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.

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

My business card says writer – now what?

A little while ago, I got a promotion at my day job, which means that I’m now officially getting paid to write things. Non-fiction, sure, and not even in the area that I did a whole PhD in, but writing nonetheless, that people are reading and hopefully liking. I’m a writer. Or Writer, even. Why don’t I feel any different?

As I’ve written about before, I listen to my fair share of writer podcasts, and read wise words from established fiction writers where I find them, on twitter, in books and on blogs. One of the things they all say – other than warning people never to listen to writing advice – is to write what you love.

I remember one writer, I think it was Tobias Buckell, talking about it like so: if you write what you love, you will start out with 50% satisfaction, which can increase to 100% if you then manage to make money out of it (simply speaking), whereas if you write what you think will sell, you start from 0% satisfaction, and can only get to 50% if you do manage to sell it.

And that’s what I’m doing now. I’m getting paid to write, but that’s just getting me to 50%. The only way for me to move closer to 100% (if that’s even ever possible to achieve) is to write fiction I believe in and finally manage to sell it, or alternatively to move to writing non-fiction in a genre that is closer to my heart, or move into editing in the book/fiction world.

That’s not to say I’m not happy to have the opportunity to write for a living. It’s certainly better than a lot of other things I could be doing, and it’s a step in the right direction for my career. I guess I’m just saying that these lines we draw, these bridges we cross, are a lot more transparent than they look from a distance.

So, as a bridge I have trekked to has dissolved upon approach, so I set my sights onto the next bridge, knowing that it too will dissolve once I reach it, and I am the only one that can make it matter (pun intended). Meanwhile, I think I’ll treat myself to some fancy chocolate to celebrate.

The Age of yet another creepy stalker portrayed on screen as the good guy

Today has been full of rage. I woke up to the news that some terrorist shithead ran over people coming from church (actually muslims leaving their mosque, but certain people’s empathy knobs have been twisted so they can only emphasise with people like them nowadays, so maybe this way everyone can relate), and somehow resisted the urge to tweetstorm about the UK media’s responsibility and lack of public outrage and condemnation. Luckily, JK Rowling, who has a somewhat bigger profile than me, stepped into the fray. Then, I heard the news from the US that a pregnant woman had been shot dead in front of her children after calling the police about a burglary, by said police! I mean, what the actual fuck, right?

Anyway, since I can’t change these facts or the state of the world, much as I would like, I decided to watch a silly movie tonight, to take my mind off things and calm down. Reader, this did not work. The movie I chose was The Age of Adaline, which started off interesting enough (a woman who never ages because of wavy-hand science reasons spends her life reinventing herself, complicated relationship with her daughter who is now older than her, lonely existence, what’s not to love?).

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The Age of Not this again..

Then, enter, the MAN. Now I love a good romance as much as the next person, but I’m sick and tired of the movie tropes that tell guys they just need to hound women and those women will eventually relent and even APOLOGISE for being freaked out about the man’s stalker behaviour. Like, way to teach men not to respect women as people, respect their choices, and respect when they say NO, movies.

Anyway, in this movie, the MAN sees Blake Lively, aka Adaline, at a new year’s event, storms after her when she leaves, pushes his way into an elevator with her, then stops her cab from leaving trying to get her to agree to go out with him. She says no. The next day, she’s at work, and guess who comes by, it’s only Stalky McStalkface, who has seen her there before (could’ve said hello, man) and refuses to donate some precious book (she works at the library) unless she agrees to go out with him. Eventually, she relents. They go out, he manages to convince her to go out to dinner with him at his place, they spend the night, she tell him the next morning that was all he’s going to get. Then naturally, he hunts down her address, which she never shares with anyone (hello, secretive ageless person) and shows up outside her building. I mean, red flags, right? Then, and this is the stupidest part, Adaline’s daughter talks her into giving him another shot, and she goes to his place and apologises for freaking out about him showing up unannounced at her doorstep!

If you don’t see what’s wrong with this, ask a female friend, because hoo boy! Anyway, this got me thinking, with so many movies doing this stalker-turned-happily-ever-after bullshit (the worst offender, of course, being the Shades of Grey horror-show), how can this be written differently? Now, while I’m no Wonder Woman writer/director (go see it if you want to see a healthy relationship develop on-screen), I thought I’d give it a shot. So, here is an abridged rewrite:

Adaline sees cute dude enter the room. Eyes meet. She turns back to friend. Later, she is alone, calling her daughter to wish her a happy new year.

Cute guy: “Mind if I join you? The view here’s something else, isn’t it?”

Guy actually looking out the window, not at her.

A: “Sure.” [recites obscure poem about view]

G: “Wow, that’s [obscure artist], I love her work.”

A: “Wow, I don’t know anyone else who knows her (cause I’m secretly hella old).”

Some talk about shared interests follows, then Adaline excuses herself and goes home. Man watches her, sad that she didn’t give him her contact details, but he accepts it.

A few days later, Adaline is at work, when Guy shows up.

A: “What are you doing here? How did you find me?”

G: “Wow there, I’m just here to drop off some priceless old books because I’m totally a secret millionaire philanthropist. It’s totally cool that you work at the library though, I love books.”

A: “Me too. I’m glad you brought books. They are good.”

G: “Yes, they are. How wonderful that we have so much in common. Hey, I was going to go to [obscure poet]’s exhibition, want to come?”

A: “Oh, I hadn’t heard about that. That would be fun, but…”

Adaline is obviously struggling because Guy is hot and she’s attracted to him, but she’s moving in seven weeks and also basically a secret immortal being.

G: “I get it, this is weird, but let me ask you, would you go if I wasn’t going?”

Adaline hesitates, then agrees to go. They spend a lovely evening talking about all the things they have in common, then Guy convinces her to go somewhere secret with her for lunch. In return, she shows him a secret place in the city that nobody knows about. They end up at his place, smooching, and eventually sleep together, because come on, did you really think an ageless Blake Lively would be celibate all those years?

The next morning, Adaline tries to leave, tells him it was just the one night, explains about her leaving. Guy (gently!) convinces her to go out again because they still have a few more weeks, and so they have time to have fun before she goes, nothing too serious. I mean, who wouldn’t pick a few weeks with a brainy Blake Lively over no time with her at all?

The last weekend before she’s set to go, Guy convinces her to go to his parents’ place for the weekend, to enjoy some fresh air and outdoor stuff. There, she meets her former lover aka his father, the whole thing comes out, she runs away, changes her mind, doesn’t get into a car accident and stays a badass eternal lady. He welcomes her back, they share their feelings (after weeks together, rather than a few dates, which is no solid basis for love), and he learns to cope with her eternalness and her elderly daughter because he loves her. The End.

(Yes, she gets wishy-washy science’d into becoming mortal again near the end, and I do not agree with that either. Sorry if this abridged version doesn’t make much sense to people who haven’t seen the movie. My point is, if I can come up with this in an hour, professional screenwriters should be able to come up with something less macho-bullshit, toxic masculinity, cliche-central, right? Right?)

Let me know in the comments if you agree/disagree/have a better alternative. Hopefully I will calm down enough at some point to finish an actually researched blog post again, particularly on dealing with failure in publishing, which has been sitting in my drafts for far too long.