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On Writing Dos and Don'ts

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

There sure has been a lot of "advice" swirling around the blogosphere / Twitterverse / #bookstagram / every other made-up internet destination this past week. Most of it has been centered on what is and is not allowable behavior by authors*. And since I like being told what I can't do about as much as wheelchair-bound John Locke (the character, not the philosopher - but probably him too), I've decided to take on the task of breaking down these dos and don'ts.

*For the purpose of this post I will use "author" instead of "writer," even though I kind of dislike the term. As bloggers/critics/reviewers are also writers, and I don't want to confuse the two, this pertains to "advice" solely directed toward writers of fiction.

1. DON'T talk about politics.

This goes hand-in-hand with the "celebrities shouldn't talk about politics" gripe that's been going on since "Hanoi" Jane Fonda spoke out about the Vietnam War. And I actually do understand the sentiment behind this one. Nobody wants to find out their favorite writer has repugnant views, or views wildly contrasting their own. Or maybe they're just sick of hearing about politics 24/7.

Getting your voice heard when you're one of millions shouting into the void is paramount. You can do that by tweeting the "right" opinions or the "wrong" ones (probably more so with the latter - see also: Bret Easton Ellis - if you're lucky you may even win a coveted HuffPo op-ed response! Or get banned from Twitter!). Either way, you'll be judged for what you profess to believe. And you sure as hell better be ready to back up what you're saying, because it will be demanded of you.

If you talk politics because you truly care, not because it's The Thing To Do, that's great. Keep doing you. But compromising who you are for some goddamn likes will catch up to you in the end and crush your soul.

For the record, you can probably figure out all of my political and social stances from my writing. I prefer to keep my social media profile as an entertaining space. I talk about movies and books, and occasionally post a rant about media hypocrisy and the like.I save political discussions for the real world, where I can look people in the eye. I don't believe discussing it online serves any purpose but to further divide people. I've never seen it change minds. All it usually does it further entrench people in opinions they already have.

But it doesn't mean you can't try.

2. DON'T review books.

This one is peculiar. I've heard grumblings before but it really came to the forefront last week during the latest internet beef between #bloggertribe and #writercommunity, beefs which more often than not occur solely on Twitter. Had they happened in the real world I suspect it would look less like an all-out street brawl than an awkwardly choreographed version of West Side Story's "Jet Song."

I think the idea is that authors potentially have something to gain by writing reviews, good or bad. With good reviews, it's the opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants. Or, more often, on those slightly taller than the author providing the review. Giving a favorable review to someone whose work you admire could potentially get you a positive blurb in return when you go to put out your next book. With bad reviews, it's ostensibly to tear down other authors in order to move higher up the ladder oneself.

And I get this. I'm incredibly wary of reviewing these days for that very reason - particularly heaping praise on authors of a higher standing, or criticizing authors with less reach. Many authors don't review books of their peers unless they can give them positive feedback. They don't want to tear others down. They know it can hurt, particularly to newer writers who may not have developed the calloused layer of flesh around their fragile author hearts necessary to look at a bad review, even one that attacks them personally, and chuckle amusedly to themselves.

Look, authors are readers. That's why most of us got into this game. Because we enjoy reading. We write what we want to read. Or what we want to see up on the big screen. So telling authors not to share opinions about books (or movies) is like telling a vintner not to talk about wines. And you would never do that to a vintner, would you?

3. DON'T read reviews of your own work.

The phrase that's been going around lately is "Reviews are for readers, not for writers."

Fine. But adults also eat Trix cereal and use coloring books.

I guess the idea behind this is that reviewers should feel free to review an author's work without fear of reprisal, whether it be online harassment or physical attacks (which, while rare, has happened - remember the bottle attack? or this woman?). Okay. That's fair. I've written some scathing reviews in my day. I'd hate to think they might have "triggered" someone so much they might want to harm me or themselves.

Conversely, some authors find criticism of their work helps them with subsequent books. Said negative feedback can be used to remove said negative aspects from their writing.

I don't do this, personally. To me that smacks of creation by committee. It's the same thing Hollywood does with their focus groups, chipping away at anything that strikes a viewer as odd or challenging until everything looks the same. But whatever works for you. If your plan is to give readers what they want, great. I love to please readers. The first reader I need to please is myself. If I'm writing something because I think that's what people want to read instead of what I want to read, the end product is going to suffer.

Many very successful indie swear by this method. It works for them. It may be for you. It may not be. It's definitely not for me.

But I do read every damn review out there of my work. Is that because I'm a masochist, or an egotist? Couldn't say. Maybe a bit of both. I do know I cherish my one-star reviews as much as my five-stars. While the five-stars are often more thoughtfully written, the one-stars are usually the funniest.

One of my personal favorites.

I also feel like reading your negative reviews--there is no such thing as a bad review, only a negative review--can help to build that armor you'll need when a popular reviewer tears you a new one, or when you reach that best-seller status and everyone with a keyboard wants to tell you how much you suck.

4. DO write every day.

So what if I want a day off, huh?

Look, I understand that if you want to be the most successful writer in town you have to hustle to get there. You have to continually work on "The Craft." You have to push to do better, read more, always be learning and keep an open mind about how things could possibly be written better.

But the average author doesn't need to write every single day of their lives in order to call themselves an author. Do plumbers fix toilets on vacation? Do strippers strip on Sundays? They're still plumbers and strippers, right?

Why does an author need to write every day to consider themselves an author? I take most weekends off to spend with family and friends. I've put out seven books in less than as many years, all written within that time period (with two more on the way). Am I suddenly not an author because I take weekends off? Do the books (with many positive reviews, by the way - also some very bad ones, as seen above) cancel themselves out based on my writing schedule? Of course not. And what happens when an author retires? Does their body of work suddenly vanish into the ether?

Now here's something I was discussing with friend and fellow author Chad Clark. Chad writes every day. Literally. He's one of several indies whose output and work ethic I truly admire. We were talking about this and he said to me (paraphrased), thinking about your work in progress should count as writing. Editing your work in progress should count as writing. You may not technically be writing, but you are still working on your writing.

In that sense, I would guess that most authors do write every day. I certainly don't go a day (or often an hour) without mulling over what I'm working on, what I plan to write next, or even projects I know are years from being written.

Sometimes your brain needs to take a vacation along with your body. And that's okay. I won't judge you.

But somebody out there will. That's the nature of the internet. There's always someone out there who wants to tell you how you are wrong. And sometimes, they'll be right. Which leads to...

5. DO be nice.

One of the most repeated pieces of advice I see given to new authors, aside from "write every day," is "be nice."

I get the sentiment behind this. Because it's important to be friendly and open to readers and fellow authors - to a point. I wouldn't suggest being nice to people who are not nice to you. I also wouldn't suggest letting people walk all over you simply because you want to keep them as colleagues and/or readers.

I've been blocked by a lot of people on social media. That tends to happen when you have a public profile. (I generally don't block unless someone blocks me first.) I would say most people see me as "nice." I may have controversial opinions at times but I tend to couch them with humor. I don't often seek to pick a fight. I treat people with respect until they disrespect me or my friends.

But man, there are a lot of stupid/ignorant/rude/you-name-it people on the internet that will rub you the wrong way from the get-go. There are trolls who do it on purpose, for the lols. There's no reason you should jump through hoops to be nice to these people. Suffering fools will only make you look like a chump.

There are times when it might be to your benefit to take it on the chin once or twice. Sometimes it's easier to ignore the problem than choose a side. But the more you do it, the more likely people are to take further advantage of you. And that's just not good for your mental well-being.

Although I suppose it could be good for your creativity, if you write revenge fiction.

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