Thursday, February 21, 2013

Authors Behaving Badly: Why We Can't Help It and Why We Have To Knock It Off Already

Writers are needy crybabies.

Yeah.  There it is.  We are.  It's just--okay, some writers are reading this and already disagreeing so hard their left arm is tingling and they're short of breath, and I'm sorry this blog might tip them into a cardiac event, but writers are needy crybabies.  And this isn't about me projecting, either.  It's not just me this time.  It's probably not just me.

We check reviews of our books; of course we do.  (See above: needy.)  And that's where the trouble always starts, because people who aren't our moms review our books.  Let me say that again so I can reiterate the horror:  people who aren't genetically programmed to love us review our books.  This happens to almost all writers and sometimes the results aren't pretty.

For myself, I often chalk up a bad review to a communication break-down.  (Though I did get one nasty review that disparaged my book and my hair, specifically my "soccer mom bangs".  My rebuttal: "Hey, jackass, these are marching band mom bangs.  Bet you feel stupid now."  That review I chalked up to a bad hair day.)  It's pretty arrogant, but sometimes I'll read a scorcher review and cluck my tongue and shake my head and sigh, "That poor guy!  He just didn't understand what I was trying to put across.  If I could sit down with him and explain my visioney vision he'll totally get it and then he'll love me.  My book!  That's what I meant; he'll love my book.  Because that's secretly what I want:  reviewer love.  For my book.  (Shut up, you're the one who's insecure.)"

So you take writer arrogance and add it to our needy crybabying and factor in reviewers not programmed to love us and divide by the Internet and you've got authors firing rebuttals that the entire world can read two seconds after we hit Send.  Back in the day, a writer could pen a pissy reply to a reviewer for, I dunno, a newspaper or something?  Anyway, when the reviewer got the rebuttal, they could fire something back, address an envelope, laboriously dig up a stamp, then walk to the PO and drop their letter in a big blue box.  They might show the letters to a colleague but at the end of the day, no matter what was said, there was an excellent chance the rest of the planet wasn't privy to any of it.

Yeah, um, it's different now.  Social media + whiny crybabies = This.

I'll say it straight out:  I feel guilty using Laurell K. Hamilton as an example, but not guilty enough.  I've met her many times; she and her husband Jon are the nicest people.  She's given me wonderful career advice.  She's offered to do signings with me, and no one who's been #1 on the NYT list has to sign with other writers, ever.  But it's because I know she's so nice and professional that I've put her on a list that includes Anne Rice and me.  She's my proof that you can be hugely successful (her books are sold all over the world, some of them have been published as graphic novels, she's pondering a movie deal, she's frequently on best-seller lists, etc.), have tons of adoring fans (go to a signing and try NOT to wait in line for two hours), be devoted to the characters (people all over the web don't just talk about her characters, they turn them into terrific art: and still fall into this trap.

Which brings me to Anne Rice:

I've never met Anne Rice and don't care for her books.  But that's a failing in me, because close to a million copies of her books have sold and she's had legions of fans for almost forty years, so there's something going on there that I just don't get.  And that's fine; this isn't about me not getting her books.  She's on the list for the reasons Laurell is:  you can pull a seven figure income, redefine a genre, be the focus of adoration for hundreds of thousands of fans...and still fall into this trap.  This awful "I'm gonna give a million people a piece of my mind while I'm still angry and when they're reading it thirty seconds from now they'll be sorry" trap.

Anna from Pocketful of Books has an entire section of her blog devoted to badly behaving writers and their shenanigans.  It's hilariously dreadful, with everything from a writer trying to sue a reviewer (for slander, I guess?), to an author who confronts every reviewer who gave her one star to  ask them to justify their opinion, to an author who tweeted a reviewer's phone number and encouraged her fans to tell that person off.  It's a countdown to WTF!

And sometimes, the author's spouse gets in on the behaving badly action:

Lest you think this is me talking about the asshatery of others, it is!  But I've got a few monuments of my own in the Hall of Wank.  There's this:  (you'll have to scroll about halfway down to January 11, 2006: "You can reeeeeeally go off some people"

And this:

And here's where I defend my asshatery:

When I mentioned we're whiny crybabies, I forgot to add that we're also crazy.  In my case time has lent perspective, and looking back at these six, seven, eight year old posts, my first feeling is regret.  Regret that I didn't appreciate all the free time I had on my hands back then.  And making an ass of myself.  So there's tons of regret there.  I'm boob-deep in regret:  "Argh, what was I thinking?  Why did I keep jumping back into that long dark swimming hole of the soul?  Why didn't anyone tell me I was being so obn--oh, right; they did and I blew them off."

Don't get me wrong; I wasn't a victim and my immaturity has been paying off for years.  I've got books published in 15 countries; I make a nice living.  That's because I jam my characters with odious aspects of my personality and, mysteriously, people like to read about them.  But the other end of the pointy sword I've got a sweaty grip on is what you've read above.  That same immaturity, coupled with writerly arrogance, leads me to leap before looking, and I usually land chin-deep in virtual cow patties.  Which is better than eyeball-deep, but it's still pretty unpleasant.

Like this:

"Ohhhh, man!" I bellowed when my pissy truth-telling had resulted in more bitchiness raining down on my highlights.  "Oh, it's on now!  You guys think you can take me?  I'm a freelance writer!  I just sit around all day!  I ignore my family responsibilities by pretending I care about my 'art'!  I've got nothing but time, haters, nothing but time AND ALSO MY ALL CONSUMING HATE."

My husband:  "Quit that.  What would Nora Roberts do?  Would she hop down into the mud and slug it out?  No, because she's above all that.  And so are you."

"You've forgotten everything you've learned about me in two decades because I am absolutely not above any of it.  I live for the slime.  I sincerely get off on the virtual cow pies.  Each day I can't wait to get online and see how something blew up more.  Because it always blows up more.  Just when you think it can't blow up more, it does!  It's fascinating and I'm above none of it."

"Pretend," he advised.

I tried.  It didn't work.  Also, Nora Roberts does occasionally weigh in on this stuff, always in a classy and professional way.  But I was wrong to try and be what I was not:  1) classy, like Nora, 2) above all this.  And things blew up more.  And it took years for me to see why that didn't work, it took years before I realized that whatever my intentions, jumping in always, always made everything worse.  And so many of my colleagues have no idea, and since a lot of us make the same mistakes, I figured I'd offer the benefit of my douchebaggery.

1) Even if you're right, you're wrong.  No, really, you're wrong and it's time to swallow that down.  Because I promise, nobody cares if you're right.  This is one of those times when being right actually works against you.

"Oh my, look who's back: it's MJD, here to right wrongs that had nothing to do with her in the first place."
"Yes, but I'm right!"
"Shut up."
"And I have all new brilliant perspective which will help you see things the way I want you t--the way you're supposed to."
"Shut up."

Now reword that a bunch of different ways through a bunch of different people and spread it all over the internet for at least a week, while posts get shriller and further away from whatever the original argument was.  Being right is not helpful in these situations, so don't listen to the still small voice inside you telling you you're right.  That trouble-making voice is not on your side.

2) You won't change anyone's mind.  You just won't.  Let's pick the three biggies:  abortion, religion, politics.  Have you ever explained your POV online and had anyone come back with, "Wow! I never thought about it like that, but you've argued your side so brilliantly that you have changed my mind.  Thanks to you, my political views are gonna do a one-eighty."

No.  That never happens.  You've never done that.  No one's ever done that.  But writers think we can pull off the impossible in this case because it's not about religion or politics; it's about our books.  No one knows them better than we do, so we're the perfect (non)objective person to defend them.  Vigorously.  And, eventually, depending on the extent of the blow-up, hilariously.  However you do it, how often you do it, you're not gonna win anyone over to your side.  And even if you did, when the internet rage gets going it's like a perpetual motion machine running on bitchery, and one person's nice comment will quickly be buried under the not-nice comments from reviewers who hate your hair.  So you can't change anyone's mind but, even if you did, it wouldn't make a difference.

3)  Everything that happens after you wade in is your fault.  I know, victim-blaming isn't cool.  (Referring to yourself in any of these internet rage wars as the victim isn't cool, either, even when you are; remember, in the online world being right works against you.)  I can't tell you how many bloodbaths would have trickled down to nothing faster if the author hadn't waded in.

Just as it's a reader's right to express their opinion, it's also the author's right.  But because IT'S MY RIGHT, JACKHOLES is not a good reason to jump in.  Also, some people don't like being called jackholes.  I've got the right to eat anything I want for breakfast, but that doesn't mean I should slurp a mixing bowl of heavily sugared chocolate Malt O'Meal with a V-8 chaser.  I had the right to eat that vile brew!  And now I deeply regret indulging my rights.  I will be in the bathroom for the next ninety minutes if you need me.  Damn you, rights!

Other things that will be your fault:  how long the debate rages and how nasty it gets in a hurry.  Don't talk about fair.  None of this is about fair.

4) Don't party crash someone else's fight.  I was notorious for this, so heed me:  even when the intentions are great, the fallout isn't worth it.  "But it's not about me at all.  It's about my colleague, Insert Name Here.  They're being mean and telling lies about her.  She's too classy to stick up for herself but I'm not!  That came out wrong."

You.  Will.  Not.  Help.  Them.  You absolutely won't.  You will make things worse.  I promise:  you will make things worse.  What you're doing when you do that?  Making things worse.  Then your colleague has the awful choice of speaking up to defend your defense, or saying nothing and watching you sink beneath the waves.  ("The last thing I saw before she went down for the third time was her middle finger.  Her last words were 'suck it, haterz!'.  This is not how I wanted my birthday to go.")  This is not helping your colleague; it's the polar opposite.  Stay out of it.  I know it's hard to stand by while someone you respect is getting stomped.  Colleagues who wouldn't defend themselves against felony arson charges will charge into an online review war to stick up for a friend.  No.  No.  No.

5)  Let it go, let it go, let it go.  Whatever it is.  Just don't.

"But this time it's not just about opinions.  They're outright lying!  They're crediting me with a post I didn't write!  How can the smart thing be to let them flail in the soup of their pig-headedness?"  (The soup of their--?  Jeez.  I need a nap.)

Because to not is the crybaby writer thing; see above.

"But I didn't say that.  I never said that.  Now the discussion is completely off the subject and everybody's yelling at me about something I did not say."

I understand.  It's irksome.  But remember, being right isn't going to help even a little.  So instead, put it in the context of "real" life.  What if you were bopping down the street thinking about Subway for lunch, when a stranger swoops down on you and shrieks, sans preamble, "I know you're the one who killed all my mom's cats and put tinfoil in the middle of my brain!" and then runs away?  Would you blow off Subway and chase after him?  "I never killed those cats, and there's not a single roll of tinfoil anywhere in my house!" you'd scream, hot on his crazy heels.  "If someone said I did that stuff, it's a damn lie!  You get back here when I'm yelling at you, Mysterious Weirdo!  This isn't finished!  I have more things to yell at someone I don't know and will probably never see again!"

Yeah, wouldn't.  I wouldn't.  (Lie.  I would, but I have a lot of substance abusers in my family and we sort of thrive on that shit.)  Most of us wouldn't because the idea is as nutty as the random guy accusing you of felicide, you taking it seriously and chasing him only to eventually end up murdered in his murder basement.  No, instead you'd shrug and blow them off and likely never think of them again.  Because you know it's not smart to mess with shoutey strangers.

Okay, but let's say this was happening in your neighborhood, not a random street somewhere.  The guy across the street starts a rumor about your carefree days as a medical test subject.  You hear about this third-hand from the family who lives down the block.  So you can't be sure who started it and you can't be sure things haven't been exaggerated.  The rumor doesn't surprise you because that same neighbor is the one who doesn't mow until the grass is thigh high, bitches when you park on the street, and writes nasty letters to the newspaper every time the post office hikes stamp prices.  He's been living across the street for years, and during that time you've tried everything short of felony assault and you've never gotten through to him.  Worse, sometimes your neighbors see you arguing with him and, because they don't have the whole story, they get pissed at you, too.  Even if you try to explain, so much has been said by so many you don't know where to start the damage control.  Some of the talks never get straightened out.  Some people think you were the one who got nasty, so new neighbors hear about the obnoxious guy across the street and the obnoxious writer across from him.  Nothing you have ever done has changed his behavior in the slightest, and has, at times, made your own life a little harder.

So now when he pulls another shenanigan, you roll your eyes and remind yourself there's one in every neighborhood.  You go on with your life and fantasize about buying a dozen ostrich eggs so you can egg his house with huge eggs which would make a huge mess and be hard to clean up.  It's fun to fantasize about the eggs, even though you know you won't ever do it and have no idea where to find ostrich eggs.

So the next time you get a bad review, check your WWLDIHWD bracelet (What Would Lance Do If He Wasn't Doping) and remind yourself of steps 1 through 5.  Do it as often as you need to, rinse, repeat.

As I mentioned above, I'm living in the glassiest of glass houses; my online feuds are legion, and what happens on the Internet stays on the Internet forever after!  And when you stumble across one years later, I promise:  you'll be amazed at all the much ado about nothing, and aghast at how shrill and un-sexy you got.  A ccolleague stumbled across an ancient online pissing contest between me and eight thousand irked readers (ancient = four years ago, so internet ancient) and asked, "Do you regret wading in?"  After some thought, my answer was, "No, but I'll need a minute to explain why."    And that's where the blog came in.

Years ago, I had to do that silly shit.  I had to click Send without spending a day thinking about what I was trying to accomplish with my post.  I had to be the crybaby writer lurching from one pissed off blog to another like a toddler cruising the living room who bonks her head and collapses, screaming.  Writer/reader blogs are the living room furniture I'm lurching to and from.  The temper tantrum in the living room, where I'm beating my heels on the carpet and getting puffy and gross and ending up with a snot moustache?  That has to happen to me.  (Good God, I need a nap.)  I've got to blunder through all that shit, because it's the only way I'll learn.  It's like when your grandma finally gets the internet, and she's all excited about Bill Gates sending her to Disneyland after she wires the Nigerian Royal Family some much-needed funds.  You know if you tell her it's a scam she won't believe you; she's gotta find that stuff out for herself.  That's me and online feuds:  the bigger the ass I make of myself, the better I learn the lesson and the longer it stays with me.  It's the only way I'll learn.

I don't regret any of the messes I jumped into; they were my mistakes to make.  And make them I did, yeesh.  But please take a page from my book o'gaffes and resist making your own.  At the end of the day, we love our work and can't imagine not writing.  Good reviews or bad, we're so incredibly fortunate that we get to do what we do.  Reviews and online feuds and agonizing over print runs and trying to make deadlines, that's all part of it, sure.  But it's not why we started in the first place.  We started because writing was so much better than not writing.  Anything else is just blog-fodder.


Jean R said...

I so get where you are coming from. Not even being a writer , would love too but not everyone can write.There are times in ones life that everyone says something that in their hearts they know is not being mean or bad but someone, somewhere takes it wrong and runs with it. So never regret what was said but regret that not all people think as you do,and go out and have a great day!

Libby Dodd said...

You are SO on the money! We would all benefit from following your sage suggestions. But, will it happen? Um, I guess a few will take it to heart.
But You know you put the sanity out there (Is "sanity" scary?)

Mina Lobo said...

I'd never heard of Malt-o-Meal till this post...Dude, with a V-8? *Le gross.*

With booze, a mob, & the Interwebs, folks feel free to let out their inner asshats. The hard thing is that we all have an inner asshat, & even folks we like display their inner asshats in ways that surprise us, sometimes. Either we lose our jazz over other folks' BS or hope for their eventual recovery. Their ICK ain't ours and, like you said, MJ, we ain't gonna fix 'em. We can only back away from the horror and have a drink/ice cream/mani-pedi. Any/all of these are more rewarding than arguing with an extremist of any stripe. For me, anyway.

Tonette said...

You know you are right, so you don't need us to tell you,(or do you?) Anyway, we love you.It's that jump-in-and defend and jump -off-the-deep-end attitudes that go into the characters we love so much, the ones that come into and out of that sweet (!) little noggin of yours.
What you wrote is ancient history;I never saw any of it.Don't sweat it. Reviewers are often jealous or looking for controversy and , mt Dear, you are asking for it all!
You know what I came out with from this? Despite your continual denials that you base Sinclair on your charming Tony, the conversation you related between the two of you sound very Betsyesque to me.

Unknown said...

It really does not matter if you or your critics are right. What matters is that we, your fans, find your books and characters, especially if you put some of your individual craziness into them, are absolutely FUN. Your books are worth our money and time to read. At this point, I think I can safely say you could tell your critics to, as my grandmother would say, "Go to and stay put!" But, don't! It will not help. Perhaps you could arrange to have Betsy's sister arrange for said critic to get a tour of a certain place. perhaps this particularly nasty critic might learn something in your next book as a type of poetic justice?

Linda said...

I agree with your comment that authors shouldn't get into arguments with reviewers because you'll never win & you won't change anyone's mind.
What I want to know though is why some readers feel compelled to leave multiple horrible reviews for certain authors? I mean, if you don't like a book and you want to share your opinion that's fine. But I go on Amazon sometimes & read the reviews and just want to bang my head against the desk! If you now hate a series you used to love, why do you keep reading more books in the series & posting comments like "I used to love this series until the author did _______ in book ______ and ruined it!" It seems pretty simple to me, if you don't like the series anymore QUIT READING IT!
Don't keep reading & complain because the author is doing the same things you hated in the last book. If you'd quit driving up their sales maybe they (or their publisher) would realize that there's a problem. And while you have the right to your opinion that the series now sucks, I have the same right to still enjoy the series for whatever reason I do.
Last time I looked this was a free country & I have the right to enjoy something you hate, just like you have the right to hate something I love!

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, well. As a reviewer, I can truly say I have given out only 3 bad and one mediocre review in my entire writing career (and none are MJD!)... here's why: writing at it's most basic is an art form and art is subjective not objective. In other words, what I hate, others may love. Reason #2, I truly can't bring myself to write a bad review. If I read a book, and I hated it, I simply choose not to review it because I feel like I am criticizing someone's vision. I have a monthly column and have interviewed several authors (not tooting my own horn, there is a point to this, I promise). Some of those authors have been wonderful (including MJD) and some have made me want to give them an ego check. I make sure that the irritation doesn't come across in the review and interview but I also never spend another penny on their books.

I agree that wading in is a bad idea but I will go with what the other commenters have said and agree that whatever you did before, you have more than made up for it (if you really feel like you need to make up for it) with your kindness, wit and general availability for the interviews you do.

Amal Chaaban
RAGMAG Magazine

Fiona McGier said...

I have to say that I've never responded to bad reviews for the sole reason that I'm so grateful that someone read my stuff! Of course not everyone will love my every word (as my mother would, were she still alive), but I told my kids when they were young, "One person's yuck is another person's yum". Of course they hated that expression. But the meaning transcends the foods they didn't want to eat, since you can say that about everything...including books.

Though personally I can't see how anyone could not like your books!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post.