All posts for the month September, 2023

Sight Unseen

Published September 30, 2023 by swankivy

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Yeah so I usually try to make these comics more broadly relatable but I kinda assume not many writers have had exactly this happen to them. But maybe something in the neighborhood has happened to you: Someone hears what genre you write and paints it with a broad (unflattering) brush, or has an instant dislike of your title or cover art and says they don’t read “books like that,” or mistakes your writing in general for something it isn’t. It’s really annoying to have your work judged sight unseen, and you’d probably like Judgy McJudgepants to keep his assumptions unspoken, applying them when selecting what to read and nothing more.

But yeah. This specific experience I had quite a while back was a doozy.

It happened on December 30, 2014. I had a novel blurb and a solitary excerpt of the novel on my website, and someone in a literature mocking community got a hold of it. The person, bafflingly, decided to send me an intensely judgmental and lengthy takedown of what he’d decided my novel must be like, based on a sea of fantasy tropes and Mary Sue expectations, followed by condescending advice on how I should channel the anger his comments must have inspired in me and several recommended reading links intended to teach me how to recognize and avoid writing Mary Sues.

At the time he sent me this, the novel had been offered representation by a literary agent and three of the largest publishers in the world had eagerly responded to my agent’s pitch, and it was under consideration. (None of them ended up leading to a contract, but that’s still not a thing that happens with failtastic, cringey manuscripts.) Regardless of whether any of the criticism had been true, straight-up e-mailing the author to explain YOUR GUESSES at how bad their book probably is just happens to be one of the most obscenely inappropriate things I’ve ever heard of, and to this day I really wonder what inspired this guy to do it. (My guess is he was wrapped up in the “fun” of laughing at bad books, thought he recognized tropes because he was grafting them onto a story that didn’t actually reflect them, really liked the idea of making himself feel smart by tearing down another person, and literally did not know how to engage with literature in any other way at this surely immature point in his life.)

If you’re curious, here’s the amazing list of “criticisms” he sent me–content warning for mention of sexual assault:

  • Your character is described as very beautiful for her age. (Literally isn’t true in the story. She is an ugly duckling character.)
  • Her hair is dark, so you probably stupidly use terms like “raven” or “ebony tresses.” (Neither was EVER used in the story.)
  • She has violet eyes too, which means she looks a lot like Ariana Black, an infamous Sue from the Harry Potter fandom. (I don’t read fanfiction and I’m not automatically creating cringe as soon as my character shares physical traits with a character you like to laugh at. Violet eyes aren’t uncommon in my protagonist’s world. Another person in her tiny graduating class of 22 has the same eyes, and some of the fairies have even weirder colors.)
  • You use the term “magick” in your fantasy story and that’s a stupid misspelling. (The story has both stage magicians and fairies whose powers are called magick, so it seemed reasonable to distinguish them.)
  • Your character is precocious and that’s an overused trope. (Precocious people exist and sometimes books are written about them. I thought it was a good way to put some reasonable social difficulties in for the character so her difficulties making friends had a practical reason.)
  • Your character is shy and humble and terrified of rejection, but people hate her for no reason. (She was actually the opposite in the story. Her arrogance was instrumental in her downfall. The excerpt offered did show some shyness, but she was literally a five-year-old child.)
  • Your character likely gets special accommodations from the teachers in her school because she’s SO SPECIAL. (The excerpt he read didn’t even have her in school yet. There is no accommodation like this in the story. She is behind other students in reading and writing and is given no allowances for lower standards.)
  • Your character does wandless magic, which is SUPER SUE territory because it’s a sign of specialness in Harry Potter. (My story isn’t a Harry Potter ripoff. All of the fairies in it can do wandless magick.)
  • Your character is misunderstood and has no flaws, unless maybe she’s clumsy; anyone who hates her doesn’t have a rational reason. (Nope. The character was a deeply flawed person and the people who ended up hating her did so largely because of things she literally did to them.)
  • You obviously personally identify with this character, so she’s an auto-Sue. (Well, I have to relate to some extent if I’m going to write about her. That’s a writer’s job actually. I think we have a few things in common, but she’s fundamentally very different from me and she was very challenging to write for that reason.)
  • Her last name is “Morningstar” and that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Say that out loud and if you don’t agree it’s ridiculous, go reevaluate your life. (The book is a retold fairy tale and includes a lot of mythology references. Many of the fairy characters had dramatic and nature-related last names. This character’s family is supposed to be descended from a fairy who literally inspired the stories of the Christian devil. I didn’t come up with the name “Morningstar.” The Bible did.)
  • You have a cartoon image of her on one of your websites and it looks JUST LIKE another character we hate. How can you expect us to take you seriously? (I . . . don’t recall asking you to.)
  • Later in the book, to show how beautiful and desirable your character is, you will include scenes where boys try to rape her or molest her, and she will go on about how terrible it is to be so beautiful. (Disgusting that he thinks sexual assault is a compliment or a device to showcase a character’s enviable beauty. The character is not approached this way in any of the three books of the trilogy, and she is not considered pretty by other fairies.)
  • If she becomes a villain, everything she does will be justified. If she’s a hero, all the villains are obsessed with hurting her. (Nah. My character is the closest thing to a villain in the story, but she causes a lot of her own misery, makes lots of mistakes, struggles to learn certain lessons, and has to learn late in life how much of her time and resources she wasted.)
  • I’m sure there’s a catty girl who hates your character out of jealousy and she only exists to be upstaged by her. (There’s some mean girl bullying in her fairy school but she dishes it out as much as she takes it, and her biggest adversary ends up winning and screwing her over for the literal rest of her life.)
  • Your character surely has “Sue minions”–characters that rush to comfort her, obsess over her, and talk to her about their problems. (The protagonist has a few allies, including, ya know, her mom and a couple study partners. It is weird to suggest that if she has compassionate relationships in her life, they’re certainly superficial. I can’t even count how many times these characters got exasperated with her or called her out on her bullshit.)
  • Characters who disagree with your character will be shamed as “oppressive.” This is also how you think about yourself because sometimes you blog about sexism, racism, and other -isms. (Wow, who knew having values and voicing opinions indicates that everything I write is a bad literature trope?)
  • I’m sure you’re very offended at everything I’ve said and feel I’ve attacked you personally. (It’d be a lot easier to be “offended” if anything he said remotely reflected the actual content of the story. Mostly my feelings about it are that I’m baffled he wasn’t embarrassed to have written it, and actually hit SEND.)
  • Here are some materials related to identifying and combating the Mary Sue, so that any other characters you think up will not be incredibly beautiful, talented, misunderstood, and humble, with ebony tresses and violet eyes. (I’m not confused about what a Mary Sue is and don’t need condescending advice on characterization from anyone who believes the answer to writing better characters lies in avoiding giving anyone specific traits.)

Despite that this misguided soul believed I must be naïvely, preciously unaware of what a Mary Sue is, I have actually written an article on my author site about the dangers of concluding that any especially talented or accomplished character (especially if they’re female) is a Mary Sue. It’s a common mistake seen often in superficial critique or evaluations that lack nuance, or just people with little experience. I do think both the story and the character have some elements that lean into the dramatic/archetypal side, but it’s a damn shame that he felt the need to write me an incredibly detailed scolding on all the things I’d better not do if I want to be a good writer when he knew he didn’t have access to how and whether they applied. Imagine the utterly unwarranted confidence this guy must have had to presume he could teach ME elements of decent writing.

Obviously I am not the one who should tell other people how to feel about my writing, but I will say most of my readers credit me with being a particularly good character writer. In light of that, I offer my old blog post entitled “Why is your character a jerk?” It discusses how to write realistically flawed characters and uses this character as an example of someone with a LOT of character flaws who can still be both sympathetic and clearly deserving of some of the hardships they endure.