Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Writers Behaving Badly

I’ve been looking for an old blog post I’d written about behaving professionally as a writer. It’s there, somewhere, amongst my zillion files and folders on Dropbox, but I can’t find it. And maybe it’s time for an update, because since I wrote that, the Internet has become even bigger and more unforgiving of anyone who makes a mistake.  

As the popular meme says, ‘Thank God I made all my mistakes before the Internet’. Mind you, I made a few myself when I first got online. I was naïve and believed that everyone would be as nice as I am. I soon learned the error of my ways, and what the word ‘troll’ really means.

If you’re a writer, your behaviour online, and professionally, is even more important. There have been some notable meltdowns. Not least, Jacqueline Howett’s meltdown over a reasonably kind review of her novel, The Greek Seaman. I actually felt sorry for Jacqueline at the time, as although she had behaved inappropriately in her response to the review, the ensuing ‘pile in’ crossed the line into bullying a woman who was clearly vulnerable. The worst of it is that her ‘howlett’, as some called it, now has its own Wikipedia page. It is immortalised forever (or however long the Internet lasts).

So here are some things to remember to help you traverse the rocky waters of the World Wide Interweb and the even rockier waters of the publishing world.

Remember that when online you are always in publiceven in a closed group.

As an author, your product is yourself and your writing. How you present that product is very important, particularly online. As many of us have witnessed, there is no such thing as privacy online. Even if you have a closed blog, or fire off a snarky email to someone, people can and will take screenshots if they find something they want to share with the rest of the world. Emails can be copied and pasted, or forwarded to hundreds of other people. Think Mylene Klass and that email* about the birthday party…

I had a private email made public early in my Internet days, and it was excruciating, even though I hadn’t said anything unreasonable under the circumstances. But even that’s not enough, because there are so many different opinions online now that even if you have behaved reasonably, there will be those who twist your words into something else, just for the sake of it. You only have to read the Daily Mail comments section on any given day/subject to see what I mean.  

As a writer, how you behave can have a marked affect upon your career. Publishers and agents read blogs, they read Facebook pages and Twitter streams, particularly if something has gone viral. I know of authors who can’t get arrested now because of the way they behaved in online forums years ago.

*Incidentally, if someone sends you an email or private message, the copyright to that email/message belongs to them. It is not yours to use as you see fit in order to publicly humiliate them because they dared to disagree with you on the Internet.

Remember that writers talk to other writers

The writing world may seem huge, but in fact it’s tiny. I used to joke that there were twenty million writer profiles online and that they all belonged to twelve people. It’s not quite that small, but it is a close-knit community.

Writers talk to other writers, who then go on to discuss it with their agents and publishers. Everyone loves to gossip. Even people who pretend they don’t gossip will listen to it if it’s within earshot. Word gets around about someone who has behaved badly online and if there’s evidence, everyone can see it for themselves. It can have a marked effect upon a writer’s career. Most of us plod along as jobbing writers, picking up work here and there, so professionalism is crucially important.

Think about the image you want to give to publishers and agents, who are, in effect, future employers. They want someone who is reasonable and easy to work with. They want someone who will entice readers. The days of writers in their attics, not touching the populace, are long gone. You’re expected to market yourself as well as your work. Now if you’re Anne Rice, you can probably behave truculently (allegedly) to your readership and bad reviewers and still sell loads of novels. As a new author, you don’t have the luxury of the Constant Reader. You’re still trying to encourage your family and friends to read your work, let alone the whole world.

Any agent or publisher interested in your work will look you up online. Now if you have written the novel of the century, they probably won’t care what you do, but even that’s debatable in this age where even the writer is the product. It’s more likely you’ve written something they like, but think might be a hard sell, so they’re going to be relying on you to help them to sell it. If you spend too much time moaning on your blog or Social Networking, and too much time getting involved in petty arguments with others, they’re going to be wary. Because what they see, readers will be able to see when it comes time for them to Google you.

It can be hard to be reasonable all the time, and we’ve all got involved in online spats, me included. There were times I cried myself to sleep over things that had been said to me online. I learned the hard way that it was better to walk away, put the kettle on, cuddle the dogs, eat a meal. Anything that helps me over that first burst of anger at something I have read so that I don’t fire off a snappy response.

Behave with professionalism towards publishers and agents

There are rules about dealing with publishers and agents. Most of the rules are on their websites. Agent, Carole Blake, has written an excellent article on 29 ways not to approach an agent.  

I’d also add, don’t stalk publishers and agents on Twitter. Follow them by all means, but don’t bother them with requests for them to read your manuscript. That information is on their websites. Don’t turn up at an event with your manuscript and expect them to carry it home with them. Imagine how they’d feel if 20 people did that and they were left carrying all those manuscripts home on the tube. Similarly, don’t hand your manuscript over to other writers, in the hopes they’ll get you a book deal. I refuse to take manuscripts off people, simply because authors have done that in the past, thinking they were being kind, and were then accused of plagiarism when they inadvertently wrote something similar.  

Think about what you are saying online and how it appears to others

You would think that writers know better than anyone about the power of words. Yet it’s amazing how many writers fire off a response to something, and then say that they didn’t mean what they said, insisting that others are reading it wrong. You are in the business of communication. You should know at all times what you are saying and what the response might be if you have not chosen your words carefully. It doesn’t matter if you disagree virulently with what someone else has said. It doesn’t matter if you think they need to be ‘brought down a peg or two’ (a phrase I hate). What matters is how you come out of it.

Even if you’re careful and say exactly what you mean, people will read what they want into your words based on their own prejudices and agenda. I refer you again to the readers’ comments in the Daily Mail.

Don’t respond to bad reviews

This is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, especially with Amazon reviews and sites like Goodreads. Readers don’t care about your career or even your feelings. They only care if you’ve written a book that they like. If they don’t like it, they will say so, and often tell you why in no uncertain terms.

Now their dislike may be a matter of personal taste, or they may have got the wrong end of the stick about your novel. But you cannot tell them that, as much as you may be itching to. Because once you respond, others, who probably haven’t even read your novel, will pile in with 1* reviews. Readers have given 1* reviews to one best-selling author because of his religious views on homosexuality. This is without even reading the book.

On Goodreads they warn writers not to even respond to good reviews. I think that might be going too far, but I can see their point given the rabid nature of some trolls on the Internet.

Keep a Dignified Silence when others attack you online

This is a hard one to do, but it’s something sadly lacking in today’s society. There’s a lot to be said for a dignified silence. If you keep quiet about something, no one can copy what you’ve said and show it to everyone else on the Internet. No one can misquote you if you haven’t said anything. Then gradually (and hopefully) with no more fuel for the fire, everything goes away and your reputation is intact. More importantly, you don’t show up on every search engine as someone who’s always fighting with other people. It does happen. I know of a writer who, because of insulting behaviour in the past, shows up on all Google searches in a forum post where their behaviour is documented in detail by everyone they’ve ever upset.

When people Google your name, what you need them to see is your blog, details of your successes and instances of you being decent to others.

Try not to moan every five minutes about giving up

We all know rejections are hard to deal with and I’ve had my moments of despair. I once had 9 rejections in one day. Agents and publishers are looking for writers with staying power, who can deliver them several books. If you throw your arms in the air, delete your FB/Twitter accounts and your blog every time you get a rejection that is not showing staying power. You have to prove that you can go the distance.

Obviously, if you’ve really had enough of writing and want to try something else, then by all means give up. It might well be that writing is not for you. Just don’t make a big song and dance about it, in case you want to go back to it again in the future. Then you can pretend that you've been busy writing your masterpiece.


  1. All good advice.

    It can be very hard not to respond when 'someone is wrong on the internet' but I do try not to do so in the heat of the moment.

    1. Oh I agree, Patsy. I think we just have to weigh it up and decide whether it's important in the big scheme of things. And as people who rely on goodwill to get published, we have to be extra careful. I don't mean we have to be sickly sweet and let people walk all over us. But we do have to choose our arguments carefully.

  2. Yes - perhaps 'think before you send' should be taped to the top of everyone's screen! I once wrote an email I later regretted. Luckily the person in question wasn't entirely blameless and accepted my outburst (which in effect wasn't at her originally, as I was ranting about something in the mistaken belief that it was the fault of a local magazine editor... but it was her... whoops!). Fortunately we got over the blip and she offered me work as a regular columnist! I've got her out of many a scrape when other writers have let her down - but I never forget that things could have gone very differently. Lesson learnt! ;)

  3. Great blog post. Have tweeted as it should be required reading. I hadn't heard of the Greek Seaman flare-up before though I have seen other misguided responses to reviews. And one review by an author, criticising a book because its author has the same first name... Astounding.

    1. Yes, I saw that about the same first name! I was really surprised actually as I've met the writer in question and she's utterly charming in 'real life'. So I wondered if it was really her.


All comments are moderated before posting. If I am away, please allow some time before your comment appears.