Or, how to not be an asshole when you screw up.
Representation Matters is a series that explores topics of representation in writing and art. Our first guest-poster, who will explore the topic over the next few months, is Rebecca Croteau. Rebecca is an avid writer, reader and knitter, who is also quite active on Twitter.
If you’re still here with this series, I’m going to make some basic assumptions about who you are as a writer. If you’re still here, I’m assuming that you agree that we need more diverse literature, especially for kids, and that if you are a writer who is trying to write about an experience other than your own (or even your own!) you should have someone who has had that experience vet your manuscript to look for any obvious or harmful errors you’re making. This is called a sensitivity read, and the person who performs it is a sensitivity reader.
This is no different from having a police expert look over your crime scenes or a forensic pathologist discuss your character’s autopsy report. Absolutely no different.
I’m glad we’re on the same page. Now that we agree, I want to talk about what happens when your sensitivity reader says those fateful words: You’ve fucked up. They’re not words that a writer wants to hear, clearly, though as we discussed last time, the earlier in the process you hear them, the better.
They’re words I heard just this week, in fact. In an erotica novella, I have a fat character, and while I am not the skinniest of people, I am not someone who would classically be defined as fat, nor am I a cis man, so I wanted to make sure I was getting a couple of scenes right.
I wasn’t. So let’s talk about how this went down. I am going to be deliberately vague here; I have no interest in pointing fingers at the person who is kind enough to read for me and say they did a bad thing by pointing out where I fucked up. I also do not want to sound like I think I’m some kind of saint for being decent and committing to fixing the mistakes I made. This is just about how this conversation went well, and what could have gone differently to derail it and make it a miserable experience for both me and my reader.
Can we talk a minute?
Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear this phrase, I always know that the conversation that’s about to follow is going to be a little bit stressful. It’s probably because the indication that the speaker needs my attention for a period of time shows that they’re trying to make sure we’re not going to be interrupted. In this case, I was quite glad my reader started here; I got a quick minute to prep for the idea that I’d made a mistake.
Why did you make this choice?
The reader was approaching me about a specific scene I’d written in a specific way. They asked why I’d had the character discuss a particular thing.
I will be honest here; my first thought was to throw someone else under the bus. The passage that the reader was pointing out had been inserted at the request of someone else, but as soon as I started to say that, I realized that I was completely out of line.
I explained to the reader: “You know, I initially inserted that conversation because of feedback I received from someone else, but as I’m typing this to you, I’m realizing that this is really problematic.”
The reader’s response was agreement. There it was, right on the table. I fucked up.
It’s really hard as a writer to fuck up. I always feel a number of things, very fast; it’s my world, how can I possibly fuck up? If I built this character, how can I be wrong? It’s my story, dammit.
Guess what: every one of those impulses is incredibly wrong. I wanted to lash out, say that my scene was absolutely NOT problematic, I HAD been told to write it that way, and—and—
If I’d done that, I would have lost a friend, a reader, and a valuable opportunity to make my story much better.
Instead of lashing out, I sat my ass down (both physically and metaphorically). My reader explained why the scene didn’t ring true to them. They said that even if the character might feel the way I’d written them, I was not the right person to tell that story. I let them say their piece, and when I sensed that they’d said what they needed to say, I thanked them. I said I appreciated their feedback, and committed to fixing the scene. I apologized for the harm I’d caused them in writing something that was hurtful. I said that the trust they’d shown in offering me guidance in fixing it was incredibly meaningful to me.
And problem solved.
No, seriously. No one lashed out at anyone else on Twitter, no one screaming, no subtweeting, no messes, no shouting. No “policing” or “censoring.” I got the scene wrong, and I took a deep breath and dealt with it like a damn adult who got a scene wrong. Because – and I know this hurts to hear, fellow writers – our characters aren’t actually real people.
But our readers are. And when we write things that hurt our readers, when we hurt real people, we’re doing the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing as writers.
So I’m taking a book that I thought was nearly done and doing another editing pass. I’m more than okay with this. It’ll be a better book that will be less harmful when it’s done. And that’s worth as many edits as are needed.