right back. We are human beings, or at least are pretending to be human beings, so we do occasionally get the urge to sass right back. Just don’t post it.
Even The President Wouldn’t Post That Online!
Abraham Lincoln was a bit of a hothead in his youth, and posted a series of letters to the editor of certain newspapers; the end result was that he was called out in a duel. Instead of being killed at the theater in later life, he could have been killed (and very luckily was not) on a misty morning somewhere in a patch of wilderness. Realizing this was the wrong way to go about expressing his opinions, he changed his methods.
He didn’t stop writing vituperative retorts…but he did stop mailing them, or sending them in to newspapers. Instead, he wrote out his angry feelings as a letter, then set that letter aside for several days, until he knew he could think rationally and calmly. Then he wrote a much different letter, a polite one, and sent that one, either as an actual letter, or to the newspaper as an editorial commentary, or whatever. (This example can be read in more detail in a marvelous book which everyone should read, How To Win Friends And Influence People by Dale Carnegie. Get it, read it, incorporate it into how you live your life. It works.)
We may not be Abraham Lincoln, but we can learn from what he chose to do. So, while I’m not denying you the right to vent your feelings as an offended or hurt human, I am strongly advising you to not post those ventings. Remember, anything you post online or in print will represent the brand image you are trying to promote. As the vast majority of us want people to like us, we need to expose our likeable qualities, not dislikeable ones.
Because of this, authors have a particularly high responsibility to be polite in public formats. If you torpedo your career by being someone who put their head where the sun doesn’t shine, you will find it extremely difficult to restore the reputation you will have shattered via your careless disdain, arrogance, or rage.
Word-of-mouth will spread bad news three times as fast as good news, so you need to be four times as careful about what sort of reputation you have.
Getting back to what I was saying above about flipping out, in the last half-year, word-of-mouth has spread news of a couple of authors responding very badly to unfavorable reviews of their works. Now, there are tens of thousands of fiction writers in the U.S. alone, and these were just a small handful of authors who were reacting badly, but it cast a bad light on the whole community where author/reviewer relationships were concerned.
In one of the more recent of these incidents, the reviewer posted a bad review of a particular book. In their opinion, it was simply a poorly written story, and they gave the details as to why they thought it was so. The author attacked the reviewer personally…and within a matter of hours of the author’s retort being posted, people all across the country were chatting about it on Twitter.
Admittedly a few people will have picked up copies of the book to see if it really was “all that bad”…but many more people will now be avoiding that book and particularly that author, whereas before they might have given author and stories a fair try. In that one act of indignation, righteous or otherwise, that author has lost many more potential book sales than they gained through morbid curiosity.
Maybe the reviewer was wrong; reviews and comments are opinions, after all. But the author still torpedoed their reputation with their flaming response, and torpedoed it soundly when he or she attacked the reviewer personally. It wasn’t a case of the reader accusing the author of being a drunken bar brawler, but the attack by the author on the reviewer was still just as inappropriate as it would have been the other way around. Author or Reader, don’t do it.
Bad publicity may still be publicity, but it’s a single splash in a small bucket compared to the bathtub filled to the brim that you can get from polite actions. That bathtub will take a lot longer to fill than the splash-in-the-bucket, true, but if you’re an author and you love what you do, you’re not in this for a splash-in-the-bucket moment. You’re in this for the long haul.
One Big Caveat About Written Comments
Be very careful of what you accuse another person of doing or being. It’s not just your own reputation on the line, but theirs. And yes, you should be concerned about how you treat someone else’s reputation. Not just because it’ll reflect back on your own, or because they may actually not have done what you accuse them of doing, and you shouldn’t be mean to people anyway, yadda yadda…but because of the risk of Defamation, aka Slander and Libel. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation)
And yes, posting defamatory comments in social media counts as a potential case of Libel. It’s in print, it’s being broadcast, it’s posted in a tangible form that doesn’t require someone actually on hand to hear it come out of your own mouth in person…so it counts.
Now, most cases of defamatory comments can be brushed off as opinions. “I don’t like her hair, she looks like a freaking pomeranian, ugly as sin!” is one example of a defamatory opinion. Does it offend the target? Probably. Will it offend anyone else reading those comments? Probably, and particularly if they like pomeranian dogs and think they’re adorable.
But is it bad enough to justify a legal suit? Probably not. Most people won’t experience grievous mental and emotional anguish over such things. The problem comes when someone repeatedly harasses and vilifies a target. Whatever reason you may think you have for doing so, it’s not good enough. It’s never a good enough reason to try to ruin someone’s reputation, mental health, and life.
People will flock to support someone who is being attacked, because we like coming to the defense and/or rescue of others. If you really want people to stop reading it, if you want interest in a particular book to die down, then just keep your mouth shut and let it die a quiet death.
You’ll be a lot closer to your goal if you handle the matter that way, and keep your own reputation healthy enough to be worth your weight in gold.
Etiquette In Person
Needless to say, ALL of this applies to encounters in person. This is doubly vital because you don’t have the anonymity of a computer screen protecting others from seeing your face. Readers, be polite around authors, even if you don’t like their writing. In the U.S., the Parody Law means we can tell you “be careful, or you’ll end up in my novel!” because we do have the right to write parody, lampooning someone in many creatively indirect ways. (Authors, try to resist doing this as it can backfire unless you really know what you’re doing…but the threat is still there.)
Authors, be very polite to your readers; they now have a face and a personality to attach to their mental images of your books, and they will talk about you after they’ve meet you. They’ll talk about having “met Author Z at Convention ABC” for years to come. It’s up to you as to whether or not that meeting is a pleasant memory or a horrible nightmare to be told and retold over the years.
Readers, I’m one of you. I know how much you want to gush over your favorite author(s). I WAS one of you just recently at a convention where the Guest of Honor was my absolute favorite author, Alan Dean Foster, where I had the distinct honor and pleasure of serving alongside him on 3 panels—squee!! This was an incredible thrill for me. Like a skier meeting former Olympics champion Picabo Street, or an actor meeting Tom Cruise. Big. Huge. Thrill. Zomg, Squee!
…However, I confined my squeeing and gushing to the months before and after the convention, and did very little gushing in person. Why? Two reasons. One, because I didn’t want to make Mr. Foster feel uncomfortable. And two, I wanted to present myself as a professional at all times during the convention.
As a reader, when you encounter your favorite author (or actor, sports celebrity, whatever), remember that they’re human beings. They have flaws, they need to visit the bathroom, and they can feel crowded or overwhelmed. Authors are often a bit introverted compared to, say, actors, and their best work is often done for hours and days at end all alone, so crowding them with enthusiasm can often invoke feelings of panic or distaste. Not every author is going to be a “huggy type” either, so be careful with the displays of affection. Some will, some won’t.
The worst way to approach an author? Screaming, cursing, yelling, flailing, throwing things at them. Second worst? When your choice of moment is very, very awkward. If your target is forced to say something like, “Um…I’m trying to get to the restroom, here. Can it please wait until I get out? Thank you,” …then you really should be polite and wait, and don’t chase them up and down the aisle between stalls while they’re frantically trying not to burst their bladder.
The best ways to approach an author is with a smile, maybe offer a hand to shake, and offer them a direct, polite, “You’re Author Z, right? I’ve really enjoyed your books, thank you!”
Caveat: Don’t grab their hand yourself and squeeze if they don’t clasp it when offered; they may have arthritis and are trying to preserve their fingers for typing, or they may have a cold they don’t want to share. (How selfish of them; but still, it’s their right not to share.)
You can, if there seems to be a little bit of time, go into some detail, “I liked the scene where the cat rode the dog, in your book X Goes To Y!” but bear in mind that most places you meet authors, they’re at a convention where they’re on several panels and their time is therefore not entirely their own. But we authors love hearing when we’ve pleased our readers, and particularly why we pleased you.
As for things that displeased you in an author’s works, remember that flames spoken in person are much more dangerous than ones printed in papers or posted online. Libel (printed) is easier to prove than Slander (spoken), but the problem with ranting at someone in person is that it will most often be perceived as an attack, and the person you are attacking will defend themselves…most often with the same level of heat or more.
Verbal arguments can also escalate into physical ones, and attacking someone physically is never appropriate. You can defend yourself, but don’t start any fights. This means being smart enough to not start verbal fights, too.
So how do you express distaste appropriately? It’s simple. Keep it simple. Keep it your opinion, too. An excellent example of this which I can pull from my own works is from my first and second fantasy romance novels, The Sword and The Wolf. I had numerous readers posting how they didn’t like the first heroine, Kelly, but loved the second heroine, Alys…and then other readers spoke up saying they hated Alys but loved Kelly!
Which side was right, in that argument? Both sides were right. Because these are personal opinions. So, to give you a good example of how to express dislike properly when meeting an author in person (or even online), here’s a little exercise:
Reader Says: “I read your book, X Goes To Y. Some of it was okay, but I didn’t like (cite specific sample here) because I personally thought (calm reason stating why you didn’t like it).”
Author Responds: “Thank you for your thoughts on the matter. I’ll take that into consideration with my next story.” …Whether or not the author changes anything in the next story is irrelevant; they have at least given consideration in that moment, and that counts. They’ll also probably think about it later, when they’re not feeling on-the-spot pressure, which can often lead them into a defensive posture.
Or an author can say: “I’m sorry that upset you. My reasons for writing it that way were (fill-in-the-blank in a calm and rational way…but keep it short and simple.)”
Or, if it’s a matter of errors, or a bad cover: “I’m sorry for all the (whatever) that slipped through the editing and review process. Unfortunately, once the book goes to print, there’s nothing an author can do to change things.”
Reader’s response to the author’s response to their comments: “Thank you for listening to me.”
Author’s response to the reader’s response to the author’s response to…: “You’re welcome; I do appreciate hearing from my readers, whatever their thoughts.”
Authors, the reason why you should appreciate hearing from them, and let them know you appreciate it even when they don’t have nice things to say, is because they actually got off their butts and talked to you. In text or in person, they are taking a precious bit of time—irretrievable time, which they have chosen to spend on you—out of their day just to communicate with you. Not more than one in a hundred readers will bother to do that…and I’m probably being optimistic when I say that.
Even if a reader doesn’t like your story, if you treat their opinions with respect, they will remember YOU gave them that respect in spite of their negative views of whatever it was they didn’t like in your stories. If nothing else, that reader or critic or whoever will walk away thinking, “Well, okay, X Goes to Y was a crappy novel, but that author was actually really nice! I wouldn’t mind talking with him/her again!” …Which can translate to, “Maybe I’ll give their next book a chance?”
Whether you’re an author or a reader, your reputation is worth your weight in gold. Treasure it and treat it as such. If you love what you do, it’s worth the effort, trust me.