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Transcript for Episode 9.14

Writing Excuses 9.14: How to have an Opinion as a Public Figure


Key Points: When you say something on the Internet, it can affect your writing career. Sometimes you want to state your opinion about controversial topics. “Don’t be a jerk.” Sometimes you are misunderstood. When you have an idea, stop and think. Research. Have somebody check it. Stay calm and check Snopes. Be prepared to make enemies, and decide how you are going to deal with detractors. Avoid personal attacks. Do learn to apologize.

[Brandon] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by David Farland’s writing workshops. Go to to find out more.

[Mary] Season nine, episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How to have an Opinion as a Public Figure.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] And I’ve got something to say. I really don’t. My name’s Howard.

[Brandon] [chuckle] Mary, you pitched this one. Tell us about it.
[Mary] So, one of the things that will happen to you as you move along in your writing career, and is happening to you even now, is that things happen on the Internet and you want to say stuff about them, but you have to think about how that’s going to affect you. Because sometimes the opinions that you hold are things that are not popular, and sometimes they are popular, but the way you say them may not be, and sometimes they’re popular but repetitive, and sometimes it is new and original.
[Brandon] Right. I think we can break this into two general categories of what you said. How you present yourself as just your writing tone and things like this. Also, and making desisure… Decision. Desisure? Decisions how it… Deeply you want to go into controversial topics. These are two decisions you should make consciously, rather than just letting instinct or whim drive you. I’ve seen a lot of writers have these things come back to bite them after they get published, when before they were very controversial and they had a certain tone. They just keep doing that, or they try to change, but their history is… It’s the Internet, this doesn’t go away.

[Mary] What will happen also is… I just want to point this out, this is not just blog posts. This is twitter, this is things you put on Facebook. Recognize that pretty much anything you say can and will be taken out of context.
[Brandon] Yes. And even private forums. Don’t write it if you aren’t expecting that it could get out there. Now, there are places where you can post where you have an expectation of privacy and things like this. But even then… I would suggest the number one rule to follow is Kevin J. Anderson’s rule. Which is, “Don’t be a jerk.” You can not be a jerk and still have strong opinions and make them known. But the “Don’t be a jerk” I think is a great piece of advice.
[Howard] I think the awareness that authors need to come into is that authors… Anybody who’s a public figure is that you’re typically a public figure because of something you do besides your activism with regard to your political things. Okay? You… Shorthand, you’re an author, not an activist. Deciding to take up the activism banner somewhere changes people’s perception of you and it changes your… It changes your whole approach to your day.
[Brandon] It does.
[Howard] Being an activist is very, very different than being a creator of longform fictions.
[Mary] This is not… Why don’t you go first?
[Dan] What we need to stress here is that we’re not saying to not have opinions.
[Mary] Correct.
[Dan] Or to not express them. If you want to be an activist, do it. If you feel passionately about something, that’s awesome. You just need to be aware that it will affect the rest of your life and you need to plan for it.
[Mary] Yeah. And by the rest of your life, he’s not meaning all eternity.
[Dan] Yes.
[Brandon] Right.
[Dan] Well…
[Mary] Probably. But…
[Dan] Your author career, certainly.

[Mary] Yeah. Just as an example, in a recent thing I had to deal with, basically, and I’ll do the short form of it. Someone is essentially flung poo at me for reasons. Because reasons. And even though I was not… I decided not to respond to that person. Everybody else on the Internet was talking about it, and I spent a week doing nothing but managing people sending me emails. Then eventually it hit a point that I had to make… I had to de… I decided that there was enough chatter that if I did not say something, it would get even bigger than it was. So that was a point where I decided to step in, but I almost turned down paying work because my entire story brain was being eaten by just dealing with this thing. This is a very low-key thing that was happening. This was like…
[Brandon] Low-key?
[Mary] For… I mean, in terms of…
[Brandon] Yeah. It was emotionally powerful, but it was a few small people on a niche forum.
[Mary] Right. It was not a this is going to affect my career kind of thing. But the point being that when you are looking at whether or not you want to respond as a public figure, part of what you’re looking at is the amount of social calories and writing calories that this is going to consume. And whether or not this is something that you feel passionately enough about to want to expend them on this.

[Howard] An example that’s about 10 years old, one of the publishers of web comic collections, the principal driving force of the company, the guy who ran the company, also felt very, very passionately about the possibility for corruption in electronic voting. And spent an enormous amount of time and resource disseminating information about the companies that were building voting machines. The result was some of his cartoonists didn’t get books published on time. The result… The fallout from the was they went to other publishers, they went and self published. Being an activist is time-consuming.

[Brandon] Well, let’s… Let me give you guys another example of something much more minor that can… How things can come to bite you. It was a number of years ago, pretty new to… When I was very new to my career, I wrote a blog post talking about my love of hardcovers. That’s what my blog post was supposed to be. Yet I was tired when I wrote it. I didn’t vet it through anyone, and the tone of the blog post was, “You stupid people buying paperbacks, buy hardcovers instead because I make more money.” That’s not what I wanted to write, but that is what the tone… Now remember, this is all words…
[Mary] It’s about perception.
[Brandon] It’s hard… The perception came off as “Buy my hardcover, you people.” That got picked up by a bunch of bloggers, who are like, “Look at this arrogant author. I love it when people…” Dear Author blogged it, which is a very big romance one, which was like, “We love it when you read our books in any form. This guy… How dare he say this?” It was a moment of “Oh, crap, what have I done?” Where for the next two days, all of my email and social media and stuff was me saying, “Look, I’m sorry. Here’s a revision of this thing. Here’s what I meant to say. I apologize.” I went out… I had to go on to the forums that picked up on this thing and say, “Guys, I’m sorry. I didn’t think enough through this thing.” It destroyed two days of writing, and that’s still on the Internet. You still can go find… And find me associated with Brandon Sanderson thinks you should buy his hardcovers, not whatever else. And this is just an accidental thing. You listeners need to be aware that the things you write right now, on your blogs, on forums, can and perhaps will do this to you when you are published.
[Mary] So…

[Dan] I… Very quickly, had a… Was… Got myself involved very, very tangentially in an issue. I was talking about net neutrality and just made one post on it that was pithy and clever enough that it got re-tweeted almost 1000 times.
[Mary] Wow.
[Dan] Which is amazing for me.
[Brandon] Yeah.
[Dan] The issue I ran into is that my opinion on net neutrality continues to evolve. That tweet, that is still being passed around the Internet, I no longer agree with what I said in it.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] So that’s another case where you need to be careful. I mean, my response… My fix for that was to put up a big blog post and say, “This is going around. It’s very popular. I still think it’s kind of true, but I also think this other angle is kind of true. Let’s consider all the facts.”

[Mary] That’s… There are two things that you guys have said that I kind of want to really point out, which is that the first thing when you have the idea to post is to stop and think about it. And to wait and do research before you… Like to see what other people are saying about topics.
[Brandon] The other big important thing is to vet it through somebody.
[Mary] Yes. Preferably somebody who is well-versed in the topic that you are discussing.
[Brandon] Well, not even just that that. Having your friends read it. Like I haven’t had another one of these things blow up on me ever since I’ve had Peter read it every blog post I write, and occasionally say, “Hey, this might be a minefield that you’ve said this way.”
[Mary] Yeah.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop and talk about David Farland’s writing workshops. He is sponsoring the podcast this week, and again next month, you’ll get a podcast sponsored by him. Dave is the person that Dan and I took a class from that really kind of jumpstarted our writing careers. Wouldn’t you say, Dan?
[Dan] Absolutely. He was the one who… Both Brandon and I grew up wanting to be writers, but not really taking it seriously. Dave was the one that convinced us we could do it for a living and make it work, and taught us how.
[Brandon] We both took one of his classes. It was offered at the university at the time. It was the single most useful class I took in my university career. Counting grad school and undergrad. Hands down. The writing advice he gave I still use as writing advice, and I still use it when I teach my class. I think it is excellent writing advice. His career advice was also really good. So when he came to us and asked us if he could sponsor a podcast, we gave an enthusiastic yes because this is something we can endorse. He does a lot of writing workshops now. You go fly to his home and you stay with him and you work on your writing with him. There’s more information at
[Mary] I want to sign up for this!
[Brandon] Yeah. Dave’s blurb says that each class provides instructional videos, followed by writing assignments where Dave gives you his personal feedback. So it looks like he’s doing some online courses as well. In addition, you’ll take part in an online meeting so that you can ask Dave any questions you want. Okay. So this is for an online one. But he also has ones you can fly to his house and do. I know he’s doing those as well. So all across the board, Dave’s advice is fantastic. I would go to if I were you and look into this. He offers a free book on writing if you go to the website.
[Howard] Outstanding.

[Brandon] All right. So what… Let’s say you want to be an activist. Let’s say you want to post these things and you want to be involved in this. How can you…
[Mary] Well, it’s not even that you have to be an activist. That you have a strong opinion about a current…
[Brandon] That’s true. It doesn’t even have to be an activist. You have a strong opinion on any of these things. Even buying hardcovers. If you want to make that your stance… My problem was not making a stance, my problem was unintentionally taking a stance I didn’t realize I wanted to take, and I didn’t actually want to take. So how can you go about doing this?
[Mary] So the first thing that I’d say is that you… Like any piece of writing, that you should stop and research it before you write it. Because a lot of times what people will do… One of the mistakes that I see people make is, particularly on twitter or Facebook or they’ll just throw up a quick blog post, but places where you can respond quickly, is that they’ll respond quickly to something without checking into… Like a current topic, without checking into the facts behind the topic to see whether or not what is being passed around is actually true. And sometimes…
[Brandon] Right. Yup. That happens a lot.
[Mary] Sometimes it is true, and sometimes it’s not, and sometimes it is… Almost always, it is a more nuanced discussion. So one of the things that I say is that you should look and see what people are already saying, so that you know whether or not you are adding something new to the discussion. If you’re not adding anything new, I usually say, just link to something that somebody else has already said. Because… Why write something that somebody else has already done?

[Howard] At risk of meme-ifying this, I like the advice stay calm and check Snopes.
[Mary] Yeah.
[Howard] As a… Just as a general… Something outrageous just landed in my inbox or in twitter or on Facebook. Before I respond, before I retweet, I sniff around. I see what’s going on.
[Brandon] Another piece of advice here I’m going to say is if you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to be okay making enemies. And you’re going to have to be okay with people hating you, dealing with detractors, however you do it. Two people who do this a lot are John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow. Cory Doctorow is more activist, John Scalzi is more this is my personal blog and I write whatever kind of occurs to me or whatever I’m interested in, where I feel like Cory is more in the hard-core activism sort of arena. But both of them have a strong opinionated online presence, and both of them have hate groups dedicated to them.

[Mary] One thing… This is going to be a terrible thing, but one thing that I’m going to say, and people will disagree with me about this. You will have a harder time doing this as a woman then you do as a man. The type of hate mail that you get is different. It’s again not that you shouldn’t have these opinions, but just be aware of again of the types of calories that you want to spend. Whether or not you’re willing and have the resources emotionally and with friends to deal with the… With stuff.
[Howard] Yeah. Having been… Having been… Having been given access, the backstage pass to dramas both in the authorial community and in the web comics community for saying the same sorts of things, the women generate a lot more vitriol then the men do.
[Mary] This is… This is not right, but just be aware. So one thing that I will also say is that when you decide to start writing something, one way that you can limit the collateral damage and the kinds of attacks that you’ll get is to make sure that whatever you’re writing is… Avoid doing personal attacks. Because those are the things that are most likely to blow up. Also, it’s a dirty thing to do. So if you can avoid… Talk about the action, rather than the person.

[Brandon] A great example of someone who did a good job with this was when Elise Matthesen kind of gave her post…
[Mary] Exactly.
[Brandon] You can go Google that one.
[Mary] I actually posted it on my…
[Brandon] Many of us… Yeah, I posted it on my blog too. She wrote this very nice writeup about sexual harassment at conventions and what to do and how to go about it, which was related to experiences she had had but did not name names and point fingers. Was instead a here’s an awareness post, which came across extraordinarily classily. It got Don’s some of the things that she wanted to get done, and it started some very good discussions. It did make her a lightning rod, as has been stated. But it was an example… It’s just kind of a great way to go about this.
[Mary] Yeah. That is one of the things we talk about a lot with… As writers with fiction is the effect that you want it to have on people. One of the effects that most people have when they’re talking about activism or their love for hardcovers or whatever it is, it’s coming from a place of wanting to make the world a better place. A lot of times it is fueled by anger, and the anger is extremely important, and it’s very important that people understand that this is making you angry, but it is possible to express that anger and do it in a way that is also aimed at trying to make the world a better place, as opposed to tearing down individuals.
[Dan] Yes. There are authors who use anger as performance art…
[Mary] Yeah. And I will say that I think that this… That, again, don’t want to say that that is not a valuable thing. I think that there are people who do need to be on the front line and you do need to express that level of anger but it comes at a cost. I have a very good friend who is a… Who is one of those front line, very angry, and she is aware that she has damaged her writing career. But feels like it is important enough to her to make that choice. But it’s a choice that she made and she made it consciously.

[Howard] That’s the key here. That’s why I said what I said earlier, you have to be conscious of the fact that this is a thing that you are choosing. One thing that we haven’t brought up… We’ve talked a little bit about how carefully you want to wordsmith the things that you say when you are blogging. The times when you are less likely to wordsmith and more likely to stick your footing it is when you’re wading in in the comments. I have a new scoring system for myself, which is that every time I don’t post a comment to correct somebody who’s wrong on the Internet, I get a thousand points.
[Mary] Hey!
[Howard] Okay? And every time I do post, I lose a million points.
[Mary] Where’s your score right now, Howard?
[Howard] My score right now is like negative 878,000 or something.
[Mary] Well, that’s not too bad.
[Howard] It’s okay. I’m making my way back. I’m making my way back.

[Dan] One thing I want to make sure we say before we end is learn how to give a good apology.
[Mary] Yes.
[Dan] The way Brandon handled the hardcover thing is a great example. You don’t make excuses for yourself. You don’t say, “Yes, I’m sorry but this and this and this…”
[Brandon] Don’t say, “I’m sorry you got offended.”
[Dan] What you do is you say, “I did something wrong. I’m sorry.”
[Mary] We could post…
[Dan] And you’re done. That will solve more problems for you then almost anything else, learning how to apologize.
[Mary] In the liner notes, we’ll link to a great post by John Scalzi actually on how to apologize.

[Brandon] Excellent. All right. Well, this has been a great podcast. Mary, you have our writing prompt.
[Mary] Yes. For your writing prompt, what I want you to do is I want you to write out an opinion on something. Pick some extreme topic, preferably from secondary world fantasy or science fiction, so you don’t accidentally post it on the Internet. I want you to write it in three different ways. One is I want you to write it furious and let the fury show. I want you to write it in a helpful tone. And then I want you to write one that you can show your mom. And then I want you to delete all of them.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.
[Howard] Go write and then delete.