Debut author lessons: Hate mail

This entry is part 14 of 16 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Yesterday, I got some hate mail for a short story that’s running on EscapePod right now. My reaction to it was to laugh and share it with some friends. At some point in your career, someone will write hate mail for the story or novel you have written.

As a general rule: Do not respond. 

Just chalk this person up as not your audience and move one. Responding can be momentarily satisfying, but is not likely to win the person over and will just waste time that you could spend writing.

Don’t let it affect your writing.

Let me take a moment to talk about this particular piece of hate mail in an alternate history sort of way.

Hello,

I just listened to a podcast of your story “Cerbo un Vitra ujo” and it was such a miserably unpleasant experience I felt compelled to contact you and urgently implore you to take other avocation, _anything_ else will surely bring greater reward to humankind than the threat of you producing another work of similar “art”. Even as snuff porn I have seen dramatically better and more elegant prose. It was a pointless, poorly written, obnoxious waste of my time. The only remotely redeeming aspect to it is that I now know I will never have to expend another second bothering to read anything you write.

Please, for the sake of humanity, give up writing and find something else to do with your time.

Fortunately, I just laughed but…

This is a story that I wrote back in 2005, and I was writing way outside my comfort zone. I don’t write horror so I was taking a chance and stretching. Let’s just pretend that I received this in 2005.

I wonder if I would have taken it more seriously. I was a new writer and I can tell you that I hadn’t received any fan mail yet. If this was the first reaction a story of mine provoked… it would have been harder to laugh off.

Even if I didn’t stop writing, would I have played it safe with my fiction? The scene that most people object to is is the rape scene, which is graphic. In my first draft, I faded to black and got the very good advice that it wasn’t fair to skip the difficult scenes. The fact that it was uncomfortable meant that it needed to be on the page or the protagonist wouldn’t earn the scars.

What if I’d gotten this letter and as a takeaway concluded that the advice to write the difficult scenes was wrong? I mean, authors already tend to live with a certain amount of self-doubt. I suspect I wouldn’t have won the Campbell Award, or the Hugo. The man who sent this might have gotten his wish that he would never have to read anything else I wrote.

All of which is to say these things:

  1. If you get hate mail, laugh it off. Your future self will.
  2. Write fan mail if you like stories, particularly to authors you haven’t heard of before.

It’s okay that people don’t like your stories.

People will give you this line about how hate mail means that you are winning. Not really. Hate mailers are just bullies with words. The real thing to understand is that you are writing fiction that you want to read. There are other people who do enjoy the work you produce. Expecting everyone to like every book is as silly as expecting everyone to like [insert favorite niche musical style of your choice here]. People come with a wide variety of styles, tastes, and expectations. Don’t freak out that your work doesn’t appeal to everyone.

If you are going to write back, do it when you’re in a good mood.

But really, don’t waste your time. If you are going to do it, wait until you are in a good mood so you don’t feed the anger. Flame wars eat fiction. Now… I’ll admit I did break my rules and respond to this one, since he had taken the trouble to write to me. If it had been on a blog, or a review site, I would have ignored it. And this is important — people have a right to dislike your work and express that in their own space. Do NOT respond on blogs or to reviewers. The only time you have any leeway to respond is if they enter your space and even then… best to file and ignore.

I’m cognizant of the fact that this is not setting a good example for you, but… I also know that at some point you’ll reply anyway, and this sums up why I think there are worse things than getting hate mail.

Dear [redacted],

Thank you so much for your email. I’m delighted that my work had such an impact on you. I have often felt that the only thing worse than writing a story that someone doesn’t like, is to be an asshole.

Yours,

Mary

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