#27: Ethics in Fiction Writing

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Dear Story Nurse,

Let’s say I made a boo-boo in one of my previous stories, and I handled a sensitive subject a bit badly. Not super badly, but I relied on overused tropes because I didn’t realize how overused (and damaging) they were. Now I know better, and I’m planning to write a sequel to the story where I messed up. Is there anything special I should do in the sequel to sort of “make up” for the mistake and build that trust back with my readership? Or should I just focus on not making it again?


Really Very Sorry

Dear Really Very Sorry,

This is a very kind question. I’m glad you understood where critiques were coming from, took them to heart, and have been working on doing better. Those are the essential things you need to be doing, and to keep doing.

I don’t think there’s anything you need to do beyond that. Certainly don’t have one of the characters in your story act as an author mouthpiece and denounce bigotry or stereotypes; it sounds clunky, and is as likely to annoy people as to earn their approval. And don’t include an apology note in your sequel work; it sounds like that would be an overreaction given the mild degree of the earlier error, and if an apology is warranted, it should appear with the original work, not the new one.

Instead, the best thing you can do as an author is to fade way back. Let go of any inclination you have to identify with your work and interpret critiques of your work as critiques of you. Critiques of your work are critiques of your work. (You are not your work.) Your job is to use them to make your future work better. Reader critiques of you as a person are out of bounds and you are free to ignore them; a direct communication from you to the reader, either overt or disguised, is likewise out of bounds (with one caveat that I discuss below). Focus on your work as the medium through which you and the reader interact.

You are undoubtedly having a lot of feelings about having messed up and let your readers down. That’s completely understandable. Talk them out with a therapist or a sympathetic friend. Work on improving your writing (constructive action that helps both you and others); try not to beat yourself up with guilt and shame (a cycle of pain that helps no one). And keep those feelings outside of the writing room as much as you possibly can.

You need really clear lines right now between you as a person, you as a writer, and your work. Your work is a singular artistic creation that a reader reads and has reactions to. Learning to create work that doesn’t hurt or harm is your responsibility as a writer. Processing your feelings is something you do as a person, in the company of people who you have a personal connection with. Attempting to process feelings with or at your readers will do nothing to increase trust, because it’s not you they need to trust. They need to trust that your work will not cause them pain. If you focus on showing them your regret and guilt and embarrassment and desperate hope that they will give you another chance, you miss the point entirely.

I just watched the Steven Universe episode “Friend Ship,” in which (no spoilers) one character says to another “How can I make you forgive me?” and the other character replies “You can’t!” That doesn’t mean there will never be trust between them again. It just means that the character who did wrong can’t force a reconciliation. You likewise can’t make readers trust you. Even phrasing it as “building that trust back” implies a direct collaboration between you and your readers that can’t actually happen. Instead, you need to demonstrate that they can trust your work. And the way you do that is by checking your ego at the door and creating work that is better. Not ostentatious, not apologetic, just better.

You can also help the writing ecosystem by mentioning to other creators if you see the same problem crop up in their work. Don’t make a big deal out of being That Woke Writer; just say “Hey, I did this same thing once and it turns out it’s really a problem for some readers.” If you see someone else make a critique like that, support and validate them.

The necessary caveat to the notion of the work always standing between the writer and the reader is that you may have direct interactions with your readers over social media. It’s up to you how to handle those. If you received critiques in public (as in, if readers directly brought problems up to you rather than discussing them among themselves), it may make sense for you to respond in public. I can’t give you much guidance on those sorts of interactions because I have no idea how many readers you have, how much influence you have on other writers, what your reader community is like, and so on. In the situation you describe, it sounds like you didn’t cause very much harm, so it’s probably best if you don’t make a big deal out of your learning experience; thank individual commenters for their comments, apologize for creating work that hurt them, and then go focus on making better work. But if other people have made a big deal out of it and you feel a public apology of some kind would really truly help your readers feel better, here are some tips:

  • Don’t apologize off the cuff. Write the apology out in a private file and make sure it says what you want it to say before you post it.
  • Post it in the same medium where the public critiques occurred. (If there were no public critiques, don’t make a public apology.)
  • Be very, very, very brief. Briefer than that. It’s okay for the first draft to be wordy, but then you must cut ruthlessly.
  • Remember that an apology is an act of restitution to the people you’ve hurt; focus on them. It’s not a platform for you in any way.
  • Do not talk even a little bit about how sad and sorry you are, how much you hope your readers can come to trust you again, how much you resent the unjust accusations against you, or any of your other feelings.
  • Do not plug or link to your work, including the sequel story.
  • Sincerely thank people who brought the issue to your attention. It’s probably best if you don’t thank anyone by name; you may want to show appreciation for someone who put a lot of effort into describing the exact issue to you and making sure you understood, but turning the spotlight on a reader may bring troll-moths to their door, so it’s better to send them a brief, direct note of thanks. Definitely don’t namecheck anyone who didn’t speak up in public.
  • If necessary, ask anyone who’s been attacking your critics to stop.
  • Acknowledge your specific actions that caused harm. Use active verbs and I-statements: “I did this thing and it hurt people.” Avoid “hurt was caused” and “it is unfortunate” and their ilk.
  • Use the words “I apologize.” “I’m sorry” and “I regret” are about your feelings. “I apologize” is about recognizing that you caused harm and taking responsibility for it.
  • Tell people what concrete actions you are taking to make amends.
  • At the end of your apology, state that you are taking a 48-hour social media break, and take it. Spend that time taking care of yourself. Sincerely apologizing is very hard. It’s okay to need a breather after. And it’s really best if you don’t reply to any of the immediate comments on your apology, positive or negative. (If possible in the medium you’re using, turn comments off.) The apology itself is a work that must stand on its own, like all your work.

If that all sounds like a whole lot of effort, that’s because it is! But in some cases that effort is proportionate to the amount of harm caused. I sincerely hope that’s not the case for you, and that you can just have your learning experience and move on to write stories that your readers find purely satisfying.


Story Nurse

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