Corporate social responsibility

Don’t worry, I’m not about to change the direction of my blog and become a corporate motivational speaker using only buzzwords (what Matt Berry skit was that from again?), I promise this will tie back in with the business of writing.

But first: corporate social responsibility, to my mind, just sounds like a business trying to feel better about not changing anything about the way they work. A company I worked for talked about community work, while at the same time using whole forests of (largely not recycled!) paper on unnecessary printouts and not allowing their employees to work from home (despite it being cheaper for everyone involved, as all the systems were in place, not to mention better for the environment).

Most people, at least in the Western world, have gotten used to some kind of environmental work by now. Whether it’s separating out the recyclables, choosing public transport or simply taking shorter showers, most of us are trying to do something. And yet, even the companies that aren’t pretending climate change isn’t real or isn’t man-made are still making environmentally unsound decisions and using wasteful processes simply because that’s what they’re used to.

For there to be actual change and for us to stand even the slightest chance of slowing down climate change before it kills a vast number of life forms, including likely us, it’s not enough for each and every one of us to do our little bit. Corporations and governments need to change. Unfortunately, most seem to be too focused on profit to do more than pay lip-service to the environmental researchers and activists begging them to please stop and rethink.

Political social responsibility

The way I see it, in an ideal world we’d be able to think about the short-term only and live our lives because we have politicians and the government to think about the long term and make all the hard decisions that will ensure our survival – and the survival of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Unfortunately, there are too many politicians these days that solely think about the next four or five years, or however long their term is, leaving the rest of us to worry about the future, without having much power to change things.

(I mean, we do actually hold a lot of power, collectively, but that would require enough people to get together and say enough is enough, which is hard to accomplish in any except the tiniest of countries. It works, but it requires effort, and our leaders are very good at influencing the education system and media to make us just afraid enough to vote for them but at the same time apathetic enough not to protest when our rights are compromised to line their pockets).

The writerly bit

Now, you may think that I’m going to wag my finger at those writers who feel it is necessary to print out drafts of their manuscript to edit things, and yes you may want to rethink that strategy if you’re just doing it out of habit or because it’s worked well for someone else, but what I want to talk about is the publishing industry.

As writers, we’re told to not write for free, to not work with Amazon because it’s evil, to make all the right choices when it comes to picking a publisher, while at the same time, companies seem to be largely getting a pass. If Amazon’s publishing arm pays you better than a traditional publishing house and you enjoy working with the team of whatever imprint is offering you a deal, why turn it down just because the big boss is trying to deprive his employees of basic human rights? Surely it should be the task of other publishing houses to innovate enough so they can keep competing with the big scary giant… (also please everyone form unions).

While I would encourage everyone to not shop through Amazon if there’s an alternative available, for whatever you’re looking to buy, it’s understandable that sometimes you don’t have the budget to afford to go buy something somewhere else or even to spend the time to try and find it elsewhere. This does not make you a bad person. It’s still, quite clearly, the big corporations (by no means just Amazon, they’re just an easy and ubiquitous example) that are being bad people (at least in the US, where corporations appear to be treated as people, but with more rights than actual human beings).

So, as a beginning writer, don’t make your career impossibly harder by dismissing legitimate paths to publication out of hand; if someone wants to pay you (never pay a publisher!!) and you’re allowed to tell your story without compromising its heart (e.g. as long as a publisher doesn’t tell you to remove anything that’s not white, straight, etc.) and you work well with the team responsible for publication, why not say yes? Once you’ve got success and some more power, then you can start making the uncompromising choices and demand change from other people.

Don’t get me wrong, I highly applaud someone like Roxanne Gay stepping away from her publisher because they were planning to publish a Nazi. But if you’re not at her level yet, that kind of decision won’t make the news and therefore won’t make a difference (again, unless you get every other writer to agree to do the same thing). Wait until the right time to make your stand, or simply demand better from the people you work with. While it often seems like the writer is the one with the least power in the entire publishing industry, if you have a high enough profile or enough other writers to side with you, change can happen – eventually. Until it does, don’t blame yourself for the problems of the industry.

That said, if you have the choice between bicycling to work or taking your car, either metaphorically or literally, do consider going by bike. While it’s important to put pressure on corporations to change for the better, every little helps.

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To read the comments or not to read the comments, is that even a question?

So, I’ve just had another article published in the Mary Sue (read it here), and due to its subject matter (gun control and toxic masculinity) it’s understandably caused people to have opinions. This has me thinking about writers and reading reviews, and how it’s almost always a bad thing.

Most published writers will tell you never to look at your own reviews, and certainly not to comment on any criticism. Indeed, there are plenty of examples of authors who’ve started fights with commentators and unless the criticism is purely from a racist/sexist/general discriminatory perspective, the author always loses. They may think they’ve won, but other people will see them making an ass of themselves and stop buying their books.

Writing’s a long game. You don’t want to piss people off now, or they won’t help you or buy your books later. That includes editors who might not be interested in your current project, but may be helpful in future. Never write an angry message in reply to a rejection, because you never know who else the person knows. Publishing is a smaller world than many may think, so basically, don’t be a prick.

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On the other side of the coin, I’ve also heard of published authors who refuse to look at comments and especially fan suggestions because if they ever unknowingly put the suggestion in a book, there might be legal trouble. This is more of a problem with fan-fiction, but there have probably been some flimsy legal cases based on fan comments, which cost money and cause unwanted stress. You can never be too careful as an author.

Finally, reading reviews or even comments can be bad for your mental health. Writers tend to have low-selfesteem and/or imposter syndrome, making the mental slap in the face even worse, but most humans would get upset if they saw people react negatively to their work, especially if the criticism isn’t based on anything concrete. Getting negative feedback on your work is one thing, but getting random insults that are useless to your personal growth, that’s something else entirely.

Studies have shown that people have to hear nine good things before they disbelieve one bad thing. So, if you’re a writer who’s recently published something, be nice to yourself and avoid the comments/reviews. Focus on writing the next thing instead, and trust your editor or a colleague/fellow author to tell you if there’s really something you should be working on improving.

Of course, I will read any comments on this post, ironically, because I like to get other writers’ opinions. So, please feel free to disagree in a constructive manner, I’m all eyes (because ears doen’t make sense in this context).

It shouldn’t be easier to identify with fictional ‘others’

It’s hard to focus on writing while every day there are more stories of children being kept in cages, separated from their parents, and there’s every indication that one country with nuclear weapons is being tricked by another country with nuclear weapons to tear itself apart. It’s even harder when you think about all the great novels and films out there that have tried their best to teach us how to empathise with others. How come it’s easier to identify with a depressed robot than a real-life child for some people? Why aren’t more people out there, protesting, concerned, fighting fascism?

 

Are you in or are you out?

As a psychologist, I’m well aware of the in-group versus out-group phenomenon. Since people are only able to keep a limited number of concepts in their brains, they form a subconscious barrier between the people they treat as individuals – people like them – and the people they treat as ‘others’. And unfortunately, the shortcuts they take in labelling those other groups usually lead to horribly stereotyped, often negative depictions in their head.

If you’ve never met a muslim, and all you hear from your incredibly biased news sources is how horrible they are, how will you ever learn they are just humans like you, with flaws and dreams and no control over what the extreme few do? I mean, do you have control over the hateful things people from your ‘group’ say or do? Or even your own family members?

Yet there are many books out there who try to teach us that everyone is flawed, A Song of Ice and Fire being probably the most well-known at the moment. How can some people feel for Jamie, who literally tried to murder a child at the start because he didn’t want people to know he was sleeping with his sister, but not for the people that live just a few blocks away from them and are struggling? I’d like to say it’s all the nuanced writing, the depth of character, and the fact that we don’t have such a close relationship with real-life others, but I know it could just as easily simply be because the guy’s white.

 

Celebrating the good

Rather than just stating the negatives of our current reality, I wanted to point out a good example of a novel that manages to make us question our stance on things and how we view humanity, without clobbering us over the head with the message. Because as much as some people might just never get it, the rest of us surely appreciate and celebrate fiction that acknowledges and celebrates diversity.

The novel, or rather series of novels, I’ve chosen is Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers Series, the third instalment of which is due to be released soon. The first book, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, sees a human with an (at the start) undefined past join a crew of aliens on a mission that, for once, has nothing to do with blowing anyone up or fighting with other races. It’s delightfully slow-paced, giving us all the time in the world to get to know the various alien races and fall in love even with the grumpiest of crew members. It discusses sexuality, how others have different concepts of private space, gender and sex, and how to embrace new and exciting ways of being.

The second novel, A Closed and Common Orbit, discusses identity and what it means to be a sentient being. I don’t want to say much more for fear of spoiling these excellent books – seriously, go buy them or borrow them from your local library – other than to say that they have taught me that: a) you can write an excellent sci-fi book without having earth-shattering, widespread stakes (take out the planetary travel and races and Becky Chambers could have easily won a highbrow literary fiction award), and b) identity is a lot more complex than we pretend it is.

Back to the main point, this is just one series among the many that naturally compels us to empathises with alien races who are vastly different from our own. It makes me think, how hard could it be to make the parallels with people in our own world, and to just be kinder all around? Surely everyone who reads these books will have a more compassionate view of the world, right?

Then again, the recent controversy surrounding Star Wars should have taught me that even a film with all the right messages can have fans who don’t understand that the rebellion is supposed to be more appealing than the dark side – like the minority of Star Trek fans who are somehow also racist and sexist. Maybe I just need to accept that other people may have a very limited empathy-bubble and start preparing for the inevitable apocalypse. In the meantime, I tip my hat to all the writers out there who are managing to keep writing their stories. Well done, and good luck.

Video game writing is hard, yo

A few weeks ago, I got this great idea for a text adventure game a la Zork. So, I downloaded a text adventure creator and gave it a go. Not only was it really hard to find free software that does what I want it to do and isn’t super hard to master (still looking for something better), but I also started thinking about the differences between novel and game writing.

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This is what Zork looks like, in case you were wondering.

One of the oft-repeated bits of advice for fiction writers is to write not for everyone, but have just one perfect reader in mind (note: you write the first draft for yourself, but the one that’s suitable for public viewing for this perfect reader). For Stephen King, this is supposedly his wife. Other writers use their agent, or simply imagine who they’d like to have read their book. Just one person.

They say that if you try to write for everyone, you end up writing for no-one, as it’s impossible to please every single person. Writing isn’t about hedging your bets, it’s about bleeding on the page, about making something special and unique.

When it comes to video games, any kind of video game, you can’t just think of one person. Instead, you have to think about the many strange ways in which gamers can interact with your game. This isn’t just relevant for the designers and coders, but also for game writers, as they have to think about in what order a player might come across their narratives. The last thing you want is to confuse the player.

As an example, I’ve been playing Ni No Kuni 2, and sometimes when you talk to an NPC, you’ll find you’re reading the second bit of conversation before the first. A small thing, and certainly not anything that dampens my enthusiasm for the game, but something to keep in mind from both a gameplay and immersion perspective.

When it comes to a text adventure, where it’s basically all text, a writer may want to think about someone who just puts “fart” into the text box over and over again. Then again, this might not be a player you’d mind losing, depending on how difficult the game is.

So, what do you write into the game, and what do you use a standard “does not compute” response for? While it’s still impossible to write for everyone and think of every single thing people might write/click, the audience has to be wider than just your partner or agent.

That said, any type of writing requires passion. Ticking boxes for the things you think people will want to see (moody, silent protagonist, check, annoying supporting character dialogue, check, repeated instructions… you get the gist) will generally not make people want to keep playing, let alone play your game over and over again to find all the little things they’ve missed.

In summary, video game writing is an under-appreciated art form that is super hard to master and I take my hat off to all that do it for a living. I’m having a hard enough time trying to please my one perfect reader (the first, of course, being myself), let alone weave an intricate story into an action-packed frenzy that can handle players making all the most non-obvious choices.

Levelling up as a writer

A few weeks ago (just before I went on holiday, which is why I haven’t posted about it sooner), I got an article published on The Mary Sue, one of my favourite websites. While I publish articles on a (week)daily basis for work, this felt different, like I had levelled up. Not only did I get to write about a topic I enjoy and feel passionate about – books – but also on a website I feel strongly about.

I read The Mary Sue on a near-daily basis; it talks about films, TV shows, feminism and many other geeky things I love. Sometimes it feels like it reads my mind, or at least my Twitter feed, as some of the things I think about/pay attention to are published as articles mere hours later. For my article, I talked about Naomi Alderman’s The Power in comparison to The Handmaid’s Tale. Have a read if you’re interested in that kind of thing. While books aren’t a big section on the site, a lot of its consideration of film and TV through a feminist lens can certainly teach writers a thing or two – especially about what not to do.

My point, I guess, is that this felt like A BIG DEAL. And now here I am, back to writing for the day job, feeling uninspired. After a moment of clarity, I’m back to where I was, and my imposter syndrome is preventing me from pitching any more articles at the moment.

The same thing happened after I got a story posted on Dear Damsels (except this time I got PAID). There’s a moment, maybe a few moments, of feeling on top of the world, and then it’s back to reality. Is this how everyone feels? I would love to know.

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A typewriter is definitely levelling down at this point, no? Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Of course, it could be because I keep posting these things under a pseudonym, with almost none of my real-life loved ones knowing about it. But I don’t have an appealing real name, internationally speaking, and I don’t want to confuse people with my scientific articles, which are under my real name, and I don’t want my current employer to know what I’m doing in my own time. So, at this point, I feel like I’m stuck writing as L.B. Zumpshon.

I don’t think writing under my real name would make much of a difference, though. There’s still the feeling of elation, followed by the crash back down to reality. So, what do I do? Hope I feel strongly enough about another idea to pitch it, and just keep writing in the meantime, I guess…

How many ‘How to Write’ books is too many?

Over the years, I’ve read some great books on writing. Particular standouts are not just the ones everyone mentions, namely On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird from Anne Lamott; Chuck Wendig has taught me a lot of practical and humorous things in the Kick-Ass Writer, and Jeff Vandermeer’s Wonderbook is basically a workshop in writing everything from characters to whole worlds. As a companion to her amazing podcast (as mentioned in a previous post), there’s also Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing, with plenty of exercises to try.

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These are all great books, and there are plenty of others. It’s good to try a few, because every writer’s style and work method is different – you need to take some time to figure out which writer, or combination of writers, most closely resembles your own writing style and practice (note that this can change over time or per book). Then there are the fiction books you need to read in order to learn – read widely, most advice-givers will tell you, and know your own genre well enough not to insult your likely readers.

But there’s only so far reading can take you. In the end, it all comes down to writing, and more writing, and figuring out how to improve (or simply abandon) your writing. Finishing your own stories is more important than finishing that great (writing) book.

Which is, of course, exactly what I haven’t been doing lately. While I’ve done a bit of writing (not to mention my daily professional work), I’ve substituted practice with reading and considered it work. This is a dangerous pattern to fall into. If you’re reading about writing, reading books for research, doing nothing but plotting, or just even staring at the screen, then you’re not writing. I’m not writing.

A lot of this can be explained by imposter syndrome, and the idea that as long as I’m not writing I’m not actually failing at writing. It’s also to do with feeling burned out after a long day of writing mostly boring work stuff. However, I’m trying to change this, and hopefully writing this blog post will be the start. Time to implement those lessons other writers have been trying to teach me, and get some more words down on (digital) paper!

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The first word’s still the hardest

I remember when Google started – now it’s telling me what to write

Who knew that three letters could have such an impact? I’m not talking about YES, I mean┬áSEO. Search Engine Optimisation. Such a nebulous term, yet for writers having to deal with the internet, it seems like it’s everything nowadays.

Way back when I was a teenager, I got my first very own computer. With the internet! Of course I couldn’t go online if anyone wanted to use the house phone, but once that dial tone had done its thing, the world wide web was mine for the taking.

Even back then, I used Google. There was Yahoo too, but it looked bad and worked worse, so there was only one thing to it – Google things. It felt so weird to use the word Google as a verb for the first time, like a joke. I guess it’s the same thing with the iPad, or the Wii. Strange words that we’ve all just learned to accept.

Likewise, most people have accepted that Google is the way to search for things on the internet. An ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless. And that means websites have to make themselves look nice for Google. That’s where SEO comes in.

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“Use the Googles!”

These days, everyone’s trying to be on page one of Google, and there are more than enough websites out there to make this a challenge. One way to do it is by paying to sit at the top. Another way is to make some poor writer (like me) write content geared specifically towards the search engine.

You see, people only use Google as long as the results remain relevant and desirable. So they keep trying to automate their search engine so that it puts the best results at the top. And people keep trying to find out how the code works so they can get their website the best place in the queue.

I’m not one of those people, the SEO specialists. I’m the other person in the team, the one that gets given a bunch of keywords and things to include and then told to “write the thing”. Because most sites also want to give people a reason to stay on the page, and just writing a bunch of keywords in a random order really won’t do the trick.

So, in a lot of ways, I’m writing mainly for Google, while still trying to be informative for human readers as well. A lot of it is common sense, of course. If you want to attract readers looking for bicycle helmets, use the words bicycle, helmet and bike (but not too much!). Then there’s the dark voodoo of meta information and such, which is where the Google-whisperers really shine. All of this combined should result in better rankings, more clicks, more readers, and ultimately more money for the company.

It’s not very inspiring as a writer, however, to be working to appease a mega-corp, without getting paid by said mega-corp (and also knowing how bad monopolies are for the world at large). Especially not when you remember how innocently it all started, with just a white page and a box to type in.

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1. SEO, 2. ??, 3. Profit!

Now how does this relate to fiction writing, if at all? First of all, please don’t write a book with Google in mind, or in any way optimised for the internet. No matter what you’re writing, you’re writing foremost for your own pleasure and that of the readers, not for our AI overlords.

That said, your book’s description and query could probably do with some SEO-think. Are you mentioning what genre(s) it is, clearly and completely? Are you describing what other works the book’s like? Are you making it easy to see what the main topic is, i.e. what your bicycle helmet is?

These are all things an agent is likely to ask for, and if you’re self-publishing, it’s how you can help get your novel noticed among the countless others. Really all I’m trying to say is: please don’t write for Google, but do have some common sense.