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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49 Responses

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin)

    Thanks, Mary.

    If I received such a letter for a story of mine, without a publication history behind me, I can see myself never wanting to write again, or to write as safe and banal as possible.

    Sharing this could not have been easy, even so, much less dissect and discuss it as you have done. I applaud you for doing that.

  2. Hungarican Chick

    Well, the joke’s on him. You wrote it in 2005 and right now, you’ve got a successful series published. At least you handled it with class. Once, I made a bad review of a book on Amazon, and the author hunted down my blog and posted a furious rant on my blog.

  3. R. H. Kanakia

    Yeah, it _is_ worth noting that people who write mail like that are basically trying to hurt you. It doesn’t matter that their dislike of the story might be sincere. So what, plenty of people dislike stories. But the fact that they took the time out to write a hurtful letter meant for no other eyes than the author means that they’re basically bullies.

  4. Ellen Klages

    My first novel got a fair amount of hate mail when it came out in paperback, mostly of the “how dare you write about this for children” variety. Oddly, most of the mail was not concerned about talking to kids about the atomic bomb, but the fact that many of the adults smoke (it’s set in the early 1940s) and use “foul language” and blasphemy. (The latter threw me, until I figured out that to some, goddamn is not a mild oath.)

    I wrote back to any fan letter, thanking them for taking the time to correspond, and after some mulling over, decided that the negative letters deserved a response, too:

    Thank you for your email. I’m sorry that you found some parts of my book disturbing. But rather than burning it / hiding it from your child / throwing it in the trash / picketing your local library, perhaps you could take the opportunity to have a conversation with your child about just how much things have changed in the last 70 years.

    I never responded in anger, just pretended that the nut job whomhad ranted was doing it for reasons they perceived as good, and tried to respond in kind.

    Then I shared the snarkiest ones with my friends and my editor.

    – Ellen

  5. Ashley Lynn Waldron

    Wonderful advice. If I ever receive hate mail, I will find an author who I’ve never heard before but I liked their work, and write them fan mail! If a book is truly, truly bad, I’d much rather laugh about it than send an angry letter that doesn’t get anywhere.

    What are your thoughts on fans sending critical feedback to authors, voicing concerns? Not so much their storytelling/writing per se, but on things such as problematic representations of minorities, stereotypes, or unexamined colonialist thinking? Since these things might have likely been included in the author’s work without the author recognizing them, I think these concerns are valid.

    - Ashley

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      What are your thoughts on fans sending critical feedback to authors, voicing concerns? Not so much their storytelling/writing per se, but on things such as problematic representations of minorities, stereotypes, or unexamined colonialist thinking?

      There’s a big, big difference between critical feedback and hate mail. This goes beyond intent, though that’s some of it, and into the content. Personally, I want people to call me on problematic elements, because I want to root that out of my fiction. And myself, honestly.

      If you choose to alert a writer to something problematic, it’s just like pointing it out in any other situation with all of the pitfalls, cautions, and potential rewards. But… it is very hard to receive criticism of a story that is published, knowing that there is nothing to be done about that particular piece. Focus on the future. Think about what outcome you want from sending the letter.

  6. Patrick Stutzman

    One reader of one of my books somehow managed to post a bad review twice on the same site. Although it did not anger me since he is entitled to his opinion, I waited a day and sent him a message asking if he intended to do so. He responded to me with an apology and retracted one of the reviews.

      1. Amanda Jensen

        I find that this is true for any time one wants to say ANYTHING, whether online or in person.

  7. Veronica Giguere

    Mary, I narrated your story that ran in EscapePod. When reading it, I knew it wouldn’t appeal to everyone, but that’s something that can be said for nearly every work out there.Your story was vivid and visceral; as you said the protagonist had to earn the scars. If asked again to narrate it, I would do it in a heartbeat.

    - Veronica

  8. Robert Fleck

    I’m reminded of something that happened when the first book in Lucy Snyder’s SPELLBENT series came out. A particular online reviewer was so offended that she took not only to her blog but to Twitter to decry the evil, disgusting nature of the book. Lucy was understandably distraught and wondering what to do.

    I took a quick look at the woman’s site and she was a lover of what I’ll call fluffy paranormal romance. SPELLBENT, for those who haven’t read it, is extremely dark urban fantasy. I told Lucy not to worry, that the woman and her followers were not the book’s readership, but all the noise they were making would get the attention of the true readership.

    A few weeks later I was skimming through some positive review links Lucy sent and in the comments of one I saw this same woman berating the reviewer for liking Lucy’s book, linking back to her own scathing review. The reviewer in question said she’d seen that review and the woman’s strong response had made her move the book to the top of her to be read pile. She thanked the hater for introducing her to such a great book.

    Case closed.

  9. Sharon Ricklin Jones

    I have not gotten any mail (good or bad) but then my book has only been out since March 4th.

    But I’ve got to say, if I ever get any hate mail, I would love to quote your reply! It’s perfect!!!!

    But, I’d probably take your advice, and ignore the bully.

    Great blog post!

    Sharon :)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I usually do just ignore them.

      My favorite was hate mail for Shades of Milk and Honey which included the line, “Maybe you should stick with puppetry.” I just laughed at that one and did not respond.

        1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

          No. In fact, I’ve never received puppetry hate mail. I have been heckled, which as I think about it was actually probably pretty good training for this.

          The general rule is to avoid responding because it validates the heckler and gives them power to affect the show.

  10. Thom

    I would like to think that such a strong response and nastily-worded email would immediately mark this person as someone not worth listening to, but I have to admit I would probably be bothered by it.

    But as you said, these are not worth a response. They offer nothing of value that can be acted on, and they obviously had no intention of being helpful. They get some perverse pleasure from haranguing people, so they really amount to nothing more than social leeches. I might ultimately just shake my head at this person feeling my story to be a waste of their time, and yet it not being a waste of their time to tell me about it.

    Conversely, there have been times I’ve made positive mentions of authors/cartoonists on my blog and had them drop by and leave a comment thanking me for it. You can only imagine how cool it felt to have been noticed by people I respect for their work. I think I ended up posting new posts letting everyone know how cool that person was.

    So if someone takes time to give you useful, actionable feedback (I refuse to consider “stop writing/drop dead” useful feedback), it’s worth your time to cultivate that relationship with at least a kind note. And when people are kind to you, a show of kindness in return goes a long way. We don’t want to waste too much time on people who are ultimately not our audience, but everything we can do to appreciate those who are our audience will pay off.

  11. David Louis Edelman

    I’ve gotten my share of hate mail and nasty reviews — there seem to be a number of people out there that HAAAAATE my books — and honestly I’ve never seen a problem with responding to my critics. My usual response is something like, “Hey, sorry you didn’t care for my stuff. That part where you felt X I was really going for Y. I don’t mind you having that opinion, to each his/her own.”

    Almost every time, the response has been gracious. Don’t know if it’s sold me any books, but it’s definitely earned me some apologies and some thoughtful (if critical) social media followers/commenters/retweeters.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      I think there’s a difference between “I don’t like this part of your work,” and “You should stop writing.” I mean, if I were to try to respond to this guy in that model it would be, “That part where you felt I was going for snuff porn, I was really going for a Faustian bargain” and I’m pretty sure that conversation wouldn’t have gone well.

  12. L.T. Elliot

    Hate mail baffles me. I’ve never written it and I never will. It seems a fruitless waste of time, and as you’ve stated, a subjective issue. But I know people who argue for the sake of arguing and say cruel things for reasons unknown to me. I love your suggestion of sending out positive mail when confronted with the negative.
    And for what it’s worth, I love your writing.

  13. Lindsay Leggett

    Thank you for sharing this. I can see how taking the high road on this one might have been difficult. What an awful letter! I really can’t imagine the state people must be in to write such things. As said, to dislike a work is one thing, but to write a letter of that length…

    I haven’t had any hate mail yet (thankfully), but I did have a bad review to a free bonus story I pubbed before the novel. The review basically stated that the story didn’t hint to the characters and wasn’t even the first chapter of the book, so it was a waste of the read and the novel would be awful as well.

    The story was just a bonus, the character isn’t in the novel at all, just lives in the same world. At first I was fairly upset, as the awful review wasn’t due to the writing, but due to a misconceived perception of what it would be. I eventually replied that I was sorry that he didn’t like it, and explained that the two works were unrelated and that the story was just a bonus feature.

    You can’t please everybody! I live by a rule that if I don’t like a work, I don’t review it. Simple as that. Writers will always grow with more and more work, and not every book is suited for every reader.

    Cheers!

  14. Jon O

    A colleague once advised me “If nobody hates what you’re doing, it’s probably mediocre.”

    Later, she corrected me with “Now Jonny… just because it’s not mediocre, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s great either.”

    The point was made, and it’s helped me through all manner of instances where myself or a team I’m working with has ‘put up’ something different and then met with harsh criticism.

  15. Wesley Chu

    Mary,

    Did you really send him that? Because that’s pretty awesome. But yes, very sound advice.

    Debut Author Lessons has already saved me from making so many dumb errors.

    Thanks!

  16. James K Decker

    This is all great advice…as a relatively new writer, I struggle with this sort of thing all the time (I’m getting better at it). Fortunately the good emails far outweigh the bad, but It can be disconcerting when someone contacts you directly for the sole purpose of letting you know how terrible they think you are.

    My best hate mail story is the time I received an email rant from a reader once who didn’t like that I killed off a certain character (that one made a lot of people mad) in one of my books…it was entertaining though, so I sent him a humorous reply to each of his queries. Turns out he was more of an outraged fan who’d written the email after a few too many. He blogged about it, and now we’re friends on Facebook.

    My wife asks me sometimes if I don’t worry that doing things like killing off a character might alienate some readers. My response is always something to the effect that yes, maybe it will, but it’s my story. You can’t write for the angry or unsatisfied readers you think might be out there. Only you know how your story goes, and you have to write it your way even if people are mean about it.

  17. Sally

    IF: This person was so horrified and they said it was worse than snuff porn they’d read.

    THEN: I therefore have no choice but to deduce that said hater is familiar with snuff porn. o_O

    Also, like the anecdote Robert Fletcher shared, the really fulminating ones make me twice as interested in the book. If they go all Think of the Children! and How Dare You Insult Jeeeebus! (no relation to actual Jesus) as Ellen got, I’m more interested. Heck, now I want to read Ellen’s book which provoked such a lovely snarky reply.

    Reminds me of when one of the right-wing groups said we should all boycott “NYPD Blue” for its evil evilness. I hadn’t planned on watching it, but tuned in to see what all the fuss was about and ended up watching the first 4-5 years of it.

    The only complaint I have about Edelman’s books is: PUBLISH MOAR, AUTHOR-BOY.

    1. Shannon Leight

      IF: This person was so horrified and they said it was worse than snuff porn they’d read.

      THEN: I therefore have no choice but to deduce that said hater is familiar with snuff porn. o_O

      Yes, this! I had to stop and re-read the hate-mail letter, because I was coming to the same conclusion. I was sure I had misread it, somehow.

  18. Mur Lafferty

    You forgot the point where EP’s more vocal fanbase is essentially the population of Mos Eisley. Most of the vocal “fans” are entitled, rude, and utterly outraged that their free fiction is not exactly what they want it to be – and they keep listening.

    I know you’re addressing hate mail in general, but when I saw this linked on FB, I wondered who in the world would send MRK a piece of *hate* mail, and then I saw it was an EP listener. And I wasn’t surprised. So all I have to add is, “consider the source.”

    Also, your response is classic and awesome. Well done!

      1. Mur Lafferty

        Oh I don’t deny EP have lovely fans! Not at all. I just know that many authors are surprised at the visceral reactions to some EP stories, the like of which they don’t get elsewhere. There’s just something… special… about EP that attracts those kinds of vocal ‘fans.’ And these people keep listening…

        But I’m glad the show is also getting you fans!

  19. Mary Anne Mohanraj

    And then there are the e-mails I got back in 1995, from Indian guys in India, enraged that one of *their* women would dare to write explicitly about sex. Ah, good times. I’ve eaten out on that story for almost twenty years now.

    And then there’s the anonymous stranger who sent me a pair of white women’s underwear, XXXL. Sometimes the ones who love you are possibly worse than the ones who hate you. Though perhaps that’s more of a common problem for those of us who write erotica.

  20. Kelvin Kao

    I have not been posting fiction but I do post videos to Youtube. And of course, in the comments section, you get some trolls. I usually just ignore them, unless I have a really good wise-cracking line, because wise-cracking is fun. Besides, trolls usually hate on a bunch of things and people anyway. In a way, it’s like they are not singling you out.

    I have a similar policy. I only address it if it’s posted onto my space. And it’s usually a straight delete. Those don’t really bother me much. I just delete them for the benefit of visitors that actually like me.

  21. Fragano Ledgister

    One has to consider whether or not the sender of that email was producing an honest response, from the gut, or was a troll seeking to bully. Both are possible. S/he (most likely he) may, coming across the story, not be aware of the extent of your oeuvre and think “Here’s a single story by a writer I don’t know. I don’t like it. I don’t want to see more of this sort of thing. I should discourage it before she writes more.” Then write a stern, angry note in the hope that you will be so discouraged that you’ll give up writing forever. Bullying accomplished!

    In general, though, I am in favour of the principle you enunciate. Writers should not respond to critical comments, unless they actively seek them out. As a reviewer, I’ve had to deal, fairly recently, with an aggrieved author who does not understand that principle and, as a result, sounds like an enraged rabbit.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      This “honest reaction from the gut” required finishing listening to the podcast, finding my url, coming to my website and composing an email. Go back and read that email again, and tell me that it is designed to do anything other than be hurtful.

      And let me be clear, there is never a circumstance in which it is appropriate to tell a writer, or artist, or any other creative type to stop creating.

      1. Fragano Ledgister

        It certainly wasn’t meant to say anything other than “go away and never write again you naughty girl” which is hurtful and insulting, and very dumb.

        I agree, no one should tell a creator ever to stop creating. Nor that what they are trying to do is wrong. I can recall my father, when I first won an award for poetry (back in 1973), telling me that I should have written short stories. That was, as you can imagine, rather hurtful to my teenage mind.

  22. Pam Adams

    I hadn’t previously read that story- and I’m glad I didn’t hear it- at least with reading, I could turn away. This isn’t meant as hate mail, but rather as DAMN- what a story!

  23. Michael J. "Orange Mike" Lowrey

    Mean old reviewer speaking here.

    What do I do, then, when I stumble across a piece of dung which has no redeeming features whatsoever: the writing is hackneyed, the imagery dull or non-existent, the characterization likewise; the ethics and sensibility either archaic or depraved; the sexism, racism, etc. all-pervading; the spelling, punctuation and grammar unworthy of a fifth-grader? (I want to clarify that this latter happens most often on fan and free sites; even the worst self-published vanity press stuff tends to have been run through a spill chunker, so that other than substituting “organism” for “orgasm” or vice-versa, the most obnoxious errors tend to have been weeded out.) This person has stolen x minutes of my time, which I will never be able to reclaim; and will go on to do the same to other unsuspecting readers.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal Post author

      What do you do? Well, I usually complain to my friends and leave it at that.

      First of all, the person has not stolen x minutes of your time. As soon as you realize that a work is not to your taste, stop reading.

      Second, even if you feel that your time has been stolen, why would you devote more energy to something you don’t like?

      Third, if it is a fan site, and someone is posting something that they wrote for the joy of it, what gives anyone the right to smash that joy?

      Now… there is a way to offer constructive criticism, but there are venues for that and that is where such thoughts should be offered. Think very carefully about what you want to accomplish before sending unsolicited “help” to a writer. If you just need to vent, you have friends for that.

  24. Brent Baldwin

    Mary, I always get a kick out of your blog posts when you break “blog” character. Did you actually send the response back to the asshole, or just share it as an example?

  25. Betsy Dornbusch

    At least your writer had heard/read the story. I’ve had comments from people who didn’t even read my work but spoke based on the cover and the flap copy. They were, to put it politely, rather mistaken about the actual gist of the book.

    It’s not worth answering hate mail. I’d guess they’re not in a “reasonable discussion” sort of mood. But this is a good reminder to not take it too seriously. I also avoid all reviews when I’m writing (which is nearly all the time). I don’t need the emotional roadblock.

  26. John T. Sapienza, Jr.

    Mary, seeing such an adult response to immature behavior gives me further hope for humanity. Thank you.

  27. Daniela Scheele

    I’ve never understood why people write and send hate mail. I just can’t understand the motivation behind it.

    On a few occasion I’ve been tempted to write a negative review of a book but I always ended up deleting the file or simply deciding not to write the review. Why spend more time on something I didn’t like when I could focus on something much more pleasant.

    And hate mail seems to be so much more personal and just much worse than a critical or negative review would be. In the end it comes down to a personal attack on someone they don’t know. So why do it?

    I really like your advice. Thank you for that. I hope that when I get hate mail someday in the far future I’ll remember your post and know how to respond :-).

  28. Paul

    You get over hate mail pretty quickly, especially when a story you put on line generates multiple death threats.

    Yeah.

    True story bro.

    It featured a serial killer necrophiliac pedophile.

    People got so offended by the fiction they wanted to kill the writer…

  29. N.L.

    Great advice Mary, for new and established authors alike.

    I’ve been tempted to reply to negative messageboard comments / Amazon reviews etc. in the past (look what the latter did for Anne Rice’s popularity!), but have always decided to ignore them, no matter how bad they made me feel at the time.

    Like you say, if a comment is not made directly to you, it’s not worth engaging the commenter.

    Online comments are like wolf-whistles to me now; enraging or insulting at first, but ultimately meaningless. My dad said it best when he used to tell me “Don’t let the buggers grind you down!”

  30. David Steffen (Unblinking)

    Hi Mary,
    I found this post from someone who linked to it from the Escape Pod comment thread (where I’ve posted at greater length).

    I enjoyed this post, and it gives good advice. At this point I haven’t gotten any hate mail for my fiction, but I have gotten some for nonfiction. In particular some comments in response to a negative review I gave to Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, one of which accused me of various things, at the core of which the conclusion was that I couldn’t possibly have “read it properly”, whatever that means. I found that comment hilarious.

    I did reply to that one, since it was on my own site, so I figured it would be an appropriate place for me to speak up for myself. I mostly kept it polite, though I did venture a bit into snark and asked for instructions for how I should read properly so that I don’t make similar mistakes in the future.

    I very much like your advice to go out of your way to write fanmail. That’s something I’ve learned over the last few years. Often the reader’s reaction is that if they read something amazingly good, the author must be too important or busy to read correspondence. But the business of writing can be so unrelentingly depressing at times with low pay, almost-constant rejection, writer’s block etc, that getting the occasional piece of fanmail is enough to make all that other crap totally worth it. I don’t write fanmail for every story that I like, but if it blows my mind I try to write at least a quick note. Usually that quick note turns into a major document (much like this comment is becoming) as I follow the thought processes that the themes of the story took me down, but really that’s all part of what makes a good story good, that it makes me think about other things in different light. So far I’ve gotten responses to every fanmail that I’ve sent. Sometimes they’re brief but often the response includes a phrase along the lines of “You made my day”. And really, if I can make someone else’s day by writing an email that contains only my opinions, then it is totally worth the effort it takes to put the words in order and put fingers to keys.

    When I’ve gone to conventions I’ve struggled a bit with finding a boundary between the roles of fanboy and writer, because it seemed to me that gushing over someone else’s work is unbecoming to the serious profession of writer. But I came to the conclusion that SF Writers are, almost by definition, all fanboys/fangirls of someone/something in the field. I mean, otherwise, why the hell are they doing what they do? It’s sure not for widespread acclaim and fortune!

    And so far Ferrett Steinmetz has not told me to leave him alone, so I take that as a good sign…

    best,
    David Steffen

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