Zen and the Art of the Obligatory Disclaimer

I’m pretty opinionated.

Let’s drop the adjective: I’m opinionated.

Okay, maybe a different adjective. I’m very opinionated.

I’ve always been of the opinion (see?) that in order to make it in the world, you have to ruffle a few feathers. Everyone likes being around capital-n Nice laissez-faire types. Folks who don’t rock the boat, who always know exactly what to say to diffuse a brewing confrontation. I like being around those people myself. It’s relaxing sometimes. But goodness, can they get boring. See? Opinionated again.

And let’s walk that back a few steps: you can be a nice person without being passive. The late, great Robin Williams is almost universally described as a sweet man. (I don’t doubt that he stepped on a few heads on his way up the ladder of success, but it’s still rare to find anyone about whom all buzz is so overwhelmingly positive, even in the case of an untimely death.)

I, however, am not always great at being nice while also trying to accomplish goals. It’s something I’ve worked on, but have yet to master. That’s why I need a disclaimer post to fall back on, which is what this is.

So, a little story.

A few years ago, I got involved in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time. While I probably should have been working on my November novel, I ended up tangled up in the frequent forum posts of a writer who was having, like, the worst problem ever: her characters kept changing the plot on her. They would not do as they were told. Her novel, which she’d spent years working on, was sitting at a massive 500,000+ words and had no internal cohesion. It was, she claimed, a mess. She begged the community to tell her how to fix things.

I waded into the pool of suggestions. Some authors suggested that she meditate and commune with her characters. Others suggested continuing to listen to these voices in her head, convinced that they would eventually lead her to an ending, and that she could fix any of the bloat in edits. Still more suggested that she sit down and demand that her characters lead her in the right direction.

By this point, I was a grade-A mess. Remember that whole thing where I’m opinionated? I’d browsed through entire pages of this thread, and no one had stated the blindingly obvious: her characters weren’t the problem at all.

So I wrote a post called “Your Characters Are Not People.” (Unfortunately, the original forums have long since gone to Internet heaven, but I reposted it last year at the encouragement of a writing buddy.) I’d intended the piece as helpful. The reactions it provoked ranged from enthusiastic praise to toxic vitriol, as one might expect from the web. But the real disappointment, for me, came when the original poster called me a bully and told me that I hadn’t been helpful at all, just acerbic and mean.

I never intend to be mean. Acerbic, sometimes, but I’m not in the business of intentionally hurting feelings. So that’s why I have a disclaimer ready-to-use in my head, a “just add water” lozenge to soothe raw and bleeding feelings. It goes a little like this:

  1. I am not an expert or a role model. As of this post, I’ve completed one book with the intent to publish and have the decaying bones of a few others hiding in a trunk out back. You have no reason to follow my advice unless it feels like it makes sense for you. I really hope it does, because I’ve been writing for years and I’ve learned a few tricks in that time.

  2. I didn’t mean to hurt you. As Chris Brown-tastic as it sounds, I mean this sincerely and deeply. If something I write rubs a lot of people the wrong way, I have failed at my primary jobs of entertaining and sharing knowledge. I’ll try to do better next time. Please keep calm and let me know about it.

  3. That said, sometimes I can’t win. If I say I’m not a big fan of Jessica Drew, a.k.a. Spider-Woman, and someone infers that because of this, I am a raging misogynist who hates all female superheroes, I’m not going to be contrite. (Let me clarify that I will never say that, because Spider-Woman is the light of my life and you should be ashamed for not getting out your pitchforks at the mere thought of some blogger maligning her webby magnificence.) Please assume that what I say is meant with the best of intentions and that if I really want to slam something, I will do so blatantly and with all the finesse of a bull in a China shop. I’m not big on veiled negativity.

  4. It’s my right to be wrong sometimes. It goes without saying that, when it comes to my advice, the mileage you get out of it may vary. But sometimes I might be totally wrong about something. Let me know if you feel I am. I’ll review it. If it’s clearly wrong, I’ll put up an edit and credit you. If I’m not convinced, I’ll leave it be. My site’s for things I want to say. You can go to your site and say that I am a big old jerk for doing so. No harm, no foul.

  5. I reserve the right to point to this post when kerfuffles happen. Self-explanatory, right? I won’t, however, make you write out these promises on a chalkboard 500 times.

With that established as a prelude, it’s back to blogging about writing. See you around!