Public vs Private

During this pandemic crisis, with political tensions running high, this may be the perfect time to ask when should a writer (or anyone with a public persona) keep their beliefs private and when should they make them public?

Not all of us share the same beliefs. I’m glad of this. Not only would it make for a boring world but imagine if we all believed something horrible, such as cruelty to children or animals was fine and the fate of the planet wasn’t our concern. Strong beliefs make us stand up, speak openly, defend and protect those who cannot do so for themselves. Standing up for one’s beliefs can lead to changes for the better. Differences of opinion lead to breakthroughs.

Alas, the sad, simple fact is that not of us can agree to disagree. That’s why the advice to be careful what you state publicly can be perfectly understandable. They say never discuss sex, religion, and politics…considering some things I’ve written there’s at least one of those topics that’s occasionally been unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean I have to let the public into my private life. Besides, what do you want to know? I’m a normal person, like my readers. I crawl out of bed in the morning, brush my teeth, stumble into the kitchen in search of that first coffee. I also wash clothes, clean the house, cook, shop…have friends and family. In addition, I make mistakes, apologies, laugh, cry, get sick, heal, and hurt, for myself and for others.

There are some things that are unavoidable. I can hardly write romance without declaring that I believe people should be free to love whom their heart tells them to love. I can’t write darkness without delving into the mysterious and questioning justice. You only have to read my work to know that. I realise there are those who will vehemently disagree with me and may even hate me for it. All I can say is that there is more than one element to my personality. I feel a view that dictates because our beliefs differ we cannot be friends is short-sighted.

Do I agree with all the things my friends believe in? Do I agree with all their decisions? No, of course I don’t. I have friends who are homophobic and rather than attack them for this, if they wished to discuss the topic I would hope we could do so sensibly and intelligently. I would like to know why they feel the way they do, and I would be open to explaining my viewpoint. Ultimately, they are entitled to their beliefs as long as they don’t victimise others for it. I don’t expect all my friends to like each other, but I expect all of them to respect they are all my friends and to be civil should they ever meet, especially if it’s under my roof. I don’t believe to like another person you both have to share the same sexual, religious or political belief. I’m capable of agreeing to disagree, and that’s one thing I wish was more widespread.

There are limits. There are some things in this world I couldn’t tolerate but they are usually in extremes and no one should want someone around who feels certain forms of abuse are fine, but I’m not talking about that level of animosity. I’m a different person to you. If we all wanted to love thyself to this extent, there’d be no reason ever to say hello to another human being.

Therefore, don’t assume that because I’m friends with someone in my private life, or elsewhere, is someone with whom I share the same beliefs, especially in this world of social media. I don’t know what may lurk in all those dark hearts, though the horror writer in me likes to explore this question. Never assume all the viewpoints in the stories I write are from my personal viewpoint. One aspect of a writer’s job is to show all sides of the argument, without getting into a public, personal disagreement.

Chances are…

You will write something you love.

You will write something you hate.

Something you once loved you will come to hate and wonder what in the world you were thinking.

Something you once hated will become loved because you will realise there was more going on in the story than you first thought.

Something you love and even believe is one of your best works will flop.

Something you consider to be weak will be well received and even be a huge success.

You will write jokes no one else gets.

People will laugh at points in the story where you least expect.

You may try a writing contest and get nowhere. The winning entry will leave you scratching your head or possibly sobbing into a pillow.

You will fall out with at least one editor, or one will fall out with you. (This doesn’t mean a screaming match. Fall outs are often quiet. It happens. Personalities clash. Opinions differ. Most publishers understand this and will assign the writer to a new editor.)

You will worry.

You will read something outstanding and wonder whatever made you think you could write.

You will read something lousy and wonder why you are getting nowhere when your work is so much better.

You will want to give up…

…and then get an idea you ‘must’ write.

You will be determined never to stop…

…until the next time you want to give up.

My Parents Will See This

Many years ago I wrote an amusing and eyebrow-raising short piece of prose called My Parents Will See This. It was in answer to an exercise someone set on a forum about how people have a mistaken view of writers. Although many laughed and were possibly slightly scandalised by my offering, there was a lot of truth in it. People DO look at something an author has written and raise an eyebrow or two; maybe they even whisper behind said author’s back. Or, these days, get up in their face.

My first published novel was a gay fantasy romance. I wrote it because the idea nagged at me. I had no other agenda in mind other than I had chosen a publisher I wanted to write for, and I had found the perfect idea to fit them. Even if I hadn’t a publisher in mind, I would have written the story. It bugged me, kept me awake, distracted me, begged. The only way to get this story out of my head was to write it down.

The publisher I had chosen produced erotic romance. I knew the story had to be explicit. Talk about a jump in the deep end. My first full-length novel and I made it not only explicit but at heart a gay romance. Try explaining that to the relatives.

Writing anything in the least sexual is probably the most difficult to contend with. People will come to peculiar conclusions. The romance genre has expanded in recent years to include cross-genre writing from paranormal through to erotica and even BDSM. Some writers have experience in some of these categories, but not all. So how does a writer ‘write’ a BDSM story without being involved in the life? How does a straight woman write a gay romance?

Research. The writer reads. The writer asks questions. The writer studies how other writers are doing it. The writer dissects a book he or she enjoyed in that genre, and although I’ve mentioned explicit content here as a prime example, these basics apply to any work. It never ceases to amaze me people can get so fired up over sexual content, yet those same folks won’t say a word against the latest horror novel or film. Some do, of course. I’d like to protest and claim no one approaches the crime or thriller writer and asks them where they hide the dead bodies, but they probably do. Crime or horror writers get asked as many peculiar questions as erotica authors. I know they have asked King how he sleeps at night and he has apparently answered, “Very well, thank you.” Still sex seems to receive the highest negativity. What two consenting adults do isn’t okay, but a ski-masked killer hacking up young virgins is? Many an erotic romance writer shakes a head over this—just not one they’ve decapitated.

Sex is another part of the human condition, same as death, same as fear, or joy, any other experience or emotion. Writing sexual content does not mean the author spends the weekend trying out the latest ‘toys’ for review or even as research. It does not mean the writer is a nymphomaniac. Not all erotica writers wear corsets on the weekends. A roundabout way to get to my point.

BE TRUE TO THE STORY.

It doesn’t matter what you are writing, IMHO the writer needs to be true to the content. If the story needs sex, then consider in what context. Same for anything explicit—there shouldn’t be gratuitous sex, same as there shouldn’t be gratuitous gore. What counts as gratuitous is another argument. The quick answer is everything in a book has to propel the story. Everything a character experiences must change that character. If writing for an erotic romance publisher, the writer has to include sex so the trick would be to come up with an idea that allows sex to occur, but includes the other elements of story and plot. Another genre might approach this from the other direction—the story may require sex and the author will include it only if needed, but if writing for a market that requires such content, it’s the writer’s job to work it in as part of the storytelling. The same with horror. The writer knows it’s necessary to scare the audience.

There are distinct styles required for different books, and various markets, and if the author wants to write for them he or she must accept this. Don’t worry who will read it. No one need read it until the author is ready to put the story out there. Even then it can always go out under a pen-name, although be aware this does not guarantee anonymity, especially these days.

I’m saying, don’t be afraid—if you want to write, you can’t be—and that applies to whatever the author is writing. Maybe it’s not a sexual scene. Maybe a character needs to die horribly. The writer just knows his or her mother will be terribly turned off by it, even sickened. Who and what should the author be loyal to? The parent? The story? One could say the writer should be true to the reader, but before that the writer needs to be true to the writer. Put into a story everything it requires, regardless of what others might think. No more, but definitely no less.

Not convinced? Try it. If the writer is lucky enough and has found the right genre and the right voice to work with, that’s wonderful. If not, then write something with all those worries and barriers in place. Then write it again with those barriers lowered. No one need see it. See if that changes the outcome. I know it did for me.

Reacting to Reviews

Having heard about a writer getting an unfair review the other day (I read it and agree) this seems as good a time to talk about reviews from a personal perspective that I hope applies to both writers and readers, (who are both potential reviewers), and professional reviewers who assess books and stories regularly. All writers dream of receiving great reviews, but negative feedback affects everyone differently. I can only tell you how I handle the subject.

I forget exactly where I read this statistic, but as a guide, 20% of readers will hate your book. Don’t believe me? Read this wonderful take on negative reviews by author Beth Revis: How to Respond to Negative Reviews. She puts it so eloquently. Once you read some statistics, you’ll have a clearer picture.

Another occurrence, brought to my attention by an acquaintance, was of someone who had compared Dracula to Twilight and said they felt Twilight was the better book. No, I am not here to argue or dissect either work. I will say that IMHO no one can compare the two books. I am 99% certain that the author of Twilight might even agree with me. I don’t care whether you love or loathe either work or both: they don’t belong in the same sentence. They are two different fictions, written with distinct styles, at distant points in history, with a difference of purpose in mind, and with different influences. My acquaintance felt quite upset readers were touting Twilight as the best book of all time. Again, I, and the author of said book, would probably understand where my friend is coming from. There are many books I love in all genres, but ‘best book of all time’? Think of that phrase for a moment, of what it truly means.

I have to say for me to choose such a book would require more thought than I have time to spare. It would have to be a classic. It would have to be something that has already outlasted the test of time. Conversely, maybe such a book has yet to be written, doesn’t even exist yet. Be careful when rating books. It’s fine to give a book 5 stars on its own merit, but if you’re *comparing* it requires more thought.

How fair is it to compare one work to another, though? I give out 5-star reviews for good reads, but if I was giving stars to my personal library judging by those I loved the most, the grading would be noticeably different. I don’t put that classification *out there* when reviewing other authors. I would feel I was doing them a disservice.

It’s all subjective, anyway. What one person loves, another hates—wouldn’t it be a boring world if we all liked the same thing? It might be one thing to downgrade a book owing to poor presentation, but a story that isn’t one person’s ‘cup of tea’ may be the favourite read of another.

When writing a review I would urge to remember whether one is grading a book by the level of enjoyment or against other books. I would keep in mind that while I might have quibbles with the book, it has already passed inspection—in most cases a team has worked on it (not just the author) and have decided it is good enough for publication. Some ideas in the book may not have come from the author at all. Edits happen. There may be something in the book a reader dislikes the author also didn’t want but had no choice other than to accept after signing a contract. Yes, that is a fact of publishing. Or, the part the reviewer hates may be the part the writer most loves. In the words of J.K.Rowling, “I’m not taking dictation.” There’s little point wishing a book had *gone another way*. Don’t enjoy the books coming onto the market, then go write ones you like. Maybe you can become a writer yourself, maybe you already are. Either may ‘discover’ a new brand of fiction with fresh ideas.

If you’re a writer and receiving a bad review…well, this is how I deal with them. Set it aside. I read it and put it down for twenty-four hours. I put it completely out of my mind and let my blood cool. Then I read it again. Then I take the time to consider it. I judge whether the reviewer had a point. If so, I try to learn from it. If not, I dismiss it.

A bad review can be very helpful if the reader has something constructive to say. Equally, a reader can miss a point you were trying to make. I’m not saying the reader is *wrong* when that happens. I’m saying — And This Is The Important Thing — we are all influenced by our life experiences. We all have our own likes and dislikes.

I once received a bad review that neither I nor my editor agreed with. My editor at the time told me the reviewer couldn’t have understood the pressure one of my characters was under. Even though my editor felt the same way I did, that review stung…for about two days when I received a message from a reader gushing in delight over the very thing the reviewer had hated. That distinct point made the book for the reader where it killed the story dead for the critic. Neither was wrong, but nor was I. I had written that scene for a good reason. The reader *got* it; the reviewer didn’t. It came down to preference and ‘personal experience’, and that’s something both writer and reviewer have to keep in mind.

Try to learn from negative reviews. Take them seriously. Consider the points raised and decide whether you would have written the story any differently. If the answer is no, then dismiss it. To do so can be harder than it sounds sometimes, but I urge every writer to practise it. If there are issues the writer does not have answers to, keep those points for the next book, or use them should the book ever get the opportunity for a revision.

NEVER respond to a bad review. There have been too many public meltdowns of authors getting into arguments with reviewers. Who is in the wrong or who is right doesn’t even come into it. Online trolls write too many bad reviews and there’s no getting through to them; often the tone of that review reveals their intentions, anyway. Such simple disagreements can ruin careers. Then you have writers such as James Scott Bell who advise the writer not to read reviews at all. I understand that thinking equally, although I also know sometimes reviews can be useful. There are reviews of my work that I read, and others where I do not.

I will leave readers and potential reviewers with one last thought. Many times those who hate a work are more likely to say so. If you love an author’s work, truly the best way you can help them is not to contact the author—although that’s always wonderful and much appreciated—but to tell the world. Do you love a book? Review it publicly. There’s really no better thing a reader can do for an author whose work they love so much—for the author and for the reader who wants that person to keep writing.

The Passive Argument makes me Tense

Several months ago I had the pleasure of reading a book on writing by an American publisher that doesn’t negate the entire use of ‘passive’. For anyone who is saying, “Huh?” a somewhat humorous but an excellent example I’ve seen recently is this (sorry, I don’t know whom to attribute it to):

She was eaten by zombies.

Zombie ate her.

The first is passive, the second is not. American publishers (I can’t speak for non-US/UK countries as I’ve no experience) can be more selective about passive to the point of banning it altogether. Some, unfortunately, go to such lengths to avoid a single instance that they will rewrite whole paragraphs into awful stilted entanglements that are cringeworthy. British writers especially seem to have a hard time with this, probably because our rule on passive is simple: Don’t overuse but no need to avoid at all costs. British publishers don’t seem so worried about passive, and I know I’m not the only writer to never have passive sentences pointed out until I wrote for a US publisher.

It’s difficult to argue wrong or right because many publishers have a house-style and if they reject passive, they have the right; however, it’s to everyone’s detriment to rewrite the occasional use if to get the same information results in a sentence so convoluted it makes the reader wince.

Other forms argued with are ‘to be’ or ‘was’. Some publishers become known for ‘de-wasing’ work. I once read a submission guide taking this to extremes and stating the writer was to remove every instance of the word. Many writers consider was to be a throwaway word—one that passes through the ear and mind without calling too much attention. I’ve heard other British writers ponder what is so wrong with all forms of ‘to be’.

Passive can be used to great effect, in fiction and in life. Politicians and solicitors purposely use passive to deflect answering questions directly. One can find examples of passive in many famous poems that would have lost power had the authors written the passive out.

And don’t be confused (yes, be confused is passive). There is such a thing as passive ‘writing’. There is no such thing as passive ‘tense’ no matter who uses this term. A tense is a set of forms taken by a verb—the simple tenses being past, present, and future. There is passive writing or passive voice, but not tense.

Sometimes passive is superfluous or ‘gets by’ the writer during the draft, and it is worth checking and getting rid of a percentage. Fewer passive sentences increase the pace and that’s largely what a modern audience wants, so it’s at least understandable that publishers encourage minimum use.

The Desire to Stop

The chances are there will be times the writer will want to stop. Just give up the dream of being published. This has applied to me owing to some health issues and publishers closing. This is understandable, particularly if the person has spent many years trying without success. But what of those published? The worry doesn’t end there.

With the success comes, if not added pressure, at least pressures of various sorts. A writer may be only as good as his or her last book. We’ve seen instances where a writer gets lambasted because the creative vision that started a series hasn’t met the expectations of a majority reader vote. I’m not talking about good or bad writing — I’m thinking of those cases where an outcome differs to what readers expected, or a character dies much to the displeasure of many.

There will also be times when, as a reader, the writer comes across a book so brilliant, this leads to self-doubt and the question, “Whatever made me think I could write?” Never fear on this score. There will always be titles that make the writer shout, “I can do better than this!”

Sometimes the writing becomes a slog. A story isn’t going as the writer wants. The right words just aren’t coming to mind, or there’s a plot hole to work around. There are deadlines. The writer grows tired. The paperwork is a pain. There’s paperwork to fill out? Oh, come on! Paperwork? No one told me there would be paperwork. All this can bring down the writer.

The good news is no writer feeling this way is alone. The only advice I can give is never to make a hasty decision. Sleep on it. Wait, a week or a month. Start working towards taking a break. Take just one day off, away from books, words, computers, readers, publishers. Any or all these things, and many I’ve not even mentioned, can make a huge difference to one’s outlook.

Just prepare to feel the same way again at a future date. To want to just walk away from the whole labyrinth of publishing — and it is a maze — and find something easier to do (especially if the desire is to make a living), instead. And don’t be surprised to hear almost every writer has thought about giving up sometimes, either before success or even afterwards.

Never an Idle Moment

The wannabe writer needs to ask an important question: “Am I prepared to never have such a thing as spare time again?”

Most writers work part time if not full time at normal everyday jobs just like anyone else and always will. Some writers will be successful enough to give up the day job, but a portion will never quite have the courage to strike out and leave that feeling of security. Other writers find themselves at home full-time, and for whatever the reasons will use that time pursuing the career of which they’ve always dreamed.

Working at a day job or not, there can still be demands on time — home, family, friends… hell, just trying to have a life. I advise balancing all these requirements. The writer who dives into nothing but work can burn out. I’ve come close and seen it happen to others. Trying to do too much can make it almost impossible to do anything.

Everyone needs some time off. That includes writers. The trouble with that idea is the one thing many writers struggle to do is to throw that switch off in their heads to ‘no thinking about work’. And by that, I don’t mean whether an editor’s got back with a yes or no yet or whether the latest edits will be tear-inducing. It can be very difficult not to think about the work in progress or even the next. Even when a writer has reached an aimed for quota if the work is flowing it’s hard to step away from the keyboard to think about such things as making dinner or going to bed and sleeping.

Another way to phrase the same question is: Am I prepared to work on the weekend? By that, I don’t just mean writing. Writing is no longer the creation of a story, sending it out there, sitting back, doing nothing but thinking of the next big project. There’s the writing (which can be difficult enough), the research, the submission process, working with an editor, gearing up for a release date, the marketing. All of which takes time. Time will soon be a precious commodity. And even if the writer becomes one of the lucky few who streamlines everything and discovers the right marketing that works, the creation process — those little voices in one’s head — can speak up when least convenient.

I’ve discovered that for many in the publishing industry — writers, cover artists, editors, company owners… Whether they have offices that shut the doors on the weekend or not, often they take work home with them. They may work from home — many businesses can survive electronically these days — but no matter how wonderful working from home sounds it can require far more discipline. Many in publishing work seven days a week.

There are those who insist they won’t work on the weekend, but it’s necessary to resolve such a decision. Even then, deadlines wait for no one. If the work is impossible to complete without working on a day ‘off’ then it’s important to prepare to work even at short notice. The writer soon realises that, just as with many day jobs, the only true way to ‘get away’ is to head off to somewhere isolated and take no electronic devices — just make sure the publisher knows the M.I.A. dates to avoid the court-martial.

Time off? I’m betting the writer will find it impossible not to take a notepad and pen to jot down those ideas that pop up during a conversation, at dinner, when lying in the bath, in the middle of the night. Become a writer and it doesn’t end, and if there happens to be a few quiet hours, for many being idle will never feel right again, will feel downright unnatural. For even if when the writer completes all the editing, the marketing’s sorted, there are stories that require telling… and a small nagging voice will ask why you aren’t busy writing them.

Writing for a hobby is one thing. In publishing prepare to be busy. Prepare to be self-disciplined.