Monday, January 23, 2012

How My Fear of Judgment Helped My Book, For Once

I recently sent the first three chapters of my current WIP to two people. One of them knows me quite well, one I have only met recently.

Of course, I skimmed over them before I sent them, to make sure I didn't have any embarrassing typos (true story: I wrote an essay in college about the treatment of race in a particular novel, in which I had typed 'White Dessa. . .' instead of 'While Dessa. . . ' Dessa was black. Thankfully I caught that before submission and changed it with a ballpoint pen and a profound sense of relief), and to make sure there were no glaring inconsistencies (another true story: an uncle became a great-uncle and a mother became a great-aunt in this one. Switched them back before anyone saw it).

And I was skimming it, I was conscious of how these two people would read it. In one chapter, there was quite a long segment where my main character thinks some fairly nasty and judgemental stuff about her friend. As I was reading it, imagining how it would read to someone else, I realised it was quite unnecessary. My character is pretty judgemental sometimes, but this felt. . . wrong. It wasn't quite her.

I'm not sure I would have spotted it if I hadn't been reading with one eye fixed on how my writing would make me look.

I think that being too concerned about how our writing makes us-as-people look is a bad thing - if I was to worry too much about that, I'd end up trying to write books entirely devoid of sex, lies and bad people. Which wouldn't work. But in this case, it helped me to catch something that otherwise I might have let slip.

Have you ever removed something because you were worried about how it made you look? Or considered it? Do you think it was, or would have been, a good or a bad decision?


  1. Yep, I've thought about this several times. I don't know how much of what I've changed in my book was down to honestly believing it would improve the story, and how much was down to being afraid of being seen a certain way. I'm especially conscious being being viewed as sexist, since I pay so much attention to gender double-standards in fiction.

  2. Yes, I censor my language. A couple of my characters would really like to drop the f-bomb, but I won't let them, for fear some of my former Sunday school students might read it some day. Dunno if it's a good decision or not, but it's one I can live with.

  3. Oh, I worry about that, and it became crippling. I write romance and like a little heat in my stories. But whatever sexy-sexy you write, people will instantly think you've done it. Or at the very least that you're into it. It wooged me out. All I could think was. "When grandma(and her eleventy-billion sisters) reads this, I am SO going on the Prayer Chain." I had to take a pen name and inform all the lovely supportive people in my family/friends circle that they couldn't know it or read anything I wrote... which is when I was able to start producing again. You are braver than I, lady :)

  4. Paul, it is a very difficult line to manage alright. How much is enough, and how much is allowing ourselves to be censored.

    Susan, I think it's a good decision - there is swearing in my novel (the two main characters swear, none of the others do - it seems in keeping with their characters!) but I often wonder if it's just lazy writing, if there's a better way to express it. I hope someday an editor will tell me :)

    Amalie, if I wrote anything overtly sexy, it would be under the world's most impenetrable pen name! I would do exactly what you did! My family are also incredibly supportive and thus would read it, and I would die of embarrassment. I think families are the same everywhere!

  5. Hi Ellen!
    I found your blog thanks to Roxy's (A Woman's Write). So glad I did :D I've never thought about reading a story through the eyes of someone I know who will/may read it. It is an interesting thought to consider.

    It's funny, but I've been posting about the same thing, about not being overly concerned about what other's think of us through our writing. However, like you've posted here, reconsidering some things may help us realize they are unnecessary for the progression of the story.

    Glad to meet you!

  6. Hi Jen, good to meet you too!

    I was surprised to find that in this case, excessive worrying improved some of the book instead of making it worse (usually when I obsess about other people's opinions, it makes my book worse). It certainly opened my eyes a bit!

    In general I try to put other people's opinions out of my head and just write the book I want to write, but seemingly there is a point when opinions can be very beneficial!

  7. I've written graphic sex into a collaborative novel that's in the final stages now under one penname. The work represents what I think is my best writing, but there's no way I could have my parents read that!

    I did write some sex into my own solo book, but generally fleeting. It's much more violent then anything else.

    As to removing something, yes... one of my characters, Jacob Dayan, originally had the name Jacob Cohen. I checked around online and found out that was Rodney Dangerfield's real name. I removed it and changed it... it would have driven me nuts having that guy's name the same as the character, even though most people would have never known.

  8. I made reference to a characters prostitute girlfriend and the 'service' she supplied in a short story for a serial killer anthology. I agonised other whether to include it but in the end I knew it was needed, no matter what family and friends thought of it! I say writers needed to follow their gut instinct.

    Ellie Garratt


I love comments!