Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 17

by Laura Anne Gilman

Earlier this week, as I was writing this column, romance writer Judy Mays was “outed”  by a local paper who went the full “oh noes an erotica writer teaching our young!” Never mind that she had been teaching for 25 years, and never mixed the two careers in any way (including using a pseudonym to write under – the topic of last week’s post, ironically enough).  From the way this paper carried on, you’d think she’d been hooking out the back door of a strip club.

The writer for the newspaper (I hesitate to call her a reporter) seemed to think that anyone who wrote erotica must, of course, be a lewd and immoral creature, not the sort of person who should be allowed near children, and found a few people who were willing to be quoted to back this up.  Thankfully, there was then a full-blown storm of support for Ms. Mays, from students, former students and parents alike.

But this dovetails interestingly with the original topic of this week’s post.

A writer writes about and from things deep within them, their experiences, their observations, their thoughts and dreams and traumas and all the junk and clutter that in a normal person gets stored in a room marked “for therapy.”

We write what we are, in a very deep and true sense.

However, we are not what we writeNot entirely. Because a good writer, a writer who is true to the things they observe and return, picks things up off the street, out of other peoples’ plates, out of other peoples’ lives.  It is how a male writer can learn to write the female voice, the person of one culture recreate an echo of another, the straight writer share the heartaches and joys of a gay character, the compassionate writer describe the fearful hate of a bigot.  We are not those things; we do not live those lives.

This gives many people – writers and readers – pause.  The fear that you will write that character wrong, or have their words mistaken for your own, or draw down some firefight on your head because of what someone else saw in your work… it dogs us, and makes us, occasionally, hesitant to delve in a yard other than our own.

Don’t let that fear win.

You may screw it up.  You may get people saying that you did it wrong, or howling about what they think you meant, or they think that you thought.  You may, in fact, offend people.  There may be people claiming that you espouse a particular view or belief displayed by a character [or, if you happen to teach AND write erotica, that you are letching after the young boys in your classroom.  Or the young girls, for that matter.]

The reader will bring their own lunch to this picnic: you can’t frisk them at the gate. But if you’re worrying about what Someone Might Think, that will influence your writing, and make it weaker, less emphatic.  And from that, readers might take away the belief that you are a lesser writer.

And that will do more damage – to you, to your career – than any misapplied critique.


Coming up in Week 18:  What to Expect When You’re Expecting (your first book, or your 30th)

Laura Anne Gilman is a former editor with Penguin/Putnam, and the author of more than a dozen novels, most recently the urban fantasy PACK OF LIES, and WEIGHT OF STONE, Book 2 of the Nebula-nominated Vineart War trilogy.  Her SF collection, DRAGON VIRUS, will be published by Fairwood Press in June 2011.  For more info check her website, her BookView Cafe bookshelf, or follow her on Twitter (@LAGilman)  And yes, her nickname really is meerkat.


About Laura Anne Gilman

Laura Anne is a recovering editor-turned-novelist, with an Endeavor Award, a Nebula nomination, another Endeavor award nomination and a Washington State Book Award nomination under her belt. Her most recent series is the award-winning "Devil's West" trilogy, starting with SILVER ON THE ROAD, and her same-universe story collection, WEST WINDS' FOOL, AND OTHER STORIES OF THE DEVIL'S WEST. The novella GABRIEL'S ROAD was published by Book View Cafe on April 30th, 2019. Her Patreon, featuring original fiction, writing advice, and original Rants, is at Learn more at, where you can sign up for her quarterly newsletter.


Practical Meerkat’s 52 Bits of Useful Info for Young (and Old) Writers, week 17 — 4 Comments

  1. I get my husband to read works that are written with a male protagonist, in an effort to be sure they are Real Guys. And that’s why it’s good to have both genders in a crit group, so that you can get several inputs on these questions. If all four chicks in your group agree that a woman would never do such a thing, believe it. (In a ms I read recently, the wife went into labor and sent her husband out to recruit other guys to help deliver the baby. Uhh, no. I haven’t found a woman yet who will say that that’s what she would do.)

  2. I fret endlessly over my female characters. I am terrified they are men with women’s names. This was a helpful post. Thanks.

  3. Myke – you’re writing women-in-military, which brings a whole new level of potential done-it-wrong-itis. Trust your own observations & interactions – and then ask those women for feedback. The businesswoman is not the stay at home mom is not the Lt JG.

  4. I worked like a maniac on the female protagonist of my first published novel, JAYDIUM, only to have an established pro (who knew me slightly and only through a mutual friend) comment how autobiographical the book was. Because, of course, I couldn’t have created a strong character who wasn’t me. So I learned early on how important the distinction is between writer as person and writer’s characters as creations.