I don’t know if it was always this way, maybe it was and I was just so focused on my life and my personal goals and struggles that I didn’t look up to see the world around me. Or maybe I didn’t have some readily available source of information to tell me what the flare-ups were as they happened so they had to reach a sort of critical mass before they hit my radar.
But it seems to me that there’s a lot more change and angst and turmoil in the world today than there was twenty years ago. And as writers we can unknowingly step right in the midst of that anger and draw it towards us like a lightning rod.
Let me give you two examples from my own writing.
I recently revised a book (Achieve Writing Success now known as Sell That Book) that I had unpublished a while back because it didn’t really sell and it seemed absurd to have a book about selling books out there that didn’t sell.
But I was having fun designing new covers so I decided I’d give it a quick readthrough, edit whatever was outdated, and put it back out there. The original of this book was maybe five years old, and the content actually was still solid. I didn’t have a lot of edits to make.
What I did have to do, though, was remove one of the examples I’d used. Because I referred to the Harry Potter series. The first book in that series would’ve come out when I was working at a bookstore, same with the first Game of Thrones book.
In my book I mentioned this fact because at the time neither one was a big deal at all. They weren’t even on our radar as something special to recommend. We were recommending Brian Jacques books for kids fantasy.
I mentioned the series in the context of how you have to keep writing, because it’s unlikely one book is going to lead to resounding success. You have to build to success with multiple books.
But I took the mentions of Harry Potter out because of JK Rowling’s reputation now, in the present day, of being actively anti-trans. There is a very vocal contingent of people who do not want her name or her books ever mentioned anywhere ever again and who will react very negatively to anyone who does so.
Would I have been aware of this fact if I were still consulting full-time? No. But I spend enough time on Twitter and follow enough writers there who are connected to that community or part of it to know this fact. And so knowing this, I chose to remove the example from my book.
But had I never unpublished that book and had someone bought it today and read it and had strong feelings about her, I could’ve stepped right in it with that reader and been accused of all sorts of things for mentioning her.
Because there are readers today who believe that a mention of her or her books requires a trigger warning. There are even reviews that will flag any mention of the Harry Potter books.
As a self-publisher if I know about these things, I can change my books to remove a problematic reference. But it’s almost impossible to keep up with the changing tides and dynamics and issues.
And it’s easy to forget a passing mention like that that was made five years ago when things weren’t emotionally fraught with respect to a certain topic. Until I re-read that book I didn’t remember that I’d used that example. I would’ve never known to go looking for it.
(This constant shift in attitudes towards who is safe and who is not is actually one of the reasons I left Twitter with my YA fantasy name. There was a period of about two weeks on Twitter a few years back where the SFF community decided to ostracize a large number of people behaving badly. It seemed to start with someone who had sexually assaulted someone IIRC but then it expanded to include a few guys who from what was said publicly were insensitive assholes who made crude comments. From there it spread to authors who were called out for things I never could really track down. Maybe dating someone and breaking up with them in a less than perfect way? By the time it was all done there were about a dozen people who you were supposed to unfollow unless you wanted to be guilty by association. At that point I was like, “I can’t spend all my time on here monitoring for who I’m not supposed to like, so I’m out. Buh-bye.”)
So that’s the first example. We learn more about people over time and suddenly a passing mention is loaded with meaning. My YA fantasy bio lists the fantasy worlds I loved growing up, but after I wrote that bio I learned that there are readers who’ve thrown out all of the books from one of those worlds due to accusations that were made about the author. SFF is littered with stories of inappropriate behavior by some of its biggest names and a certain contingent expects you to know all of this and react “appropriately”.
The second example is more about how events can catch up and pass us by and put a whole new level of weight on what we’re writing.
I’m currently working on my ninth and final cozy mystery. In the book the main character is seven months pregnant and on bed rest with twins. She was never someone who really wanted to be pregnant in the first place although she does want to have the kids. So she complains a lot about being pregnant. The swollen ankles, the kick to the kidney, the constant need to pee, the being the size of a whale, etc. She also worries a lot about being a shitty mom and how hard it is to be a parent. (Especially to twins!)
Two years ago there would have definitely been readers who weren’t pleased with her being less than positive about being pregnant and being a mom.
Cozy tends towards a conservative audience. Maybe my audience on book nine isn’t that way, but in general cozies are expected to not have things like profanity, using the Lord’s name in vain, on-the-page sex, or graphic violence. And they are often set in small towns which also attracts a more conservative readership.
But it would’ve been mild. I wouldn’t have expected anyone to reach out to me about it or to mention it in a review.
As I write this, however, the news just leaked that Roe is likely to be overturned. (For international readers, the gist of this is that in the United States after this happens individual states will be able to ban abortion, something they haven’t been allowed to do for 50 years. States have been able to restrict abortion to some degree or another, but not outright ban it.)
Other than that being an absolute bullshit decision that will cost lives and signals bad things for the direction this country is headed, for me as a writer it will also impact how this cozy is received by readers.
Because all discussion of pregnancy and being pregnant and any struggles around pregnancy are going to carry an added weight right now.
Even though my character chose to continue her pregnancy and is going to have the twins, there will still be readers who react more negatively to this book when it publishes in a month or two than they would have two years ago.
Their personal beliefs might not have changed in that time, but their sensitivity to the issue will be heightened.
Now, am I going to edit the book to remove those references? No.
My character is very well-established as being unimpressed by weddings, baby showers, motherhood, and any other traditional things that women are supposed to be impressed by. I’m not going to change her character in the 11th hour just because the world has shifted while I was writing her books.
But am I prepared to maybe get some pushback from a reader who will tell me they loved the series until this book? Yep. Absolutely.
That’s the risk of putting something you write out into the world. People are always going to layer their own knowledge and experience on top of whatever you write and come up with their own opinions of you and your material.
The challenge these days is that the world is moving so fast and in so many directions that you can think you know how something you wrote is going to be perceived and then something will change or something you never even knew about will come along and the reaction you get will blindside you.
Is there anything that can be done about that? I don’t think so. I guess maybe if you’re a person who puts what you think others want on the page, stop. Because if the world is going to slam you for what you wrote, at least make it be something you believe in.
Also, accept right now that someone somewhere is going to have an issue with what you write. You cannot put written work out into the public and expect it to be acceptable to everyone. Not gonna happen.
(Which also argues for knowing who you are writing for versus who you aren’t writing for, so you know when you’ve gone off course versus when you’ve just ended up in front of the wrong audience.)
It’s not easy writing in a chaotic world. But only you can write your stories, so keep at it.