Thoughts on Writing #9: Control Your Children.
I truly do feel that today's topic is an important one. I also feel that it's one of those things that's mildly difficult to explain -- either it makes sense or it doesn't. Since I've never been one to back away from something just because it was impossible to articulate, I'm just going to get out the hammer. The core of the idea is simple: sometimes your kids aren't perfect either. More expansively:
You know those parents with the totally out-of-control kids who run around the restaurant sweeping things off tables and screaming in the faces of all the other diners? And you know how they just sit there looking serene, because their kids are precious little angels and everything they do is wonderful? Don't be one of those parents. If your book spits in somebody's metaphorical soup, the appropriate thing to do is to apologize and discipline your text, not tell the person with the saliva slowly dissolving in their minestrone that they 'just don't appreciate the beauty of spit.' Not everyone is going to like what you do, but you can damn well make sure your kids don't trash the place before you pay the check.
What does this mean? It means that we can't please all the people all of the time, no matter how amazing we may think we are. It also means that sometimes, we aren't going to be able to defend the things our children -- our words -- can do, and we'll need to just apologize and move on. The responsibility for our creations is no one's but our own.
Wait A Second -- What Do Kids Have To Do With It?
Using comparisons to children is a time-honored tradition among writers, largely because there really isn't much else that comes remotely close. And yes, I do realize that having kids and writing a book isn't the same thing at all. I've never had a book throw up on my shoes, pull the cat's tail, or need a new wardrobe for school. I have taken day jobs to serve as life support for my writing, been 'screamed awake' by a chapter that needed my attention, cried, panicked, and lost sleep. Books are an author's children, in a sense. We create them. We love them. We spend every waking moment with them, either thinking about them or trying to take care of them or praying that they recover from their growing pains. Every book is different, just like every child is different. Writing twenty books doesn't make the twenty-first any less special, or mean that it requires any less affection.
Sending your book off to be reviewed by your peers is a lot like dropping a kid at daycare. You're terrified that it's going to come home with bad habits, a cold, and maybe even head lice, but you also realize that your fears are probably groundless, and your book is a lot more likely to come back with new knowledge and better social skills. It's still scary as hell. Sending your book to an agent or a slush pile is worse -- kindergarten instead of daycare, and you know in your secret heart of hearts that this is the beginning of the end. One day your book won't need you anymore.
So that's what the kids have to do with it. And no, I don't dislike children, and no, I don't think that writing a book presents an identical set of challenges and choices. I don't need to hire a babysitter to leave my books alone. I don't need to pick my books up from school after they throw up on a teacher's shoes. But it's a decent metaphor, and we're running with it.
Fine, Kids. Get On With It.
I think everyone knows someone whose children are Absolutely Perfect (tm). When those kids bring a dead squirrel into the house, they're being clever and aware of their environment. When those kids run around the living room shrieking for six hours solid, they're being imaginative and expressing their desire to grow up to be a jet plane. We're talking about the kids whose parents never tell them 'no,' the sort of epic, legendary brats who usually only show up in movies, because they're just too bad to be believed.
Well, it's possible for your book to be one of those children.
Don't look at me like that -- I'm serious. While it's unlikely that something you write will ever actually spit in somebody's soup, the fact is, your book can be badly behaved. Maybe you wrote something offensive. Maybe you wrote something nonsensical. Maybe you wrote something that just doesn't work for a specific person or group of people. Maybe your book really is perfect in every way, and has just encountered the exact wrong audience. Whatever the cause, your book can behave in an out-of-control manner.
The temptation is always to stand up and defend your text, no matter how poorly it may have behaved. The phrase 'you don't appreciate the beauty of spit' is not as much of an exaggeration as it might seem; I've heard variations, sans spit, used to describe a whole lot of things. "You just don't appreciate the standards of the genre." "You're just too low-brow for the concepts I was trying to explore." "You're just not accustomed to thinking outside the box."
Here's a hint: if someone says your book has upset them, 'you're just' is not the appropriate way to start your response. 'I'm sorry' is a much better approach, no matter how wrong-headed you may think the person's reaction is.
Here are some examples of issues (spit in the soup!) and replies that don't start with 'you're just':
Spit-in-soup: "Your book contained a disrespectful representation of (racial/ethnic/religious) type!"
Response A: "I'm sorry; that wasn't my intention. Can you suggest ways to avoid doing that again?"
Response B: "I'm sorry you felt that way. It was a historical setting, and that was unfortunately the nature of the time."
Spit-in-soup: "How dare you kill the only woman/homosexual/ethnic character in your book! Sexist/homophobe/racist!"
Response A: "I didn't intend to only have one representative of that character type, and I'll try to do better in the future."
Response B: "I'm so sorry you feel that way. I had to do what was best for the story."
Response C: "I'm sorry; that wasn't my intention. Can you suggest ways to better represent (character type) without giving that impression?"
Spit-in-soup: "This book was horrible. Where were the giant robots/zombies/sex scenes?"
Response A: "I was writing in a specific genre, and those aspects aren't part of the genre."
Response B: "I'm so sorry you had been given the expectation of these elements. Can you let me know what might avoid that?"
Note that in none of these am I saying 'yes, admit your book was bad'...but I'm also not saying 'argue.' We're going to approach the topic of arguing with people several times over the course of this series, but the core recommendation is always going to be 'yeah, don't.'
Now, sometimes your apologies will be sincere, and sometimes you won't understand the nature of the spit in someone's soup. It's a good idea to try to figure out the spit, just because an issue that comes up once may well come up again. Sometimes the issue will be something you can fix, sometimes it won't. Sometimes the issue will be legit, sometimes the issue will be crazy. The fact remains that when someone's soup has been spit in, you apologize, you listen to them, and then you exit politely, children -- and text -- in tow.
We can't change a first impression, especially when that impression is founded off the behavior of something we created. We can, however, work to be gracious, and to leave people with the opinion that maybe we're not that bad.
Just a thought.