“Every woman artist has to kill her own grandmother. She perches on our shoulder whispering, ‘Don’t embarrass the family’.”
You regular readers know I hate writing advice and writing rules lists. I think of them as make work for writers who’ve run out of interesting things to say and are instead trying to find something to offer out to cover their awkward silences. So you wouldn’t expect me to come up with a list of guidelines for writerly success. But today, I have some advice for women writers: do not be ashamed of your voice, and do not be afraid to say things in public that would offend your mother.
This runs counter to the advice of about a billion social media gurus, most of whom only have one book, and that’s a writing advice self-help book. All of these people have a non-fiction book, and they advise fiction authors about how to succeed, as if the methods of marketing in the neurotic world of self-help will work exactly the same in the world of fiction writing. They won’t, and if you’re a fiction writer, most of their advice will hamper your efforts, not help. But of all their lousy advice, their comments to women may be the most damaging and useless.
Lots of women social gurus will tell you “Don’t say anything on social media that you wouldn’t want your mother to read.” But let me pose a question to you: if you’re a romance or erotica writer, and your writing persona is a milquetoast presentation that would make mother so proud, what kind of image are you sending to your readers? “I baked cookies with dear hubby and read to my two dear sweet children, Nathaniel and Thadeus. Please, buy my book Whipping Princes Leia’s Cooter!”
Now if you’re selling Christian fiction and want to be seen as the female equivalent of Ned Flanders by readers, then okily-didyum-dokily, you go on and be a mealy mouthed good girl and make your momma proud. But if you’re a horror author whose last book contained gruesome and gory acts that made your mother queasy, then why would you want your writing persona to be so out of phase with your writing voice?
More to the point, do you think the men in your field are practicing self-censorship like this? No freaking way are they letting momma control their mouths, and neither should you. In fact, if you want to compete with the men, then you’ve got to get that polite bit out of your mouth and unleash your inner bitch to come close to the audacity and bravado of male authors. If you come to their literary forums talking meek and polite, these guys won’t even hear you over the sound of their own gladhanding. You have to speak up to break into the old boys’ network. Firmly, and maybe even using some words that would make your mother gasp.
I’m not saying drain a bottle of rum and drunk post a list of things that piss you off. That’s my shtick, so you need something to help you stand out. But seriously, this self-censorship isn’t helping your creativity, and it isn’t helping you to differentiate yourself from all the other women in your field with near identical presentations.
And if you don’t think it’s a problem to have a voice close to someone else’s, just look at what happened with me and that other Zoe. We talked so much alike about all the same topics that when I wrote a bad review on a romance book, the writer’s fans attacked the other Zoe, thinking we were the same people. Even when we were BOTH saying publicly “We’re not the same people,” some folks were still insisting “But look at how similar you are!” And, that’s a problem.
We’ve sorted that out since then, I think. But it’s because we no longer talk about the same things, and only the most unobservant reader would mistake my blog for the blog of the other Zoe. And that’s what I’m telling you to think about. What makes your author personality different from all the other women writers? Do you try to stand out and be different at all? Or do you follow the social media guidelines and try to fit in? Because if you’re fitting in, you’re also blending in, and readers are losing you in the crowd. Politeness, then, is not a mask to help you sell more copies, but a camouflage that makes readers lose your unique message. You’re just another polite tree in the forest of indies, and instead of looking for new “trees,” readers will look for familiar names and voices that stand out.
Which is why you need to do something besides follow the advice of some lady whose only literary success came from exploiting the uncertainty of other authors. That lady is selling to an entirely different market than you are, and her advice probably won’t apply to your field. Which is not to say you can’t pick up a few of their ideas, but the kind of ideas you want to avoid are any which will stifle your voice in the name of social politeness.
And ladies, there’s another facet to this. Look at the writing world, and look at how many fields are dominated by men. Look at how many men make comments that they can’t find any women in the field who “really stand out.” Part of that is most assuredly gender bias making them deaf to women’s voices, but women authors don’t need to help that perception by never speaking up or saying anything that risks causing offense. Talking like that will lead you into obscurity as surely as writing a lousy book will.
One more thing. If your mother is on your friends feed and she’s commenting that some of your updates are making her feel uncomfortable, tell her to back off. Do it politely if you’re on good terms and want to stay that way. But be your own person and ask for your own creative space. If your mother truly respects you, she’ll understand and leave you be.
If you’re an adult and you still let your mother tell you what to think, then the field of writing is not for you. This is an art field where the whole point is stepping out on your own to find your voice. If your writer voice is always dictated by your mother’s wishes, then you’re a failure as an artist, no matter how much sales success you find. Just as every man has to step out of the shadow of his father, you women need to let go of your mothers and be your own women. And please, don’t worry. You’re modern women, so you’re plenty strong enough for the task.
Have faith in yourself, and don’t be afraid to step on a few toes on your way to greatness. That’s my advice to you new women writers, and I think it’s a lot more valuable than “Don’t embarrass your family.”