First, I learned how to write. Then, I learned how not to write. Then, I had to relearn how to write again.
When I first started writing, each story was a new adventure with new characters and settings. Stories ideas would come into my brain, marinate for a few days, and then I’d start working. I didn’t make a conscious plan to create stories in any particular genre. I wrote stories for me, telling the stories I wanted to tell as the ideas came to me. Having analyzed and written short stories during my education, the process came naturally to me. I simply sat down and began working, knowing the story needed a strong opening, rising action, a climax, and a dénouement.
As I grew more confident in my work and began submitting my short stories to magazines, I thought I’d figured out how to write. So I challenged myself to complete a novel length work, 60,000 words. I decided to write a mystery novel.
But although I’d analyzed novels previously, the only thing I’d written of any great length was a nonfiction honor’s thesis for my undergraduate degree. I had never studied how to craft a novel. While I knew the story still required the same basic pieces, the idea of creating something so long and complex without preparation seemed daunting. I decided to read books about the process, to learn what I needed to know before diving in blindly.
Unfortunately, I chose the wrong books to direct me. Though the books came with great reviews and were highly recommended for learning to craft mystery novels, they all espoused one particular style: a carefully plotted method that involved mapping the book in detail in advance. Recognizing this as the method I had been taught to produce nonfiction, I thought, “Oh, I can do this. I’ve done this before. This must be the way to produce book-length works.”
All of my short stories had been written in a free-flowing, organic style with minimal advance plotting. I scribbled down a handful of notes and ideas on character or plot and started working, letting the story come to life on the page as I went. When I tried to write my first novel, I dropped that spontaneous process and tried to plot everything as the books I’d read suggested.
And thus, I shot myself in the foot. I inhibited my writing process by trying to follow someone else’s methods.
The joy went out of my work.
I was unable to get beyond a chapter or two before quitting.
After reassessing the situation, I began looking for other ways of crafting novels. This search lead me to discover the “pantser vs plotter” approaches. “Pantsers,” people who wrote “by the seat of their pants,” making things up as they went, were a whole category of authors. Their approach was fundamentally opposite to the “plotters,” authors who planned and outlined all the details in advance. Once I learned about these basic style differences, I found other authors who advised beginners to find their own method for writing books and not try to use anyone else’s. I found blogs and quotes from successful authors that said the only rule for writing was to actually put words on the page. How you arrived at that point was irrelevant.
So I took another stab at writing a novel, having finally understood that I had to write “my way” and not somebody else’s way. I finished my first novel, a second, and a third, and now the fourth will be coming out later this year. So, learn from my mistake. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to follow their method to write a book. Find your own process and start writing.
“After all, tomorrow is another day.” Recognize that book quote? They’re the five favorite words of Scarlet O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. A great line to live by if you need to move on from a tragedy, but not very motivational when it’s time to write another blog!
I am in awe of the memorable lines written by different authors. Several changed how I look at life.
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” This quote from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott helped me discover my own strength in the time of challenge–a sense of control when surrounded by chaos.
“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another).” This line from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird pointed out that not every Bible quoting Religious Righter is a Christian. This was an important lesson for me as a preacher’s kid. Following the love commanded in the Bible is quite different from using the Bible as a weapon of hate.
“It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.” J.K. Rowling wrote this in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s good to dream, but keep your reality healthy and fun. Considering how much “dreaming” goes into writing, this was solid advice to continue having a life while creating a make-believe world.
Did these gems just appear on the page as the author spewed creativity through her fingers? Or were these planned little hints artfully dropped into a book that was impossible to put down?
Many quotes have become part of our every day dialogue. That small phrase, regardless of the mood and time of the book’s setting, suddenly becomes the perfect way to express our present day thoughts.
“Winter is coming.” (Games of Thrones by George R. R. Martin) We use this when we know something bad is about to happen.
“Lead on, McDuff.” (The last words of the title character in Shakespeare’s MacBeth) Simply put, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Oh, wait. That’s a quote from Admiral Glasgow Farragut, but you get my drift, right?
What phrases or quotes from books have inspired you? Which ones do you quote in your head when different situations confront you? I’ll bet you have a few. If so, they’ve become a part of your fabric.
Great authors, whether by design or simple genius, put together words that speak to our souls. These phrases are woven into the framework of our culture.
My hope is that my stories, in their creative reality, use the best words to capture real moments of life through the lives of my characters. My greatest responsibility is to express the emotions of my truths through my characters and to make sure those truths are well said.
On his twenty-first birthday, Simon Ashby will become a rich man. He’ll inherit both his mother’s fortune and Latchetts, the estate left by his parents on their accidental death eight years ago. In the interim, his aunt Bee has, by skillful management, built Latchetts into a profitable farm and riding stable.
The other Ashby children—Simon’s sisters, nineteen-year-old Eleanor and nine-year-old twins Jane and Ruth—look forward to his becoming master of Latchetts. Bee’s pleasure is marred only by the memory of Patrick, Simon’s twin, who shortly after their parents’ death disappeared, a presumed suicide.
Six weeks before Simon’s birthday, however, a stranger calling himself Brat Farrar appears and claims to be the long-lost Patrick. He looks like Simon, remembers everything Patrick should, has a reasonable explanation for his long absence, and—a striking distinction—knows and loves horses. Initially skeptical, Bee is yet open to the possibility of Brat’s being her missing nephew. The Ashbys might have a second reason to celebrate.
Except for Simon—because Patrick is the older twin. If Bee accepts Brat as an Ashby, Simon will be displaced. Brat will inherit everything.
So far, author Josephine Tey has laid a conventional foundation for the mystery Brat Farrar.
But in the third chapter, Tey departs from the pattern by exposing critical information: Before the Ashbys have even heard of Brat Farrar, the reader knows Brat is an imposter, come “home” solely to take possession of Latchetts. The Ashby’s prodigal son is a fraud.
We readers, instead of wondering about Brat’s identity, focus on the Ashbys as they walk, unsuspecting, into a web of deceit. And, although we know what they don’t, we walk right into it with them.
P. D. James liked mysteries, she said, because of their ordered structure—”in the end, the villain is caught and justice is done.” But here’s the rub: we don’t want Brat caught or justice done. We like him. We not only understand him, we cheer him on. We hope he achieves his goal. We don’t approve of criminal behavior, of course, but we want him to have Latchetts and the horses he loves.
Mystery writers often present their characters with moral dilemmas; here, Tey hands one to readers. She serves us up an exceedingly good read and makes us uncomfortable the whole time we’re reading.
“Impersonation,” says mystery writer Robert Barnard, “has been at the heart of many detective stories, but it has seldom carried the emotional charge of Brat Farrar, and our sympathies are never in a mere puzzle so skilfully and so surprisingly manipulated.”
He points to this as a mark of Tey’s “essence,” her “brilliant storytelling: her varied, loving characterization; above all, her control of reader sympathies.” In Brat Farrar, Tey definitely has control.
And the storytelling is brilliant. Tey, says Barnard, “often reveals a sort of impatience with the rules and conventions of the whodunit.” Three of her mysteries—Brat Farrar, The Daughter of Time, and The Franchise Affair— occupy “that hinterland—often uneasy, but not in her hands—between the crime novel and the ‘novel proper.'”
The Daughter of Time,named in 1990 one of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, is a history lesson wrapped in a detective story. At the suggestion of actress friend Marta Hallard, Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant, hospitalized with a broken leg, passes the time by researching the life of Richard III of England. Studying material brought to him by several other friends and colleagues, he concludes that Richard was a good man, not a murderer, and that the image of the evil hunchback made famous by Shakespeare was merely Tudor propaganda. Colin Dexter’s The Wench Is Dead, an Inspector Morse mystery published in 1989, is an homage to Daughter.
My favorite of Tey’s books, The Franchise Affair, doesn’t feature a murder at all. The third in the Inspector Alan Grant series, it concerns a charge of kidnapping leveled against the Sharpes, a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother, newcomers whom the residents of the nearby village consider eccentric. A teenage war orphan accuses them of luring her to their house, demanding she do domestic work, and when she refuses, imprisoning her in an attic. The women claim they’ve never seen the girl. Robert Blair, the solicitor who responds to Marian Sharpe’s call for assistance—and who’s never handled a criminal case—finds them trustworthy and personable, and Inspector Grant dismisses the girl’s story as a fabrication. Within days, however, Grant is back with an arrest warrant, and as evidence against the Sharpes mounts, villagers believe the worst. Characters are so well drawn it’s easy to believe they have lives beyond the page; the plot is tight and suspenseful. Tey proves beyond doubt that murder isn’t necessary for a first-class mystery.
(The artist responsible for the cover pictured above either disagrees with my last assertion or failed to read the book—the body on the cover has no relation to anything inside.)
Tey, whose real name was Elizabeth MacIntosh, was a native of Scotland. Little is known about her personal life. “She lives,” writes Barnard, “by her works alone.” She wrote a number of historical plays under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. She wrote only eight mysteries—six in the Inspector Grant series and two stand-alones—between 1929 and her untimely death in 1952, the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. But the quality of those novels establishes her as one of the great writers of British crime fiction, in the same league as Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Marjorie Allingham, and Dorothy L. Sayers.
I give the last word to Robert Barnard, who goes a step further in his praise:
“If Ngaio Marsh or Christie had died as young as Tey, we would have a good idea of what they could have gone on writing. We can guess that Tey would have written several more whodunits, but what she would have written is beyond our guesswork. That in itself is her best tribute.”
I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier, Dolores died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory, and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.
Francine Paino, aka F. Della Notta, is a native New Yorker and a Texas transplant. She loves learning about her new State and enjoys melding the cultures and characteristics of two cities: New York and Austin.
In 2018, writing as F. Della Notte, she created the Housekeeper Mystery Series in the tradition of the clergy amateur sleuths, with a 21st-century twist. The housekeeper isn’t a sidekick; she is the sleuthing equal of the priest. The second book in the Housekeeper Mystery Series, CATWALK DEAD, will be released in 2019.
One of the most frequent, if not the number one, questions asked when joining a book club is, “Who is your favorite author?” My inside voice always answers, “Do you have to have just one?” If you are a reader and a book lover, one author, or even one genre, can never be enough.
Six months ago, I joined an on-line book club. I needed to change my lifelong reading patterns. I was in a rut and had no idea of what I was getting myself into but decided to make it through the first month and see what it was about. Many of the book clubs were based on physical type book clubs–everyone read the same book, made comments, and moved on to the next book. But I did find one that was different; it comprised competitive teams reading for points.
I was reading anyway–why not? It was one of the best choices I could have made.
The founders/administrators are young to middle-aged adults. The members’ ages range widely with “oldie but goodies” thrown in the mix. The approximately 1000 members are divided into specific teams with an overriding theme for each month: Superheroes DC Icons, Tricksters, Lovers (Valentines), Broadway musicals, etc. At first blush, maybe a bit silly you might think.
So exactly what does this club do differently? It is a competitive reading book club – the more you read, the more points you are awarded, and the team with the most points is the monthly winner. Sounds simple right?
Each team is provided monthly activities under two primary lists: a Criteria list and a Bonus list. There is always an author highlight –three to four authors–and you choose one to read. The Bonus point list includes activities for additional points. These are alternative choices such as cooking, crafting, watching a documentary or movie, providing weekly book reviews, posting Instagram photos daily, or creating something uniquely yours as an opportunity to garner extra points for your team.
While this may appear to be busy work or something less, it is first a community of readers striving together with reading as it core principle. It additionally is a forum for young and old readers to meet online regardless of physical location and to join together in their love of reading. The Criteria listing exposes readers to new authors, subjects, and genres, but you can read whatever you want regardless of subject matter or format.
The benefit is that, whatever you read in whatever form you receive it, the more you read, the more points your team accumulates. But, best of all, you can read for the joy of reading.
A wide variety of delivery formats are accepted, including physical books, audio books, Fanfiction, and E-books. Regardless of the reading form, the page counts equal points. Format is not important; reading is the goal. Extra points can be garnered using your smart phone by taking pictures, writing reviews, and posting. Social media is used widely among the members. Computer skill sets are used and keep members engaged on a variety of levels. (A good skill set for older readers).
What I Learned
Many established authors advise that to be a good writer, you must first be a reader. What is a better research tool than a book club to see what readers are interested in reading?
I joined this book club because I wanted more information about the current market, what was selling, who was writing, and the current subjects of interest to others. I also needed to change my reading habits and see what was popular among current book buyers. I finally had the time to explore a wide array of reading material and believed this was a good start.
Although initially frustrated with the choice of authors at times (young adult) or difficulty finding novels that met the criteria such as “Read a book with the title written in Green, Purple, or Gold”; Read a book featuring a taboo subject,” I continued signing up for another month.
(Believe me, as plain as these requirements might look at first, finding books you might want to read under these simple criteria can be a bit tricky).
I began to look forward to the announcement of each month’s winners, the next team themes, the range of highlighted authors, the criteria list and beginning the hunt for reading material that would meet that month’s focus.
It became apparent rather quickly that there is a large group of young adults and middle-aged adults who are buying and reading books in all kinds of formats and a multitude of subjects. They are sharing their love of reading in formats never imagined. Reading is alive and well despite the warning that print books are declining.
And I learned that I have missed some very worthy authors, at times by dismissing young adult literature as a reading option. Despite being categorized as “young adult,” these very same novels deal with difficult real-life issues and provide support and help in dealing with terrible events: the Holocaust, rape, drug addiction, child abuse, and dysfunctional families.
Joining has been an enlightening experience and has offered myriad alternative options to my tried and true reading habits. While the group is based online and does not physically meet, it is nonetheless a vigorous community committed to reading varied types of literature in many formats. It has also pushed me to establish reading goals, and for that I am very grateful. I believe that not only have a become a better reader over the past six months but that it has opened numerous possibilities for more confident writing in the future.
Some of the books read since November 2018
Geraldine Brooks, People of the Book
Jona Oberski, Childhood
Carol Rifka Brunt, Tell the Wolves I’m Home
Michael Cannell, Incendiary: The Psychiatrist, The Mad Bomber, and the Invention of Criminal Profiling
Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America
Ruth Ware, The Lying Game
Olivia Kiernan, Too Close to Breathe : A Novel
Photos courtesy of Amazon.com
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats from shelters and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.
In her 2001 collection Rereadings, Anne Fadimanchallenged writers to revisit books they read before they were twenty-five, and still re-read. Contributor Arthur Krystal (his favorite re-read is a boxing book, Witwer’s The Leather Pushers), quotes George Orwell: “The books one read in childhood, and perhaps most all bad and good bad books, create in one’s mind a sort of false map of the world, a series of fabulous countries into which one can retreat at odd moments.”
Oh yes, “odd moments,” like when the world is too much with us. Then I repair to the shelves and drag off not only my pre-twenty-five faves (Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Jane Austen, Kim) but also later loves: Patrick O’Brian, tattered volumes by Dorothy Dunnett, mysteries by Rowling/Galbraith, Marsh, Hillerman—and, especially, John Le Carré. Over and over I return to the travails, humiliations, and perilous triumph of his character George Smiley. Sometimes re-reading feels guilty—shouldn’t I be reading Important New Novels, not the Le Carré spy novel genre?—but it’s guilty pleasure, like getting on a train clutching a Hershey-bar-with-almonds I don’t have to share.
One Rereadings contributor vindicated my re-reading of Le Carré. The terrific Pico Iyer addressed D. H. Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy, which he discovered “within the tightly guarded confines of a fifteenth-century English boarding school.” Iyer says, “[Lawrence] had something in common with all the great English writers who railed against English narrowness and skepticism (Graham Greene and Somerset Maugham, John Berger and John le Carré)….”
Yes! An English writer calling Le Carré a “great English writer”! Rereading is justified!
For instance, consider Le Carré’s genius for character depiction. Let’s look at just two of his repeating characters, George Smiley and Peter Guillam, and their relationship, in three books: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); Smiley’s People (1980); and his recent A Legacy of Spies (2017). Le Carré builds Smiley in part through others’ eyes:
From the outset of this meeting, Smiley had assumed for the main a Buddha-like inscrutability… He sat leaning back with his short legs bent, head forward, and plump hands linked across his generous stomach. His hooded eyes had closed behind the thick lenses. His only fidget was to polish his glasses on the silk lining of his tie, and when he did this his eyes had a soaked, naked look that was embarrassing to those who caught him at it. (Tinker)
A police superintendent describes the complexity behind Smiley’s face, in Smiley’s People:
Not one face at all actually, the Superintendent reflected….More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.
He’s so physically unimposing as to be nearly comical, yet his intellect and ferocious tenacity come across to other characters. We come to understand why he inspires fear in his adversaries and devotion in those, like Peter Guillam, whom he has mentored.
In other words, I can pick up my Hershey bar with confidence that—again—Smiley will triumph…for the Circus…at least for a time. I have the same confidence as Guillam that Smiley will ultimately succeed…for this battle. So, another bite of Hershey bar.
And I, like Guillam, have confidence that while others are still scrambling to see the big picture, Smiley will ultimately hold all the threads in his hand. But—again like Guillam—I cannot see all the threads, until the end, if then.
Le Carré uses physical description to support Smiley’s reliance on Peter Guillam for sometimes perilous tasks. We see the younger Guillam in Tinker:
Guillam drove languidly but fast. Smiley wondered how old Guillam was and guessed forty, but in that light he could have been an undergraduate sculling on the river, he moved the gear lever with a long flowing movement as if he were passing it through water.
Le Carré shows us Guillam in action when at Smiley’s request Guillam sneaks into the Circus to steal records. Despite appalling potential consequences, under the very eyes of Smiley’s adversaries, Guillam pulls off a bald-faced daylight theft:
Move. Once you stop, you never start again: there is a special stage-fright that can make you dry up and walk away, that burns your fingers when you touch the goods and turns your stomach to water. Move…. His shirt was clinging to his ribs. What’s happened to me? Christ, I’m over the hill. He turned forward and back, forward again, twice, three times, then closed the cupboard on the lot. He waited, listened, took a last worried look at the dust, then stepped boldly across the corridor, back to the safety of the men’s room.
Then, when we meet him later in Smiley’s People, Guillam’s still fast-moving and independent (the Porsche has a role in the plot):
Guillam, it may be added, was an athlete, half French, but more English on account of it; he was slender, and near enough handsome—but though he fought it every inch of the way, he was also close on fifty, which is the watershed that few careers of ageing fieldmen survive. He also owned a brand-new German Porsche car, which he had acquired, somewhat shamefacedly, at diplomatic rates, and parked, to the Ambassador’s strident disapproval, in the Embassy car-park.
Guillam worked for Smiley on and off for years. By the uncomfortably present time of A Legacy of Spies, both are retired and have not seen each other in nearly a decade. Did Guillam ever see the big picture? He asks himself that question as first-person narrator of A Legacy of Spies, where we see everything through his eyes. British interrogators haul him out of retirement in France and back to London, where they confiscate his British passport (he’s hidden another elsewhere). They repeatedly demand, “Where’s George? When did you last see George? Or talk to him?” Guillam hasn’t, and won’t, until the last five pages of Legacy. The plot involves laying blame on Guillam for decades-old failures at the Circus, and Guillam has to rely on decades-old tradecraft skills to escape, plus, appropriately, some new skills, like resorting to his hearing aids (“deaf aids”) to buy time in his interrogation:
[‘Bunny’ Butterfield] “Let me ask you just one question ahead of the rest of the field. May I?” —squeeze of the eyes. “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”
Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case.
“Windfall, Bunny, did you say?”
“Windfall”—louder, in case he hasn’t reached my deaf aids.
Keep it slow. Remember you’re of an age. Memory not your strong point these days. Take your time.
But when it appears his captors won’t let him go, Guillam is off and running
When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run. But I took care to walk, slowly, into Dolphin Square and up to the safe flat I knew I would never sleep in again. Draw curtains, sigh resignedly for the television set, close bedroom door. Extract French passport from dead letter box behind fire precautions notice. There is a calming ritual to escape. Don clean set of clothes. Shove razor in raincoat pocket, leave the rest in place. Make my way down to grill room, order light meal, settle to my boring book like a man reconciled to a solitary evening. Chat up Hungarian waitress in case she has reporting responsibility.…Saunter into courtyard….Prepare to join exodus to Embankment, never to return.
No spoilers about Guillam’s final reunion with George Smiley. A Legacy of Spies feels even more complex than earlier plots, given Guillam’s flashbacks and immersion in old records, and more immediate with his first-person narration. Of course, British cold war spylore is still a trip to another country, though not necessarily as Orwell says a “false map of the world.” Indeed, Guillam puzzles over whether the Circus itself had a false map of the world, whether even George Smiley had a false map of the world, or whether he himself—with his unquestioning patriotism—had one, and Smiley might have known it was false but did not tell him, for all the best reasons.
Most writers, like all artists who create work for public consumption, have to overcome their own inner critics to create a finished work. The voices of doubt are strong and loud in their heads. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Will people hate it? In the past, that inner voice of self-doubt was the main voice an author had to overcome.
But today, writers face an additional level of fear and doubt between themselves and their goal of reaching publication. They face an online atmosphere of intimidation. They face a world in which a work may be torn apart by a Twitter mob or Facebook mob before it’s even published.
In the last few years, several YA novels (Blood Heir, A Place for Wolves, The Black Witch, and The Continent to name a few) have been delayed or pulled from the publishing process before their publication date because of online criticism. Someone found what he or she considered to be a flaw in the advance reader copies of the works and cried out loudly enough to enrage mobs of people echoing the criticisms.
In one case, someone was offended by a character’s racist ideology. The character was designed by the author to be racist and to grow to recognize their own racism as the story progresses. That was a point the author was trying to make. In another case, an Asian author, who wasn’t raised in the United States, wrote a fantasy story drawing from her own perspective and background which touched on the history of indentured servitude and human trafficking in Asia. She was charged with being insensitive to U. S. racial history and U. S. cultural context.
The authors were vilified online, attacked personally and professionally, until they or their publisher felt driven to pull their books from the publication schedule. Their stories were prevented or delayed from reaching an audience by mobs who hadn’t even read the books.
Authors’ voices of self-doubt are already strong. Throw a harassing mob on top of that inner critic, and many authors, especially debut authors, will fold under the weight of the criticism. Because of the fear of online mobs harassing, attacking, and vilifying them, some authors are censoring their work as they write it. They are looking for ways to avoid offending anyone. These authors decide to err on the side of caution. They think, “Perhaps if I avoid this subject altogether, I can avoid offending someone. Perhaps if I don’t mention (fill in the blank), no one will attack me.” And, so begins the self-stifling of free expression out of fear of mob rule. Differing points of view vanish. Stories go untold out of fear. Difficult subjects are avoided completely rather than discussed.
Still other writers deal with the issue by asking someone else to review their work, looking for potentially offensive material. They hire “sensitivity readers” in hopes of catching any potential problems before publication. They hope that one person’s opinion of what’s acceptable will work for everyone, an idea that is doomed to failure. Authors can’t control what different readers see in their words because every reader’s inner vision, life experiences, and point of view will be different. What one reader sees in a story, another may not see at all.
It’s not merely harsh reviews these authors fear. They fear being trolled. They fear their phone ringing with obscene calls and incessant threatening texts, their web pages and Facebook pages being overwhelmed with threatening comments. They fear receiving death threats. They fear nonstop harassment of their families. When mobs consider offending someone akin to physically harming them, authors who write about difficult subjects risk sparking nonstop attacks with every work they release.
We are living in a Fahrenheit 451 world, a world in which the crime of accidentally offending someone can cause a book to be pulled from publication before it ever reaches a single vendor. We live in a world in which the crime of offending someone is punishable by online lynching. We need these attacks to stop. We need all voices to be heard and debated, not silenced before they ever reach publication by people who deem themselves to be “woker-than-thou.”
N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories, the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017) and its sequel coming in fall 2019. Learn more at www.nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno