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).

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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.

The toxicity of the American Dream

Make America Great

Again A Wall is Built

Who Will Tear it Down

This time

When will we learn?

When will we change?

 

I wrote the above not long after Trump was announced as President of the US, and I’ve since watched, with a mix of horror and numbness and worry, all the toxic things that have been happening in the US, all the things I knew where going to happen and so much worse. I don’t live there, there’s nothing I can do, no elected officials to call, no vote that can change anything. It reminds me of the Brexit vote, where I also watched, with horror, as this country I live in voted to try and kick me out, as a marginal victory was touted as the unavoidable ‘will of the people’ with no sense of rhyme or reason.

All of this has made it hard to write. It’s made it hard to do many things other than get through the day. Will I get kicked out of the country in (less than) two years? I don’t know, so I can’t plan. Will we be in the midst of a nuclear war before then? I don’t know (follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter for a clear, reasoned and sadly worrying view on where the US is heading), and it terrifies me. My friends and family in the US are shielded by some degree of privilege, but I’m not sure that will be enough. I doubt my partner will be drafted into military service (what a weird thing to not have to worry about as a woman, and feel like for full equality to ever happen maybe we should, but then again… Sexism is super weird sometimes). But many other people likely will end up dead, not to mention the damage being done to the planet, and all because certain people with varying degrees of privilege are afraid of seeing that privilege ever so slightly diminished, of giving anyone else a seat at the table, so they voted to slice their nose off just to spite their own face.

And most of all, of course, these frightened people have been told their whole life it’s not the people in power that are screwing them over, but the other guys, the ones that have zero power at all. And because the people in power make sure they have no eduction that allows them to question this, they believe it. It’s very interesting from a psychological perspective, but also very scary, because it’s hard to change this narrative.

Another part of the problem, the part I wanted to write a cohesive, well-argued blog post about all those months ago, is the mindset of ‘US = Number 1’, and its British counterpart of (as I like to call it) Empire-state-of-mind. If you’re told your whole life that you’re the best, or you were the best, and in a place like the US it’s highly unlikely that you ever step outside the country to see any different, then you can never see what other countries have done that you can learn from (the prime examples for the US being healthcare and labour unions/worker’s rights). And indeed, you can never see that the people that serve you, and the news that reaches you, is actually doing you harm. You need to step outside your own narrative to get a better sense of it (much like with writing!).

In the UK, the feeling of quiet superiority is made worse by the tendency of politicians this last decade (or more) to blame everything that goes wrong on EU regulation and take the credit for anything that the EU does right. In the US, it’s made far worse by the American dream idea that you don’t need anyone else to succeed – all it takes is a lot of hard work. This ignores the fact that most billionaires got that way by using inherited wealth, pre-existing networks, or a combination of both (not to mention a whole lot of white privilege). And even if a person somehow manages the rags-to-riches story, it’s not like they haven’t had to rely on a lot of other people doing work for them and helping them in many other ways. Oh, and there’s the fact that they use roads, feel protected by police and firefighters, see their intellectual property protected by the courts, and generally rely on a lot of public good. But since everyone in the US is told they don’t need anyone or anything else to succeed, they are never told it’s okay to ask for help, that it’s good to have a community to rely on, that some Government intervention and help is warranted. That it’s better to succeed together, and a good thing to help others because someday you might need help yourself.

Looking out for number one, and thinking without factual basis that you are number one, are two very toxic ideas that make it hard to adapt and improve yourself. And what’s worse, if you think you’re the best, then any information that disagrees with that falls to the sword of cognitive dissonance, and you end up in a situation where a Trump-voting lady with an immigrant husband is genuinely surprised when they come to take her husband away. Or where people tell me “Oh, you’ll be fine” when discussing Brexit, because obviously it’s those other immigrants that are in trouble, and I’m somehow magically exempt merely through being someone they know…

Anyway, all of this means that it will remain hard for me to write for the time being, and I’m not sure how to get over that. I wish there was something I could do to change the world, but I can’t, and I’ve lost faith that writing can change anything, because nobody seems to take note of the people who are doing the best writing about the current situation and using that to change things. Politicians seem more selfish and short-sighted than they’ve ever been. Nobody seems to be in sufficient uproar (I mean, the NHS is being dismantled, but because it’s being done slowly, or maybe because British people find it hard to protest, to realise that their vote matters in a democratic system where oftentimes votes do not – who knows how much of an effect the not-very-democratic voting systems of the UK and US have had on the current situation – politicians are feeling free to continue as they are). All of the lessons from history are sitting ignored in books, as we repeat them once again.

And here I am, watching and feeling like a failure because I’m not writing, I’m not in London protesting at Westminster, I’m not important enough for any UK politician to listen to. What can I do? Well, I’m open to suggestions.