Friday, July 14, 2017

Considering the Things I’ve Seen in Hate Mail…

Last year George R. R. Martin missed his New Year’s deadline, meaning that the sixth book would not be out before the next season of the television show. He’s upset, his fans are upset, but apparently his editors were pretty forgiving about it. Of course, they have the experience to know it’s not like anything can be done about it now.

In the same week as this announcement I came across a few harsh words said to less famous authors about their series. One author posted an angry response to her announcement of a short Christmas book instead of the next installment of her series.

If you read about the controversy of writing and publishing fast like many self-publishers do, a lot of fans discuss how they don’t want to wait several years for the next book, and how they prefer series to come out fast.

Someone asked Neil Gaiman about Martin’s missing of the deadline, and if Martin was deliberately avoiding discussing its progress. Do readers have the right to complain?

No, answers Gaiman. No, says Anne Rice. No says the myriad of authors on Facebook. “George R. R. Martin isn’t your bitch.” You can’t force an artist to create.

Personally, I’m a bit conflicted.

I do feel like I owe my readers something. It’s more complicated than just adhering to their demands and, in fact, a writer has to behave like a parent at times, knowing what their child needs versus what they want. It doesn’t mean that a writer should produce something he’s not happy with, and many readers should recognize that they don’t always know what is going on with a writer—his life or his process.

As many writers will tell you, sometimes you just can’t work on a book. Sometimes you need to take a break. In my case, it helps for me to keep up with the routine of writing every day even when I’m struggling to get a few words out on a page. Sometimes completing something else will inspire you to finish the first. And, even if you do work by a schedule, inspiration is still important—your best work always comes from what you were excited to do, what came freely to your mind. If you had waited on that other project, it often wouldn’t been as good as it once was.

But that doesn’t mean readers don’t have the right to ask.

In the case of the writer who received a very harsh note from an agitated fan, I don’t believe it was appropriate for the fan to state her grievances like that, but I also think it was poor form for the writer to post the comment for everyone to see, especially while leaving the name of the commenter up. I got this “blacklisting” vibe.

Unlike most hate mail, this person truly was a fan. She was excited and disappointed that the story was not out yet, and from her perspective, it seemed like, “Why the hell are you wasting time on this fluffy piece of meaningless holiday crap?” It’s a disrespectful, but understandable feeling.

Personally, I generally avoid self-published series until after they’re done. So many of them are never completed. It’s typical enough that the book is more of an incomplete slice and couldn’t function as a satisfying standalone, so it’s not worth the frustration. I see many authors put out their first in a serial then complain when no one buys it, threatening to never make the next one because no one cares. Well, I bought it, I read it, I care. It can be emotionally upsetting to want the sequel and have the writer procrastinate, especially when they might not finish all together.

The author didn’t have to let herself be talked to in that manner; she would have been fine ignoring her. But she could have understood where the fan was coming from and recognize that she is, in fact, a fan. A polite response probably would have elicited more snottiness (how can a person explain her without sounding like she’s making excuses?) yet that doesn’t mean that the commenter is an enemy. She’s just upset and voicing her feelings. I believe as writers we have to take the high road and remember that we’re putting people’s emotions in our hands, getting the bad with the good.

What readers should remember is that you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, and should speculate on the superficial reasons why Martin missed his deadline when it’s probably a mixed bag of reasons. Martin was always a slow writer, and his books are large. Four years is actually his average to get an installment published. Many people cite his newfound fame as a reason—he’s now enjoying the limelight instead of writing. Possible, just as likely as it is those newfound responsibilities of fame that could factor in. And I know from personal experience, a change in routine can be highly disruptive to your productivity.

I absolutely agree with Gaiman on the point that Martin is not a machine and he is not contracted to his readers to write every moment of every day. He deserves a life too, and more to the point, he needs it. No one can write in a box. Even a fantasy author who seems to be making everything up is still taking from his own experiences. We hate Joffrey because we know people like him. We care about their problems because, even though it’s magical, dramatized, and wondrous, they are pains and concerns we deal with every day.

There is a lot to be said for giving a writer slack. It doesn’t do him any good to miss his own deadline. If he could write quality books of that size faster, he’d be the most to be benefit. Sending rude and angry messages might make him feel more pressure to dedicate himself, but it is a cruel and undesirable side of humanity. Hate mail would be better off if it didn’t exist at all, and I think everyone needs to make an effort to consider their words carefully before sending someone a disparaging letter to try and punish them for their perceived improper behavior.

But do you have a right to ask for updates? Yes, if you feel it is important. If you feel it will help. Do you think your favorite author might not be working on the book they should be? First remember that screwing around is a means to incubate ideas, that living makes ideas, and that how they work might not make sense to you but it doesn’t mean they’re not working. You only know a part of the story. Will telling them you want the next one make them work quicker? Possibly, but more likely it is a catharsis for your anger. Before sending out a letter in anger, always chose your words carefully, productively, and remember that writers really are just human and they probably feel bad as it is.

In the same vein that it can be disheartening to upset your fans, there is some merit to hearing what they have to say. Knowing that they do care about the next book, being asked for what they’d like to see more of on your blog, and just letting them vent out their issues. How fast an artist works is complicated and somewhat flexible, but it is still their process and not to be judged from an outsider’s point of view, especially if they love the resulting product.

Readers have the right to be upset and even voice their concerns, but we should reserve judgment and harsh comments just like in any other situation.

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