Your Online Presence: Creating A Haven for the People You Want to Know

My older son was in the Air Force and on the way to Afghanistan when he went to my writing diary to check on a question I’d asked my readers for him.

He called me up after spending a few hours on the site, and the first words out of his mouth were “I just read your blog, and I didn’t think there was anyplace on the internet like that.”

I asked him what he meant.

“Everyone on your site is intelligent. Everyone writes in whole sentences and uses punctuation correctly and knows how to spell. They all talk about the subject you’re talking about, and add interesting, relevant points — they’re good at discussion.

“Even the people who disagree with you don’t flame. They bring up good points and they do their best to support them, and they’re polite. It’s amazing. I didn’t think there there was anyplace like this on the internet.

“Where did you FIND these people?”

Well, first I grinned, because he’d spotted something I’ve been working hard at for years—getting the people I want to talk to on my site, and keeping the ones I don’t want to talk to away.

Then I told him I set up my site to attract only people I want to reach.

If you’ve enjoyed my novels, the conversations on the writing diary, the articles I’ve written on the website, the various writing courses I’ve created, my writing tips newsletter, or any of the other things on my site, the odds are high that you’re exactly the person I want on my site…and you fall pretty closely in line with one of these two descriptions.


You read regularly, and a lot. You recommend books you like to friends. You read reviews that enthusiastically recommend new work and select new authors based on such reviews, and you tend to ignore and discount reviews by people who are clearly out to trash authors, and who pride themselves on being negative, or “hard reviewers.”

When you read a review, in other words, you’re not interested in seeing someone torn apart — you’re looking for a way to find more books you’ll like reading.

Most or all of the fiction you enjoy falls into the designation Romantic Fiction — stories that show the world and the characters who inhabit it not as they are, but as they could be, and should be, and emphasize individualism and the ability of the individual to right wrongs, to change outcomes, and to triumph over adversity.

You prefer fiction that contains plot, story, and pacing; in which the stakes are high and the price of failure will be high; that holds meaning beyond the pages of the book. You want something you can take with you when you’ve read the last page—something that offers you a way to understand your own life and the world around you.

You do not enjoy helpless main characters who are destroyed by fate, you don’t care for work in which nothing happens, and you don’t like writing in which the point of the work is to destroy coherence (deconstruction) or to declare fiction pointless (metafiction). You understand that language exists only to communicate, and that writing that does not communicate clearly is not “deep.” It’s garbage.

You may not fit all of these criteria, but the longer you stay on my site, and the more often you return, the better the odds that you fit most of them.


You love to put words on the page. You do it pretty regularly — or you want to. Your objective is to create stories people will like to read, and you work hard learning how to do that.

You’re not interested in telling people you don’t know that you’re a writer, you have never gone to a party and introduced yourself as a writer to non-writers and then talked about your writer’s block and how you’re suffering for your art.

You don’t think you’ll find inspiration for your fiction in the bottom of a bottle or at the tip of a syringe, you don’t think killing yourself at forty is the perfect punctuation mark to a perfect career.

You don’t own an entire wardrobe of black turtlenecks, and you don’t own either a smoking jacket or a corduroy jacket with elbow patches (or if you do, this isn’t because you want to “look like a writer”).

You know that writing — and writing well — is hard work, and you’re okay with that. You like to write, and you like to work.

You don’t publicly and elaborately trash individual writers or their works, dissecting them and what they’ve written for the sheer joy of making them bleed. You do not own, nor do you frequent, online sites that do. You don’t take pleasure watching the destruction of others any more than you would enjoy watching yourself being destroyed.

You acknowledge that not everything written is to your taste, but that writing is a helluva lot of hard work, and you respect the effort other writers have put into their books, even if you don’t like what they’ve done. While you are clear about the kinds of writing you respect and don’t respect, you leave individuals and individual works out of your line of fire.

If you must dissect a work you don’t like, you do it privately to teach yourself or others why it doesn’t work.

You read heavily in fiction and nonfiction, and across genres and fields. You take well-earned pride in your ability to communicate clearly, your ability to use your language well, and in your ability to discuss issues from a researched, knowledgeable perspective. You bring the same care to your personal communications that you do to writing fiction.

You have and cultivate other skills besides writing, and you use these in your work to lend it verisimilitude.

You are, in other words, someone who wants to write and write well, not someone who wants to have written, or to pretend to have written. You’re not interested in scamming readers, in writing work you don’t respect for people you don’t like, or in writing work you know is crap and trying to pass it off as clever or cutting-edge or ‘too deep for ordinary people to understand.’ You know perfectly well that the definition of good writing is that it communicates clearly.

You may not fit all of these characteristics, but the longer you stay on this site, and the more times you return, the more likely you are to fit most of them.

These are the descriptions of the people for whom I created my site, and for whom I write my novels and my courses. These are the description of people I enjoy spending time with, whom I seek out, whom I appreciate.


And how can you use my techniques to bring the people you want to talk to and get to know to your website, and to keep them there?

You focus on your people, not on your site.

If you don’t understand clearly who you want coming to your site and why you want them to come, don’t waste your time creating a site. Sites exist to serve people, not the other way around. NO ONE is going seek out your website so you can promote yourself. Unknown writers who create a website that’s a vanity page for the books they’ve written are wasting their time and their money. No one CARES.

My Instructions: How To Promote Yourself Online

If you want people you can enjoy and like — people worth the time and effort it takes to create and maintain a site — to find you, follow the instructions below.

Be what you value.

In every word you write on every page you create, be exactly the sort of person you want to meet.

If you want to create a hangout for sharks, build a site where you rip apart other people and their work, gossip about people who are in trouble, either by their own doing or through no fault of their own. Write lots of negative reviews. Seek out articles on the web that you disagree with, link to them, and then attack the writer as well as the article. Feel free to misinterpret what was said, feel free to change meaning to suit your purpose, feel free to take quotes out of context. Declare that you’re doing all of this as a public service.

Then sit back and wait while the site fills up with people who are exactly like you as you’ve presented yourself. And good luck with that. When there’s blood in the water, sharks will eat their own.

If, on the other hand, you value light and laughter and creation, intelligence and competence, people who do and create rather than people who resent those who do and create, avoid everything listed above.

Do things. Create things. Don’t be afraid to be funny, don’t think the people who actually matter to you will dismiss you as a lightweight if you aren’t weighed down by your own importance.

Be honest about who you are. Show your mistakes as well as your successes.

Offer people what you value. Give them good conversation, interesting debates, help in creating the sorts of materials that matter to both of you.

Understand that not everyone is in a position to buy things from you right now, and that you’ll still like the people who find you, even if they don’t add to your bottom line. Create for those who are flat broke as well as those who are comfortably well off.

Ask for input.

Ask people how they found you, what they like, what they need.

If you’re adding articles, ask folks who read your newsletter to tell you what they need to know more about. Read your email and look for article ideas. (How I came up with this post, actually — recently I’ve had a rash of e-mails requesting information on self-promotion. This is the response to those e-mails.)

If you’re creating products, give your readers questionnaires that let them tell you exactly the problems they’re having so you can show them how to fix them.

If you’re writing novels, this is tougher. You must write what you love, and the people who find you through your work will come in loving what you write.

You don’t EVER build your fiction around the sort of reader input that would dictate your stories, your content, your characters, or your meaning. Fiction is best when it is the vision of one individual, not when it is some sort of weird collective design-by-committee atrocity.

You can, however ask your readers which characters they loved most, which worlds they’d like to read more about, which story was their favorite, and you can create the stories that matter to you in the worlds that matter to them.

Either way, when you create what your site visitors have asked for, either contact them personally or via newsletter or social media to let them know you’ve answered their request

Don’t think you have to answer every question, or create content for every need. Answer only the needs that are in line with your own philosophy. If you have a lot of people requesting a “Flames” board in your community or asking you to add a Don’t Read segment to your book review column along with your Books I Recommend, and you don’t want this sort of content on your site, feel free to ignore the requests. If necessary, remove the requesters.

Create auto-segmenting content

That’s a technical term for ‘find ways to offend people you know you won’t like or don’t want to help in order to get them off your site’ — what it means is that you want to include on your site articles, posts, and other content that will encourage the people you want to stay and keep coming back, and that will encourage the people you don’t want to go away.

If this seems cruel or unkind to you, consider that people who are working counter to everything you value require more of your time than those who share your values. They will clutter your site with flames and hostility, spam you with endless e-mails telling you why you’re wrong and why they’re right, mistreat the people on your site that you like, and in all other ways make your life miserable and make you wish they were gone.

So get rid of as many of them as you can BEFORE you have to deal with them.

Do this simply by being honest and by being yourself — by creating content not just about what you love, but about what you find despicable and why you find it that way.

Do I have articles like this on my site? You bet.

How To Write Suckitudinous Fiction is a good example, though there are a lot of others. This article is designed to do two things — to show serious writers how to write good fiction (while being funny about it), and to mock writers and readers who value garbage fiction.

It includes (in the inverse) a detailed brief on the most important steps you must take if you want to write fiction worth reading. But it is designed in the inverse — that is, as an article ostensibly on how to do something for which I have NO respect — because when I wrote it, I wanted to piss off exactly the sort of writers I don’t like and don’t want to deal with. That article tells them who I am, what I value, and that whatever they came to the site looking for, they aren’t going to find it here.

It is an article as much about two philosophies of writing as it is about the technical details of writing, and most people who hate my philosophy read it and go away. The rest write me nasty, argumentative e-mails, which I delete.

I feel no obligation whatsoever to help people who hate what I do. Neither should you.

Test your content and gauge your results

There was a little quiz on the bottom of my front page for a long time.

It asked: Are you more likely to read a story where the hero is the most compelling character, or where the villain is?

I was interested in the results, not because I have any intention of changing the way I create heroes and villains, but because I wanted to know what percentage of people who found my site were the people I wanted to find it.

Here’s how to read the results as I read them:

I want both the hero and the villain to be amazing and I want to read about a strong hero are my solid YES responses. These are folks who have found a site where they’ll find something they’ll like. That’s 83.4%. I’m very happy with that.

I want to read about a strong villain is a bit more ambiguous. This response includes folks who want to have the bejeezus scared out of them, but still want the good guys to win… but it also includes those who revel in the destruction villains create and want to see the villains triumph. So 10.8% of this particular quiz came back inconclusive.

I only read stories that are morally ambiguous is my dead canary down the mineshaft. These are the folks I DON’T want sticking around my site. They’re the ones who prefer fiction than stands for everything I hate, who require that fiction make no moral judgement on the actions of its characters because they’re looking for fiction that excuses the worst in themselves, and they don’t want to be judged.

People who read fiction that makes strong distinctions between what is good and what is evil are NOT looking for ways to excuse their own behavior, and they’re not reading fiction to see depraved characters wallow in their corruption and have the fiction declare these crapbags ordinary folks. They have no need to look at something disgusting and say “everybody does it.” They know everybody doesn’t, because they don’t.

People who read moral fiction (again, fiction that clearly distinguishes between good and evil, not preachy fiction) are people willing to be held accountable for their own actions, people who are not afraid to see a reflection of themselves in the fiction they read and come off badly in the comparison.

These are the people I want to work with. Not people looking to see just how much they can get away with, or trying to convince themselves that everyone does evil things, so they can do them too, and they’ll still be just a good as anyone.

5.7% of the folks who responded to that particular quiz are folks who don’t belong here. Considering the vast numbers of folks out there who actually DO prefer morally ambiguous fiction (the sort I decry in How To Write Suckitudinous Fiction), I’d say my auto-segmenting is working pretty well.

So now you may be wondering — are all my quizzes attempts to figure out the philosophies of the folks reading my site?


Most of the time, I’m looking for input on some new cool thing to make, because making cool things is what I enjoy most. Sometimes, though, I want to make sure I’m making them for folks who will appreciate them and get some good out of them.

So those are the steps. If you follow them, you’ll discover that the people who find your site and stay are people who love what you love, folks you’ll be happy to meet and talk to.

But where’s the part about self-promotion?

That’s it. This IS self-promotion. Using social media, twittering, pitching your novels, flogging your newsletter — all of that is just means to the following simple end:

You invite the people who matter to you to your site by creating things they’ll value, and you take necessary steps to keep out the riff-raff so folks you value will enjoy spending time on your site.

Finally, I’ve worked hard to find you out of all the people on the internet, and I’m glad you’re here. Thank you for coming to talk to me.

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131 responses to “Your Online Presence: Creating A Haven for the People You Want to Know”

  1. Janice Gillgren Avatar

    Holly, This is excellent. I’ve been quietly working at developing my own little writer’s blog, which is coming along reasonably well if the stats are anything to go by, and this blog will, I know, help me to have the courage of my own convictions to write what I want to write.
    I was interested in you and your son’s points about the quality of writing by those who have commented to you. I have found the same most of the time – except for the obvious twits who are just trying to spread their nonsense. I thought it was just cooincidence; perhaps it isn’t.
    I hadn’t really thought of your point that the same quality by which you aspire to attract the people you want will actually deter those you don’t want. That’s interesting.
    Great and thoughtful blog; keep up the good work.

  2. Katherine Avatar

    And use all the admin tools at your disposal when necessary. There are several sites whose posts I enjoy, but which I tend to avoid because their comment threads are cesspools. If the velvet glove doesn’t encourage troublemakers to leave, don’t be afraid to use the iron fist.

  3. p.s.gary Avatar

    Thank you very much for this. This will help me once I digest it all. Your “If You’re A Writer” piece hit me right in the eyes. Fits me to a tee.

  4. Jason Friesen Avatar

    I’m a web developer, and have discovered that the web is very little about programming and development and very much about the content. My wife is a student of Ms Lisle’s and sent me this article.

    Which is genius.

    Don’t be all things to all people — be who you want to associate with. That’s brilliant.

    I’m forwarding this to our communications department.

    1. Holly Avatar

      LOL! Let me know how that works out. I have terrified every bureaucracy I ever worked in. I SO fail the kosher test. But I have the best people on the internet inhabiting my site, so I stand by my method for finding them with every fiber of my being.

  5. Jessic@ Avatar

    I love this website for exactly the reasons you’ve stated, I just didn’t realize that’s why this place felt so comfy to me. Whenever someone posts an accomplishment of thier own, they are met with congratulations and support. There are no people who reply back with “Well, my accomplishment is better”, or “Oh gee, you only got that many words?” That’s really special and very rare in this day and age of everyone having a negative opinion about everything.

    It’s also great that people feel comfortable enough to voice thier own opinions and not be afraid of being laughed off the site or having everyone else gang up on them and make them feel alienated. Even among adults, it’s rare to find people so willing to communicate with each other without harsh judgements. No one tries to ‘convert’ others to their point of view, and everyone is respectful regardless of opinion.

    I read all the comments on the site, but rarely leave my own. So just to let you know, I’m cheering for all of you, even if I don’t come right out and say so. You all seem like really wonderful people and reading about your challenges and achievements help me to get through the same types of things. Thank you.

    How I found you:
    I finally decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I should give it a real try and not just say it was something I wanted to do. So, I went online and looked up ‘How to write a novel’. Your site was the first one that I found and I read the whole thing from start to finish, amazed that someone would post all of this information for free. I honestly kept scrolling to the bottom looking for the ‘if you’d like to learn more simply give me your credit card number’ part, and it never came. I read and re-read the whole site, thinking surely this is something that will go away and I should really try to absorb as much as I could before it dissapeared.

    Then I got to know a little about what you were doing with this site and why, and realized (to my heart’s delight) that the site was porbably not going anywhere. Not only that, but you actually respond to questions that are asked and develop new courses to help out people who really do want to learn about writing.

    I took your advice and bought some of your workshops and started writing. Now I have a first draft manuscript that I’m going to start revising after the holidays and I am forever grateful for the shove in the right direction that you’ve provided me. I am so much happier now that I’ve discovered the joys of creating something where nothing was before.

    For that and so much more, Thank You, Holly for what you’ve done here.

    Happy Holidays,


    1. Holly Avatar

      ๐Ÿ˜€ Your story is one of the coolest Christmas presents possible. I’m delighted that I could help, and I’m cheering for you as you work toward achieving your goals.

      Thank you for letting me know how you got here.

  6. Nicki Savantes Avatar

    Jeez people, I’m blubbering all over my keyboard AGAIN, and what’s worse, I’m out of hankies tonight. The mess! So will you all please stop being so heartwrenchingly truthful and philosophically titillating and devastatingly wonderful in your descriptions and praise? I can’t take this any more… (or maybe I’m dead and in heaven?) ;-D

    1. Larkk Avatar

      You guys are so sweet. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Larkk Avatar

    When I turned to the internet for help in putting together my first story, I was intimidated by how hostile and exclusionary many of the writers who purportedly offered writing advice turned out to be. I kept writing anyway, but I promised myself that no matter where my writing took me, I would never become someone who would extinguish the fire in another writer the way it had nearly been extinguished in me. The day I stumbled upon your site (through NanoWrimo), I read everything on it in one life-altering afternoon. Then I read it all again. It was as if I had been starving and at last found the right kind of chocolate to satisfy my craving. I saw how other writers asked questions, and got respectful answers from you and from others who had learned what you teach here. I saw how capably you defend this fortress with your words, and soon I felt safe contributing my own words and thoughts, confident that if I did my best and offered what I had to say earnestly and thoughtfully I would not be turned away.

    One of my favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings-Return of the King movie is when Pippin lights the first warning beacon of Gondor, signaling the watchman several mountains away that war is afoot. Each watchman then lights his own beacon in turn, and sends the message to the next mountain, one after the other, spreading the news across the dark of night. This is how I look at this website, one fire in the dark, glimpsed from the distance, a signal to write what you love, lighting another across the miles, and site after site, until the whole world knows what it is to write with joy.

    When the time comes and I light my own beacon to spread the message even further I hope I can defend it as brilliantly as you do yours.

    1. Texanne Avatar

      Larkk–What a wonderful comment. I love the image of the signal fires, signaling the freedom and community of creativity.

    2. Kari Wolfe Avatar

      I agree with Texanne. This is a beautiful comment.

      I hope our signals shine vast and wide. And that one say, someone will leave a comment like this on my page. ๐Ÿ™‚

    3. Holly Avatar

      Hugs, and thank you. I’m glad you found what you were looking for, and glad I could offer it.

      I’m glad you’re here.

  8. J Bones Avatar
    J Bones

    This is an amazing article that explains more about things I have been wanting to understand than any other article I’ve read yet. I have to give you major props for that.

    I have become so used to being on websites that… Well basically, “if you do not have anything BAD to say then you better not say anything at all.” I am so tired of those places. Your website is a breath of fresh air and I’m thrilled to have found it.

  9. JWD Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    I just wanted to say that I find your views on morality quite refreshing. Your discussion with Laura Mollett was very interesting.

    Mollett is expressing a world view that I’m currently submerged in. Even though I’m currently attending graduate school, I am no fan of academia. Academia is religion for the anti-religious, and it’s just as brainwashing as a backwoods congregation of fundamentalists. I feel like a spy who is deep behind enemy lines. Every day I have to talk and write like I actually believe all this crap, pontificating endlessly on feminism, the evils of white America, the fallacy of capitalism, and the merits of our imminent and benevolent god Socialism. I play the game because I have to get the grades, and no matter what a professor says about an unbiased classroom, the truth is that your grade in any English class is directly related to how well you can parrot the instructor’s own beliefs back to them as if they were your own.

    But at night, I go home to my little apartment, sit down at my computer, and write fiction that matters. Fiction that hails the individual. Fiction in which stuff ACTUALLY HAPPENS. Fiction, to put it simply, which would be frowned upon in any of my creative writing workshops.

    I go to school and jump through all the little hoops so I can get a piece of paper saying that I can teach. Then my corruption of the youth will begin.

    I find your views on morality and politics refreshing because they are simple. When you get right down to it, morality should be simple. It’s premises should be something that is easily comprehended by persons of any intellect. It should resonate personally like common sense–not echo in the void like long-winded philosophy. Your world view feels crueler than Mollett’s, but it’s actually more free and optimistic. All you’re really doing is insisting that people take responsibility for their own actions. Academia feels kinder, but is actually more restrictive and bleak. It shifts responsibility from the individual to governing bodies and treats people like cattle in a herd, all the while it’s touting itself as the defender of the people. It makes excuses for people and defines them bureaucratically. When you stop and think about it, academia’s ideal world is a bleak wasteland populated with pompous loafers clinging to catchphrase “It’s not my fault.”

    Since I’m currently swimming around in all this sludge, masquerading as a man of reason by daylight and burning the midnight oil alone to bang out my own, seemingly irrelevant ideas and emotionally motivated characters, it’s a relief to hear someone literate voicing the same moral perspective I adhere to. During my day shift, around all these academics, it sometimes feels like I’m alone in my beliefs.



    1. Laura Mollett Avatar
      Laura Mollett

      I find it ironic when folk talk a lot about individual responsibility, but don’t seem to take any. Education is as much the responsibility of the student as the teacher. It’s the student’s job to learn.

      Whether or not I agree with Holly’s opinions on morality (no matter how determinedly they’re phrased, and she is very passionate – a good thing in a writer) that changes nothing about whether she understands how to plot and can explain it in a way that helps me to understand it. She can believe pigs can fly for all I care, if what I need is to learn how to write. She is, after all, teaching me to write *my* stories, not her stories, and motivating me to do so, even if she’d rather not.

      Instead of wallowing through the opportunity, whining that nobody around you agrees with you, and hiding what you actually want for fear you’ll be misunderstood, why not take the chance to get everything you can from what is a fairly unique opportunity? No matter how many people here disagree with me, there is much I can learn from the discussion (maybe not all of it what they wanted to teach).

      Higher academics is all about disagreeing with each other. These people spend their professional careers arguing over what the rest of us might see as minutae and loving every minute of every debate. I had an upper level course where I disagreed with the prof so strongly I wrote my final paper by taking his published works and tearing them apart line by line. Fascinatingly enough, considering your premise, I aced the class and the paper. I looked for opportunities to disagree in other courses – those are the best papers (and best grades).

      There are people of all kinds in the world and the ones that irritate you the most are almost assuredly going to end up in positions of authority over you. If you despise bleeding heart liberals – your boss will be one. The world is just cruel like that. We all just have to learn to deal with it.

      I suspect the bureaucracy of the world of education is going to drive you insane even from the other side of the desk. I hope you’re a really good writer and have somewhere to flee should that turn out to be the case.

      1. JWD Avatar

        I’m afraid you’ve misunderstood my intent completely, choosing instead to set up a straw doll representation of me to knock down.

        “I find it ironic when folk talk a lot about individual responsibility, but donโ€™t seem to take any. Education is as much the responsibility of the student as the teacher. Itโ€™s the studentโ€™s job to learn.”

        I’m a straight-A student. I devour all knowledge my classes provide and reassemble the information based on a psychological understanding of each professor. If you want to succeed, you can’t just argue with everyone over you indiscriminately. Some professors want a student of the Socratic method, so I ask why. Some professors want a student to sit quietly and absorb, so I fit the part. Some professors want a student who wrestles with the ideas and buckles against the constraints of the classroom, so I struggle. When I say I swim in it, I mean like a fish, not like a clumsy dog-paddler with floaties strapped to his arms. Academia is a complex world rich with social and psychological complications. It’s a fun playground, sure, but academia has little correlation with reality, and I refuse to mistake it as such. It’s a game, much like a video game. How well you do in it might affect how some people think of you, but it’s a joke to embrace it as some kind of higher calling or Truth. I swim in it, and I’m damn good at it, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything or hold up a classroom unnecessarily with endless rebuttals and arguments. I’m also pretty good at Halo, but I don’t regard it as a life pursuit nor do I pontificate endlessly on the best weapon sets to use. I hit my targets, collect my points, and move on. If the situation calls for a sniper rifle, I use a sniper rifle. If it calls for a shotgun, I use a shotgun. No weapon or classroom persona is ideal (or even useful) for all circumstances.

        My purpose in describing my situation wasn’t to whine or complain, but to create contrast. I provided background details to articulately convey the nature and magnitude of my gratefulness. The point of the post wasn’t “woe is me” but rather “I find this refreshing.”

        I find it interesting that you would imply that a dislike of bureaucracy is a negative thing and somehow indicative of a weak psyche. It’s also interesting that you find it comforting to imagine me in a position of subjugation under a person who clings to the very things to which I’m opposed. It’s as though you need to confine your straw doll version of me to a life sentence of bureaucratic oversight in order to rest easy in your own beliefs. I’m okay with this. You are, of course, free to write me off in whichever way most behooves you. It’s no trouble to me.

        I don’t really see how my quality as a writer is applicable considering professional writers still fall under the jurisdiction of publishers and editors. For the record, though, I’m not half bad.

        1. Laura Mollett Avatar
          Laura Mollett

          I’m not so sure I’ve misunderstood your intent. The quantity of “background details” so far outweighs the “refreshing” portions of your post that it doesn’t seem likely. And then there’s calling me out by name. I, at least, know that I wouldn’t have responded to your post if you hadn’t. But it’s your post and your point, so have it as you will. Perhaps your audience understood you.

          In any case, it sounds like you’ve learned a whole lot about how to get good grades (between hiding your true opinions, psychological analysis, and classroom personas), but that’s only useful if the goal is good grades. Learning is actually a different goal.

          > Itโ€™s a fun playground, sure, but academia has little correlation with reality, and I refuse to mistake it as such.

          Interesting. So professors don’t live in the “real world”? What counts as “reality”? Does working in advertising count? How about fantasy authors? Painters? Construction workers? Architects? Horror writers? Trash collectors? Where does the real world end and something else begin? What else is it? Primary and secondary educators are an exception?

          > Itโ€™s a game, much like a video game.

          A lot of people view all of life this way. Certainly playing the corporate game falls into it. Does that mean corporate america isn’t a part of “reality”? Relationships – are they a game to win?

          > I find it interesting that you would imply that a dislike of bureaucracy is a negative thing and somehow indicative of a weak psyche.

          I didn’t say this. It would be odd as I don’t care for bureaucracy much myself. I said I didn’t think you would find more enjoyable from the other side of the desk (or in lower than college grades).

          > Itโ€™s also interesting that you find it comforting to imagine me in a position of subjugation under a person who clings to the very things to which Iโ€™m opposed.

          I didn’t say this either. I simply said it’s likely where you (and everyone else) will be. Life tends that way. The universe (or God) has a sense of humor. I work for a very Christian-oriented company. I find I enjoy it, usually.

          >Itโ€™s as though you need to confine your straw doll version of me to a life sentence of bureaucratic oversight in order to rest easy in your own beliefs.

          Naw, I never attempted to “knock you down.” I didn’t even join debate on points where we disagree (which aren’t necessarily the same as the assumptions you’re making), and skipped the sound bytes and trigger words. I have little interest in that debate. You wouldn’t change your mind, neither would I and it would be long and tedious for little gain. I’m not one of the people that plays life as a game and am not out to earn points, and beat everyone else. I don’t care if your (or Holly’s) opinion is different from mine.

          What I *did* say is that my situation here is very similar from yours in academia. I’m in a place where very few (if any) people agree with me and the prevailing opinion is very different from my life/life experiences. And that, as I’m here to learn to write, it matters not a bit whether the people that can teach that have the same opinions that I do. Opinions are not what I’m learning – even if they use them to teach.

          > I donโ€™t really see how my quality as a writer is applicable considering professional writers still fall under the jurisdiction of publishers and editors.

          Nothing comes without downfalls, but I’m pretty sure (not having made it there myself) that there’s less of those kinds of bureaucracy in that world and more opportunities for individual expression. What I know of elementary/secondary education is so frustrating to teachers with real minds. So I’m glad you’re not half-bad. I’m hoping for you a space where I suspect you’ll be happier. Though I could always be wrong. I doubt many people would have guessed I’d be happy where I am.

  10. Tamara L Kelly Avatar

    Thank you for the article. I don’t typically comment, but I’ve been getting your emails for the last year. I thought your way with dealing with negative feedback was a great way to handle them. Definitely something I’ll have to try.

  11. Vivacia Avatar

    Thank you for a great article Holly. I’ve been receiving your emails for a while now and they’ve really helped to inspire me to push myself to keep writing, even when life the universe and everything seems to be in the way (in other words, me being lazy). I’ve recently started a blog and have decided I will write about whatever interests me, hoping that will bring like minded people to it and so far it seems to be working. Like you I’m not interested in venting or flaming on there as I don’t think it’s appropriate or would be the best reflection of myself. There’s enough negativity in the world without me adding to it!

    On the topic of moral ambiguity, I understand exactly what you mean. I can’t stand it when attempts are made to absolve people of their responsibility because what they did was “acceptable” at the time or in that society. Slavery, for instance, is and has always been wrong – just because the ancient Greeks didn’t think that way doesn’t make them any less responsible or guilty of perpetrating it. The treatment of women as property in the past (and sadly even to this day in some places) is another example. So like you I can’t stand this stuff creeping into the books I read – the real world has enough evil getting away with it that I don’t really want to suffer that in my stories too.

  12. F. Roberta Walker Avatar

    Being very new at self promotion and social networking, I have only just begun getting followers on my blog, but all are the type of people whose blogs I’d also wish to follow…So perhaps I am doing something write (haha) after all?

    Thank you Holly for all you do for the writing community.

    A HTRYN graduate (fionaqc)

    1. Holly Avatar

      If you like the people you get to talk to, and find them interesting conversationalists, you’re definitely doing something right.

  13. ekcarmel Avatar

    Holly, as usual, you are spot on with this. Everywhere a writer turns these days is advice on building a “platform.” Tons of information. A blizzard of it. And yet, in a single post, you boil it down to a simple, easily comprehended form. Not only that, but I learn something even more by reading your comments section. This is truly a place I feel comfortable and I aspire to create something similar for my own blog. Thank you.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I get a LOT of those e-mails, and because I have a business, I do read them. But I get frustrated when the content is always about “how many” people you want to get, as if all people were the same—interchangeable cogs only valuable when you have a lot of them to buy things from you.

      When I started this site, I had NO people—I was hooked in to, and I wrote about writing, and gradually people found me. A few e-mailed me, and I recognized them as people who loved what I loved. When I found free bulletin board software, I put it up so they could meet each other. It snowballed…and in a good way. I love this place because the most amazing people come here to talk to me. And even debate difficult issues with me from time to time. In how many other places on the net do you find a bunch of folks hanging around discussing philosophy? Seriously.

      Know what you love, and build your place based on your love, and you will have a wonderful time talking to the people who show up to share that love with you.

  14. George Forder Avatar

    Hi Holly
    I’ve skimmed the responses, so hope I’m not repeating anything.
    Your analysis of your audience is amazing; apart from one thing about me.
    I don’t like your genre and can’t read it without getting bored distracted or falling asleep.
    Having said that I will avidly follow your website and blog, because I admire your art. I appreciate your technique, common sense and style across all your writing, in a similar way to the way I admire Stephen King or Dean Koontz; it’s just that I can’t read Koontz. It’s not me. So from a follower who doesn’t read you, thank you for a great source of information and stimuli.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Which genre? I write SF, Fantasy, suspense, and YA.

  15. April Avatar

    I remember reading Fire In The Mist when I was in middle school, then promptly forgetting both the title of the book and your name (actually, I probably didn’t pay attention to the author’s name part to forget it in the first place) – then years later in high school around 2002-2003 I found your site while looking for articles on writing. At some point I looked to see what books you had written, realized I had read the one already, and went on to read, re-read (and love! and buy! lol) the vast majority of novels you have had published.

    In fact, I just came off a marathon of your books – specifically the Devil’s Point books, Corrigan’s Blood, Matrin books, Korre books, World Gates, all my faves!

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog and seeing your take on things for these past years – you say what you think, and you’re honest, and while I don’t always agree with what you have to say you (and your books for that matter) do *always* make me re-examine my own beliefs and opinions. And even when I already agree with you about something, what you write often helps me to clarify to myself what I think, and *why* I think it.

    I also have to say, on the subject of sharks – I have spent too much time getting sucked into being a shark in shark infested internet waters, and you are not kidding when you say that sharks will eat their own. I am avoiding all communities/people that are not constructive and who would rather tear down than create. Creation is harder by far, but so much more worthwhile!

    Anyway, thanks for a great site and community Holly! I have only posted a handful of comments on your blog the entire time I’ve been reading, but couldn’t resist chiming in on this one. ๐Ÿ™‚


    1. Holly Avatar

      Thank you.

      I cringe a bit at the realization that someone read Fire in the Mist in middle school—that book still feels so recent in my life, and remembering that it came out in 1992 is like having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head.

      Thank you for reading my books, and I’m delighted that you enjoyed them. And I’m glad you’re here.

      1. April Avatar

        Sorry Holly, didn’t mean to make you cringe! Personally I’m glad you’ve been publishing since 1992, since it gives us readers that much more of your work to enjoy. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  16. Kia Avatar

    Too bad you didn’t put this in your email, though this gives me more of a nudge to actually reply. I’ve been reading your emails for a couple of months now and have laughed and cried about them. I love how you write and I love what you write.

    I try remembering through where I found you and I think it was because I was looking up books about writing or something. I first read your book Mugging the Muse and was very impressed by it. After I signed up for your email “updates” and read a couple of them I decided that I should stick with it because no matter what you write it is interesting.
    Every time I check my email I hope for one from you because it means I will have a good read.

    Thank you for this great article, it has given me new energy to get my butt out of this rot that the start of uni caused and start updating my blog more frequently.

  17. Seraphinawitch Avatar

    Hi Holly I agree with you about the layered character, I am bored by paper cutouts wandering about in books, masquerading as people, but I was thinking about this question of the villain being more attractive and ultimately more interesting than the hero. The main problem with this is that it usually unbalances the book quite badly. The late Georgette Heyer’s first book, ‘The Black Moth’ had a villain who was definitely to die for, his grace the Duke of Andover made most of the other characters in the book pale by comparison. The heroine did end up with the hero, but the last word is given to the villain … and he’s the one you want to know more about! So did Georgette Heyer, he turns up again slightly watered down and as the hero in ‘These Old Shades’ and again as the hero’s father in ‘Devil’s Cub’. She gets round this by making him redeem himself through loving and losing the heroine of the first book – and the redeeming power of love is a very powerful theme in romance writing. Sadly we aren’t all at her level of genius.

    I thought about it some more, and came to the conclusion that the only example I could think of where the villains were more powerful and interesting and won, was Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a late play where among other things he is playing with the reader or playgoer’s expectations. You expect a play about a heroic Julius Caesar, you get a play about a morally ambiguous man, about to sieze power and subvert the constitution. This drives an upright and moral man to assassinate him. Brutus and the conspirators all end up dead, Brutus’ wife is driven to suicide, the villains plot the assassination of all of their enemies, but this leads to the Augustan age and the greatest glory Rome has ever known. Morally ambiguous? Oh no! Shakespeare gives us a truly horrifying picture of realpolitik and the grim realities of an authoritarian state. He lived in Tudor England, holding a mirror up to the world he lived in! Henry VIII murdered every Plantagenet he could lay his hands on, Elizabeth burned more people than Bloody Mary. Sadly, you need to be a Shakespeare to bring something like this off.

  18. J.A. Paul Avatar
    J.A. Paul

    Great post Holly! and Thank you for writing it. I love that you strive to find the creative people. This post reinforces much of what I was thinking. I am planning my own website now and this all fits in with my research. thanks again and stay golden.

  19. Thea Avatar

    Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!! (…and please ignore the lack of punctuation in that sentence. I have no idea how to do it properly in that situation. :/)
    This article couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m working on making a site right now, and I’ve been wondering how I would be able to get the right people to visit it… and keep visiting it. Now I know! I can’t wait to get started! ๐Ÿ˜€

  20. Kari Avatar

    I’ll be implementing some of this in the near future–in fact, I think I’m going to copy & paste it into my blogging folder and that way I can look at it before I blog. For me, sometimes it’s more of a “pulling people in” thing. I’m not good at that. Need to work on it. I need to find where similar people to me are… Sometimes it’s lonely out there.

    Any suggestions on marketing, as in, getting your name out there so people KNOW about you? ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Nicki Savantes Avatar

      I think you need to get a good ranking on Google for a couple of specific keywords you’re aiming at, so people can find you in the search engines when they type a particular phrase. I’m not overly fond of Google, precisely because they know all about who clicks what, where, when and even why, but this knowledge comes in handy when you need to market your stuff, so you might want to register with their webmaster tools. It has an extensive help section. They will take you by the hand and guide you through the process of submitting your site and everything… Hope this helps…

      1. Kari Avatar

        It does. I’m writing web articles now for minimum pay that require keywords and such for SEO purposes. Ick ๐Ÿ™ Thank you for responding! ๐Ÿ™‚

  21. Helenee Avatar

    I totally agree with Holly’s point of view. I have been experimenting a little with online pages, blogs, Squidoo lenses, stuff like that — just starting out on this internet venture — and I didn’t have to think long before deciding on what to do with the Comments sections, or the forums, or communities. To me even a single webpage, and most definitely a website, is like my “salon”, where I am the host and where I let people come to socialize, have a good time, educate themselves, whatever. They are free to take a look around, state their opinions, get to know each other, interact in various ways. But it’s still my salon, and I have the right (and the obligation) to keep it a place where I and my most valued visitors may still feel right about being in. That said, I sure appreciate you sharing with us this subtle yet effective way of keeping unwanted visitors away.

  22. Lisa Avatar

    As usual, Holly, you got it spot-on right. The Internet is great in so many ways, but what it also provides is a place for people to be anonymous and mean-spirited -not to mention incredibly rude- and bolster their self-esteem by flaming, deriding, attacking, and just behaving badly in general. I’m not interested in people or sites like that. I’m all for discussion and healthy disagreement, but there’s no reason people can’t be civil. I also have no time for the elbow-patches-scotch-tortured-walk into the Algonquin Hotel so they can say they did- sort. Thanks for a great discussion…again ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. Danzier Avatar

    Holly, can I print out that article and save it? I assume the copyright notice in your courses would apply–no reprints or sharing, and full citation data included on the printout. I’m not actually considering starting my own website right now. I may start one in the future, but right now my plate is full.

    1. Holly Avatar

      You’re welcome to print a personal copy of any of the articles or posts on the site. Thank you for asking.

  24. Michelle Avatar

    So, yeah, as a bunch of poeple have already said, great timing. I planning to start my own website soon, and one of my biggest fears is that it will be swamped with trolls and flamers and rangling them will kill all the fun for me and scare away any decent people. Thanks for providing a way to avoid that.

  25. Hanna Avatar

    What wonderful comments from your son. It’s interesting that I did not realize that what he is saying is why I stopped reading so many other blogs and only rarely read comments to an article or blog. I am tired of the haters and people looking to post their “whatever” free.

    Give him our regards, thanks, appreciation as well as his thanks for verbalizing why I keep coming back to Holly’s sites and have abandoned others.

    1. Holly Avatar

      I will. And thanks. I haven’t heard from him in a while. I’m getting anxious.

      1. Holly Avatar

        And having said that, I heard from him today. He’s once again stuck in a third-world hell-hole, but says he’s safe. Conditions are such that he currently has little access to outside communication, and hasn’t been able to get word to me until now.

        1. WandersNowhere Avatar

          That has to be an enormous relief.

          1. Holly Avatar

            It is. I haven’t been frantic, quite, but I’ve been edging close. It had been more than a month since I heard from him, and a month with your kid in Afghanistan is a long, long time.

        2. Texanne Avatar

          I’m so glad you’ve heard from him. I had thought it was past time for him to be home. Life can be so tense sometimes.

          1. Holly Avatar

            He’s over there for a full year. He’d only been back from his last tour of the hellholes of the Middle East for a few months when his orders dropped for Afghanistan.

            I’m adding a couple new gray hairs every day.

  26. Kathy Avatar

    Hi Holly,

    I really enjoy reading your articles and I keep a lot of what you write on my mind when I’m reading or writing. I like how you lay your opinions down without the slightest bit of apology. I disagree with how you judged answers on the result of your polls. I struggled to answer if I preferred a strong villain or hero, but I almost picked “villain” for a different reason than you listed. If I read a story about how a not particularly special hero wins against a really terrible villain, it makes it seem like evil carries around the seed of its own destruction, which is another reason why its inferior to good. It also seems to me that you detest Nihilism, something I have no patience for, but call it “moral ambiguity”. I think this is an important difference in semantics. To me, the former is a particularly irritating category of the latter, and I have a feeling that a lot of people who like “moral ambiguity” and say so, are not Nihilists. That is to say, they do not think that categories like good and bad do not exist, but rather have a much more complicated relationship than we might intuitively think. And I like morally ambiguous books because they help me figure out where I am going to draw my own lines of what I think is good and bad.

    Thank you for the great website and articles!

    1. Holly Avatar

      I actually mean moral relativism when I say it. I haven’t confused it with nihilism. The Wikipedia article on moral relativism gives good definitions.

      My disambiguation (to use a favorite Wikipedia term) would be to state that the results you get by judging existence from a relativistic perspective or taking actions based on the assumption of moral relativism result in nihilism.

  27. Texanne Avatar

    Wow. This post could not be more timely–for me, too. (Do I sense a trend?) Recently I cleared all the old posts off my site because the site needed to be refocused. Thing is, I don’t know focused on what yet. It’s the site we put up as part of the Grad Novel experience, and as such it was pretty personal. Also, because the writing posts were behind passwords known only to other HTTS grads, there was a lot of content that would have been incomprehensible to a civilian. Still don’t know what my content will be, but you’ve given me a good shove toward a tone and range. That’s a helpful shove, believe me. Otherwise, I spend my time fooling with themes and figuring out code and playing with color schemes, all of which are easier than writing about writing. Writing about reading, now *that’s* an enjoyable project for me.

    How I first found you: Trolling the bookstore shelves. Who could pass up a gorgeous book called Diplomacy of Wolves? Not me, for sure. And the book *rocked.* And the other books rocked. Some surprised me, like Midnight Rain, but it rocked, too. When we moved here and went from dial-up to FIOS, I found out that many of my favorite authors were on the web. You were on the web and you were giving free advice! Dang! Not “buy my book” from one horizon to the other, but actual free advice, free teaching. Wow. Doesn’t hurt that you share so much of my personal philosophy, either, because I don’t enjoy arguing.

    PS I love the new look of the site, and wish my dining room were this color. :)TX

    1. Holly Avatar

      I’ve wondered how you found me, actually, and have been so grateful you did. Diplomacy of Wolves, huh? I had a ball writing that one.

      And since I redid the templates, I keep eyeing this color and thinking the kitchen would spectacular in it. ๐Ÿ˜€ So I laughed my ass off at your PS.

      1. WandersNowhere Avatar

        Make that two who found you through Diplomacy of Wolves.

        My friends back in Australia INSISTED I read it. You’re one of their favorites alongside the likes of Robin Hobb. They cited the last sentence of the scene in the dungeon with Danya Galweigh (you know the one) as the most disturbing thing they’ve ever read. Specifically the last sentence.

        I borrowed their copy, but I am still hell bent on finding that trilogy and owning it as soon as I get to a country with English bookstores again. I begged it from my local bookstore when I was home last, but they couldn’t order it in. I did, however, get Hawkspar and Talyn ordered in, and brought them back to Japan with me.

        1. Texanne Avatar

          The trilogy is on Kindle, and I have it. Anybody can buy it. Cool, huh?

        2. Holly Avatar

          Yeah, I know that scene. And I made myself shudder when I wrote that last sentence.

          I’m sorry so much of my stuff is so hard to find. Where my rights have reverted to me, I’m working toward getting the books up on Kindle and Apple and Nook, and I’ll make them available in every country that these platforms offer, as I have with the nonfiction.

          It’s going to take a while, though, because all the old manuscripts are lost to several moves and to now-dead software formats, and I’m going to have to work from the published books, with OCR scanning and the fun errors that introduces.

          1. WandersNowhere Avatar

            I see now why you’re a fan of the humble RTF.

            Me too, ever since my first frothing-at-the-mouth attempt to open a .docx file with a version of Word that didn’t support it, missing fonts, bla bla bla…

            I’m patient, I’ll get ’em however I can. ;D

  28. Christine London Avatar

    A woman I respect precisely for the reasons you outline recommended this particular post on my RWA chapter loop. She writes stories that are entertaining, yes, but more importantly they uplift, inspire and educate–precisely the nucleus of my own reading and writing philosophy. Thank you for stating this so succinctly. Your words have reinforced what is in the end the most important–legacy. What sort of footprint do we want to leave for our children and for others’ children? Eyes yet unborn will read what we have worked so hard to commit to the page having effect we will never see. What would we like that to be? How would we like those unborn to see what we saw?
    One of my best friends recently commented in a moment of frustration over the slowness of building a readership and career as a writer.
    “Why do you always write about British characters and settings? Does anyone read about those guys across the pond these days?”
    His words set me back for a few minutes because of who was saying them. This is a man who is positive, giving, and one of the dearest people in my life. Like most men he is under the impression that romantic fiction is mostly for women and that reading time ought to contain lots of murders, explosions and conspiracy against the power of good. Of course he is right in the sense that we need hurdles to scale in our novels to make them realistic and interesting.
    But I am right too–our stories must come from a place in the author’s heart that moves him/her not only to spend the months it takes to craft a really great book, but also that uplifts, educates, inspires and entertains our author-ly soul. Readers are intelligent. Like any intelligent person they can smell a fake a mile away and place that disingenuous work where it belongs–in the recycle bin.
    Why do I write what touches me and brings me joy? Because I believe down to my toes that it will bring joy to others in the reading. Britain is my adopted home. I fell in love with it when I spent a year of university there. My ear for idiom and turn of phrase places me in an uncommon place–an American who can write believable Brits that Americans will understand. This place of our cultural and linguist roots is as exciting as it was in the Regency period so popular in romantic fiction. Hollywood has caught on to Britophiles with The Holiday, Love Actually, Nottinghill and Bridget Jones Diary to name a few. Contemporary romance will always have a place in the genre readerโ€™s heart. To combine the love of our cultural roots with modern times is a wonderful place to be. To write what I as the author would love to read is an even better place to be.
    Thanks for reminding me that this path to readership is like anything worthwhile in life. It takes time. Selling out is certainly not the answer. Being true to what mattersโ€”touching livesโ€”is where I want to be.
    Warm Regards,

    Christine London

  29. Kymberly Lewis Avatar
    Kymberly Lewis


    It seems you’re suggesting internet self-promotion is really no different from self-promotion in the day-to-day world. It’s a matter of surrounding yourself with people who uplift you, while you do the same for them. Community.

    And of course, plucking out the noxious weeds.

    I’ve received your email newsletter for several months now, and I’ve enjoyed every one (informative, entertaining, grounded, useful). Until today, I’d not been to this site. But, if I had to guess at the type of people you have drawn to this place in cyberspace, I’d say most are likely to prefer a sit-down meal with local food and a fun waitstaff over a zoom by at the drive-thru. People who relish the journey and prefer to enjoy its moments thoughtfully (whenever possible, since we’re all compelled to rush through lunch hour sometimes). Writing is exactly like a tasty meal. You enjoy it for its own sake, and you enjoy it most in the company of others who feel similarly.

    A thoughtful article, and I’ll be reading more from here. Thanks.

  30. Elaine Milner Avatar
    Elaine Milner

    Great explanation, Holly! I was surprised how much I am like your ideal reader/writer. I just recently actually discovered your website and have been spending much of my writing time lately in reading the many things you offer on this site. The lessons are very practical and still enjoyable to read.

    I have much appreciated your honesty also. I’m not quite that brave after being put down so much growing up, but it’s time I got past that. Honesty really adds value to your writing.

    I’m working on the first novel of a historical series and intend to eventually set up a website with additional information (rather than chunking it into the book like some books I’ve unfortunately read) and perhaps maps and related puzzles. Your helps on how to attract the kind of readers I want certainly be helpful.

    Thank you for setting up and maintaining such an excellent site. You’ve given me a lot of help at the only price I can afford right now, i.e. free.

  31. Shane Kinsey Avatar
    Shane Kinsey

    I desire believability in a character no matter how farfetched their actions may seem. I want the same in responses from people whether they are offering criticism or praise. I’m sure we’ve learned through writing or whatever else we undertake that we truly are not as bad as some would have us believe, neither as good as others say.

    We are writers, and without guidance and instruction available in sites like this one and people like Holly willing to take the time to offer them, I’m certain none of us would be where we are today.

    Thank you Holly. Your son got it right. Your words are seeds that give life to ours.

  32. Angela Knight Avatar

    I’m really impressed with your website and classes. I’m even more impressed with the fact that you’ve written 33 books and find the time to write all this. How do you do it?

    1. Holly Avatar

      I work five days a week, (sometimes six), I have a list of things I want to accomplish and I work my list every day, and I don’t take coffee breaks.

      1. Angela Knight Avatar

        Hmmm. I will definitely have to start such a list myself. Your output is impressive, even with your health problems.

  33. Laura Mollett Avatar
    Laura Mollett

    This is interesting. Personally, I think you’ve attracted people mostly by providing something useful. I searched all over for a decent workshop on plot (I had some ideas where I was going wrong and wanted some help on planning “the muddle”) and yours is one of very few good ones that exist. Thank you very much! And reading your other workshops, a lot of what you say resonates with me. You can write and you can explain how to write in ways that are motivating and applicable. I finished something (yeah me – not a big thing, but I’m a compulsive “not-finisher”) with your help. And so you attract people who want to do that/know that.

    I also suspect you don’t have a lot of sharks because the people who want to spend their time writing/learning to write have to moderate what to do with their time. I’ve been drawn into those pointless debates. They’re time sinks. I might learn something, but there are other ways to learn, and if it’s just for fun – other things that are more enjoyable/rewarding. I have plenty enough of the “I don’t have time to write” chorus without adding that. I don’t know what you do about actual trolls (do you delete comments/aggressively moderate the site?) but for the most part, I’d expect writers to try and write well.

    That said, I disagree with your position on academia (I dearly love the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms and for its own sake) and – not so much your position on moral relativity as your definition of it. You seem to be equating moral relativity with moral nihilism, and I don’t believe they are the same. But I’m certainly not going to put you down for holding different beliefs. I am a moral relativist and that would be rather against the entire idea ๐Ÿ˜‰ And besides I don’t have time for flame wars. I could be off writing 250 useful words *grin* I like you and your site (and find it very helpful) and it isn’t necessary for me to agree with you on all points for that to happen.

    1. Holly Avatar

      That said, I disagree with your position on academia (I dearly love the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms and for its own sake)

      I, too, love the pursuit of knowledge in all its forms and for its own sake. I’ve found that pursuing it on my own terms and without having people telling me what I should think about what I’ve learned, however, gives me much better results than I’ve seen from the products of academe.

      Out of curiosity, since you describe yourself as a moral relativist, what is your take on my comment above?

      Or on the following cases that I hold to be absolutes. I hold, for example, that the use of force against others in anything but self-defense or the defense of those we value is always both evil and immoral. I hold that there is never a valid context for human sacrifice, ritual cannibalism, or sex with children—and that societies that hold collective rights (there is no such thing) above individual rights are always evil. I hold than genocide is always evil and that those who commit it are always wrong.

      If you’re a moral relativist, you must have contexts in which you would argue that all of these things are acceptable. Moral relativism, after all, states ‘everything is relative.’

      So in what situations do you consider the actions I’ve listed above as appropriate and justified? I am asking this because I am wondering if you have perhaps misidentified yourself as a moral relativist. I find it unlikely that a person who enjoys reading what I’ve written could be.

      1. Laura Mollett Avatar
        Laura Mollett

        My father was a university professor – my experiences with post-secondary education are just very different than yours. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Well, as you asked… my issue is the claim that moral relativism is the same as saying there is no right and wrong. At question, from your examples above and other comments, seems to be a belief in absolutes or universal truths (these are two different things, btw, but close enough for this context). Wiki (which I’m perfectly happy to use for definitions) defines three sub-groups of moral relativists and only one of them (normative relativists) disclaim any universal standards and/or argue that any behavior is equally as valid as any other. The other two subgroups (description and meta-ethical) both recognize the possibility of universal (within human societies) truths – and one of the most interesting sociological studies is that comparing societal standards to see which things may be universal. I have seen compelling arguments that some of the things you asked specifically are universal truths – i.e., there are no societies where these things are considered moral.

        But even for normative relativists, the important question is to define relative to what? The point is to discuss morality within the context of the society to which these people belong. You’ve chosen questions above regarding specific societal issues (cannibalism, human sacrifice, child marriage) but for examples in the post you linked to, you used NAMBLA, Woody Allen and someone post-WWII arguing that the holocaust was not immoral. All of those people are a product of our society (more or less) and behaving immorally by the standards of their own society. That isn’t moral relativism, it’s moral nihilism – belief (or at least the claim) that nothing is moral or immoral. They’re products of our society and our society judges them and finds them wanting.

        And after the long intro, I’ll get around to answering your question, more or less. I’m a moral relativist – so if I was the being weighing souls to see if they’ve behaved morally after their life is done, yes I could see some occasions where a person could be a cannibal (for example) or have sacrificed another human but not behaved badly *within the context of their life and society.* This would not be a person like Hannibal Lecter who (again) behaves outside of the moral bounds of his own life and society, but I cannot see how a fair judge could find fault with a pre-1970 Korowai for participating in a practice accepted in their own society with no concept of anything/one else. It’s an individual judgment.

        I’m not a normative relativist (which comes closest to nihilism) but am somewhere between descriptive and meta-ethical. I believe there are some things that apply universally (for all similarly situated individuals) and murder and incest are among them. So yeah, I would always see those as wrong. Definitions are important, of course, but I believe it would be difficult to find an example of a society where either of those things are considered moral (although the definitions of incest vary considerably). Further sex with children is complicated by all kinds of definitions (confusing age issues, child marriage of convenience or the expectation that marital congress will not be instituted until the child is fit, and when that might be, and serious social issues where families cannot/will not feed/clothe/house young girls (and the child might at least not starve to death), etc.) But if it were possible to cut through all that, I suspect sex with children is another universal, and that no society actually claims that it’s moral.

        And that brings me to genocide. Genocide is the conflict of two societies – it’s not a discussion of what is moral/immoral within one. The same holds true in the way you’ve phrased some of the other questions – that is, that the society that holds such opinions is wrong, rather than a judgment of the individual within the society. I’m a product of my own society and I think mine is better. And if I compare my society now to my society *then*, mine now is better. I prefer a world that cares about human rights, that does not consider women and children property, that doesn’t feel a need to kill off other groups of people whole hog (and for that matter has medicine and the internet and enough food). And I recognize that there have been societies that didn’t even understand the concept of genocide (did we really when we destroyed the American Indians? Maybe.) So if I was judging an individual’s actions – a pioneer, for examples – I might not find their participation in such action reprehensible, as they are a product of their own time and place and the needs of their life. But if I’m comparing that society to ours today, then yeah our way (what we’re supposed to be doing, which isn’t always the same as what we do) is better.

        I think I got everything. I don’t really understand what you mean by collective rights and individual rights, but that again is a societal judgment, not one of a person within their society anyway, so I don’t think it really addresses the question.

        And yeah, I really am a moral relativist. And could find a story where the hero acts heroic within his/her own society’s concepts, but where those are different from mine, fascinating. (I remember reading a story about a society that practiced ritual cannibalism intended to take unto themselves all the memories/thoughts/good things about the deceased and a person from outside trying to understand it, and it was a really good story, for example.)

        Oh, and as an aside, I believe that people that speak up against abuses and for those without power, even in defiance of their own society, are universally (or very close to) considered saints or the like. Another reason why I suspect there are some universals – our definitions of “good” are so often similar.

        1. Holly Avatar

          “Collective rights” are what you’re referring to when you speak of “women’s rights.” There is no such thing. There are only individual human rights, and all individuals own the same rights by fact of existence. I live, therefore I am a free human being with all the rights of all other free human beings. Societies that restrict rights based on gender, race, the whim of a dictator, the lie of “the group before the individual” (because what is a group but a collection of individuals?) or other criteria are immoral. Governments can work toward morality by recognizing the equal legal rights of each individual, but they are not moral until they have done so.

          When you argue for rights specific to women, you argue against women having true individual rights, and argue that they are somehow inferior, and must be given rights of special case. I state adamantly that this is not so. My legal and inborn right to exist and to act to reach my own purposes and goals has nothing to do with my gender. My rights exist because I exist.

          “Judgment by society” is another example of collective thinking. Society does not judge anything. Each individual passes judgment or refuses to do so. And I guarantee you there are many, many people in our society right now who echo Woody Allen’s “the heart wants what it wants” comment and will be delighted to give NAMBLA members a pass, just so long as they are not held accountable for their own behavior.

          Individual judges pass sentence on crimes. Individuals pass judgment on the individual worth of others, and on the actions of others in groups.

          Your use of “we” is another case of collective thinking, and problematic. “We” did not destroy the American Indians. (Actually, since the American Indians are still around, this is a serious case of overstatement in the first place.) However, individual settlers and individual soldiers engaged in conflict of various sorts with individual tribesmen from separate tribes. Those who fought to preserve their own lives did so morally. Those who used force to remove tribesmen from their property did so immorally. Likewise, the tribesmen who attacked settlers living in peace and slaughtered them did so immorally, and those who lived peaceably side by side with the newcomers did so morally.

          The offspring of the tribesmen who impaled whole families of settlers on stakes, disembowelled them, and left them to die horrible deaths are no more responsible for the behavior of their ancestors than you are responsible for the behavior of yours. “Sins of the fathers” is another case of collective thinking, and no matter which side of the blame game you’re on, using it as an argument is in itself immoral. You are attempting to force blame on people who deserve none.

          There was no one tribe, there was no one action, there was no one side on the right or side on the wrong.

          Likewise, “we” did not enslave blacks, and there are no black Americans now who have ever been slaves. So American blacks today derive no victimhood from what their ancestors suffered, and American whites today bear no blame for what a few of their ancestors did. And here I need to be very clear that the vast majority of whites are unrelated in any way to the rich southern elites who owned slaves—slaves were damned expensive, and most farmers even in the Deep South did their own labor.

          Or do you wish to argue that I should be able to go to Rome and sue the Italians for overrunning Great Britain and forcing civilization on the place back when MY ancestors were a bunch of blue-painted savages. Should I ask for reparations?

          I judge the world and the individuals in it much more harshly than you do, and with no apologies for doing so.

          There is no situation in which offensive force or threat of force is acceptable. This means our own federal government’s taxation of income is immoral—the government uses threat of force to coerce citizens to give up their own income so the government can distribute it to causes and persons which individuals have not chosen and do not value.

          A federal sales tax that does not tax products necessary for the preservation of individual life (food, electricity, water) conversely, is moral, because if you don’t approve of the government’s use of your money, you don’t purchase the goods being taxed.

          There is no situation in which non-consensual sex is moral, and sex with pre-pubescents is non-consensual by default.

          There is no situation in which any religion can morally threaten eternal damnation (the use of threat of force) to coerce believers into specific behaviors, no matter what these behaviors are or whether the behaviors could be viewed independently as good or bad. Neither is there any situation in which any religion can morally offer rewards or threats in order to convince believers to use force against others (jihad being an example)—and no situation in which followers acting on the requirements of their religion can be thought moral if they do use force against others.

          There is no situation in which you (or anyone) can morally do something for another adult’s “own good” that the person would not choose to do for himself, even if his behavior is self-destructive. If you have to use force against him to protect the lives of others, you aren’t doing using force for his own good (stopping a murderer or rapist would be an example,) and preserving the lives of the moral and innocent is a valid use of force.

          Good is by definition that which preserves the right of the (moral) individual to survive and improve his own life.

          Moral is that which is done by full and informed consent between two or more individuals. This is why I strongly advocate that gay marriage should be legal, for example.

          Bad, evil, and immoral are those things done by force against moral individuals. By this definition, everything Congress has done since the inception of the federal income tax is immoral.

          The rights of the individual are paramount, and as long as each individual respects the rights of others (no force, no coercion, no threat of force), his own actions to affect his own life and reach his own goals should be beyond the censure of other individuals, groups, and his government.

          When you look at individuals and understand that without individuals, there are no rights, seeing what is right and what is wrong is a lot easier. And moral relativism becomes abhorrent.

          Ask yourself if you consider force acceptable if it is in some other society—simply because that society is not ours. I spent my time on the moral relativist fence, and discovered that what I was doing was making excuses for other cultures because I judged them inferior, and had decided they “didn’t know any better.”

          If you judge cultures and their actions as equals, no matter when they existed—just as you judge people—you can no longer hold the viewpoint of the moral relativist when regarding the actions of other cultures, or their treatment of their people.

          Someone I knew came back from visiting Viet Nam talking about how happy the people were there, how charming their culture was with its people still living in their primitive houses, still plowing their fields with water buffalo, still maintaining their traditions.

          If she had looked at those people as being her equals, instead of as quaint, primitive inferiors, her heart would have broken for them that the Communists took what had been a developing modern economy and forced it and its people back to the Stone Age.

          P.S. I’ll concede your point on the ritual cannibalism when the eaters have the full and knowing consent of the eaten. My familiarity with cannibalism comes from the tribes that practice hunting each other as warfare, and eating their prey. Either way, considering prion disease, it’s a moronic practice—but cultures have been holding on to moronic practices in the vaunted names of “tradition” and “religion” since cultures began.

          1. Laura Mollett Avatar
            Laura Mollett

            Well some of this I agree with (I quite enjoyed your comments on collective rights, thank you) and some, of course I don’t. It sounds as if you are judging societies as if they were individuals, but divorcing the people that make them up from the societies in which they live (removing the personal responsibility for their society, maybe? There is no “we”). In any case, it is clear that we have very different views on a lot of topics, but that’s ok ๐Ÿ™‚

            To answer your real question, I don’t have any issue with your work as you firmly set your stories. And within those settings, it’s quite clear what is good and what isn’t etc. So the conflict never arises. It’s not possible to read fiction at all, imo, if you can’t accept as given those things which work, and suspend the part of yourself that might insist (or rather) it be some other way.

          2. WandersNowhere Avatar

            Hmm. This was really interesting to me.

            re: not being judged for the ‘sins of the fathers’ – as a ‘white’ Australian, there have been times when I’ve been found myself on the receiving end of hostility from people of Aboriginal descent, because of the colour of my skin and the immediate assumption that I’m part of the collective ‘White Man’ who invaded the Aborigines’ land, removed their autonomy and forcibly integrated them into an alien culture.

            This makes me extremely uncomfortable for fairly obvious reasons. Not so obvious reasons being: my family came over from England and Ireland three generations ago, and even if I -was- to be held accountable for the destruction of traditional Aboriginal life on the basis of my ancestors – my ancestors weren’t even here when it happened and had nothing to do with it.

            And I’m one of the ‘whitest’ Australians I know. Most of my friends have a heavily multicultural background; they’re Chinese or half Turkish or quarter Indian or Polynesian or Greek or Italian or their parents came over from Malta. Would an Aboriginal person add these people to the category of ‘white oppressors’? I’d really hope not.

            re: ‘Primitive’ cultures – This is a bit of a complex issue too, I think. I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to say here.
            Do you mean that the people of tribal or traditional cultures would be better off modernising? From what I’ve seen, modernisation is a double-edged sword; it brings increased hygeine, safety, productivity and convenience to the community, but at the cost of traditional lifestyle, traditional practices and community roles, and with them, cultural identity, and sooner or later it becomes a fight just to keep the culture alive – and often the only way it can STAY alive is as quaint exhibitions for tourists to gawk at. Which I’d argue is a kind of cultural undeath, because for a culture to live it has to have meaning and relevance and purpose to its participants.

            I was deeply affected by a visit this time last year to a remote village in the Philippines. A lot of the traditional culture had survived there, because the village was still too difficult to get to to attract a heavy tourist flow despite its magnificent rice terraces. But the hostel was comfortable enough, the toilets were cleaner than most of the places I’d been, and there were modern conveniences available.

            We saw a very old man in traditional clothes, who we were told was one of the village elders but would allow tourists to photograph him if asked. Something about it felt off to me but my friend took a photo of him. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on his face – I’m searching for a descriptor, and the best I can come up with is ‘resigned, violated dignity’. I asked the guide how to greet the man in his own language and when I did (probably terribly mispronounced, but I gave it a go) his attitude relaxed and he smiled at me.

            I found everyone there to be very open-minded about the outside world, even though their only real contact with it was the tourists. They asked a lot of questions about my country and its customs (better questions than my Japanese students ask me, and in far superior English, lol). I talked a fair bit with our local guide about the relationship between the villagers and the tourists and commented when I saw litter on the trail that I was ashamed that tourists should make a mess here. She told me it wasn’t the foreign tourists who littered, most of the people who came here were European backpackers who were very respectful and well-behaved. The litter was from locals and tourists from nearby areas.

            She also told me they used the money from the tourism to import rice, because the amazingly beautiful rice terraces that filled the whole valley the village was in …didn’t make enough rice to feed the growing population anymore. I also learned from an older Australian man who’d been living in the Philippines for a while that a neighbouring village was leeching off the tourist dollars by arranging guided tours with their own guides without the villagers’ consent and pretending they were ‘local’. He was arguing with a local man that they needed to stand up for themselves.

            It’s probably irrelevant to mention that the people of this village and the others in the area were two generations or so removed from being headhunters.

            I was left with the impression of a complex relationship between the people of traditional cultures and the outside world. Not black and white at all. Not ‘Avatar’. It seemed like a delicate balancing act between keeping one’s cultural identity, surviving in an increasingly modernised world, and exploiting the hell out of the beneficial aspects of said modern world. And I was also left with the impression that when it came to the crunch, traditions and cultural identity would always take a back seat to more elemental things like food, safe drinking water, comfortable clothing, and flushing toilets, no matter how much it hurt.

            What are your thoughts?

          3. Holly Avatar

            WandersNowhere—I’ve had to post my response below because we’ve run out of thread space, and I don’t want to add any more indents. ๐Ÿ˜€

            My response is here. (Sadly, during one of my site transfers or upgrades, this response link broke, and having killed an hour I didn’t have trying to find it, I have deleted the broken link, and just added the apology. I’m sorry. No clue where that answer got to. — HOLLY)

  34. Nicki Savantes (previously known as Littlesister) Avatar

    You defined me as a reader and writer so well it’s uncanny (darn, no secrets huh?), which amply proves your point, of course.
    I didn’t even need the dinosaurs to get out the hankies (although at the time they did the trick quite nicely); I cried both reading your post and some of the replies. This is the virtual world turned into real community; this is as good as it gets for me, and I’m so grateful to be a part of this!
    After a good deal of help on how to get unstuck both as a writer and a person thanks to your courses, I’m striking out on my own (finally, at 45, lol) with a website for people who want to change their lives for the better, and I have been trying to do exactly what you advocate here. With variable success I should add… It’s a bit scary at first to put yourself naked before an audience. I always try to be 100% honest, but still I notice I sometimes write for popularity, (but then these are not the articles I feel totally good about afterwards). Finding one’s voice, both in fiction and non fiction, is a process, I guess…
    Anyway, alI this to say that although I ended up *not* writing fiction (it’s on hold, not abandoned!) I’m making my own dreams come true and this feels incredibly good. For the people who don’t know where I’m coming from, I’d say the odds I would ever do that were about a billion to one. And although the newborn site is making me put in more hours than I ever have in my life, I *love* every minute I spend “working” on it. (Where does leisure/pleasure end and work begin?)
    I wouldn’t ever have gotten this far without your help. Thanks Holly, for what you did and are still doing for others, and I’m cheering for your undoubtedly exciting future!

    1. Patricia Loofbourrow Avatar

      I’m in the same situation, Nicki … (you have a lovely site, btw).

      Holly, this post was brilliant. I’ve already shared it with my friends and it could not have come at a better time for me personally. Thank you so much.

      1. Nicki Savantes Avatar

        Thanks Patricia,
        I appreciate your visit and graceful comment! It’s always nice to see one’s hard work pay off a little…

    2. Felix Avatar

      What is the name of your website?

      1. Nicki Savantes Avatar


        People who have websites have their name in blue and you can click on the name to go there. Thanks for your interest!

    3. Holly Avatar

      You have a wonderful website. I’m impressed.

      And I’m glad you got some good from my site. I have no doubt you’ll do wonderful things with your writing.

      1. Nicki Savantes Avatar

        Thank you so much, Holly! I’ve been tinkering around with a free wordpress template and a prehistoric Paintshop pro version, something that mortally offends the professional blog gurus. I’m tight moneywise, so it was the only way to go. Even worse; I’m determined to stay adfree, like you. Because I hate those misplaced off topic flashing distracting ugly little squares everyone’s having these days with a vengeance. (Incidentally that was another big plus for your site when I initially found it: no ads, wow! Like so many commenters here I read through every single one of your articles, and by the time I was done I was hooked for life, lol). Of course those same marketing & pro-blog gurus tell me I’me both insane and pigheaded for refusing ads. Oh well, their problem, right?
        I figure if my focus is money then I will attract people whose focus is also money (that would be sour company indeed!). And while we all need some, the center of my life is elsewhere. The money goal for me is to make enough to do the things I want to do. No more is needed. “Make a six figure income from your blog” is not what I’m after (but I’ll accept it as a side effect, hehe!). Ultimately I do hope to make some income from ebooks or courses, but for now I’m focussing exclusively on delivering useful content: the sort of content I could have used to get myself unstuck 20 years ago and couldn’t find anywhere! The sort of content that will attract “my” kind of readers.

        Writing long insightful articles sure scares a lot of people away, as I can see from my bounce rates. Auto-segmentation in action!
        I’m certainly not worried for my site. It is as you said: the people who stick around, even if they’re very few at first, will be the right people for me…

        Thanks for the untold heaps and countless tons of good I got from your website (“some” is really an unacceptable understatement!)

  35. Kari Avatar

    Thank you, Holly, for this article. There are LOTS AND LOTS of people trying to tell you the best way to gain a following or to create a platform using your blog and I think your way has got to be the simplest and most down to earth. On top of that, it didn’t cost me $100+. ๐Ÿ™‚

    You just have decide what you want and keep working at it until you get it. Maybe a blog is like a bonsai tree–you have to keep trimming it and shaping it, cutting dead branches that don’t belong, etc. ๐Ÿ™‚

  36. lala Avatar

    Very interesting and insightful article, but I have to disagree on your reasoning for enjoying fiction with morally ambiguous characters. I like the characters to be morally ambiguous because I like complicated, layered characters. I also love it when it’s twisty turny and you think you know who the hero and villain is, but then the hero does something bad and the villain does something good and you start to wonder whether you really know who is the good one and who is the bad one. It can also be a fun mystery when you don’t find out a character’s motives until late in the story, so for most of the book you aren’t actually sure if they are good or bad.

    I do want a clear protagonist and antagonist, but I just think characters are much more interesting when the hero has some bad in them and the villain has some good in them.

    1. Holly Avatar

      There’s a significant difference between characters with layers (which I write, including heroes with dark sides and villains who switch teams in mid-book) and moral ambiguity.

      Morally ambiguous fiction states that there is no such thing as right or wrong. It promotes the philosophy of moral relativism—that any act can be considered moral within its situation.

      NAMBLA is an association of moral relativists. Woody Allen’s comment, “The heart wants what it wants,” in response to his sexual relationship with his adopted daughter is an example of moral relativism in action. The person who came into Forward Motion years ago and argued that there was no such thing as evil, and that the genocide of Jews, blacks, gypsies, handicapped people and others was not an act of evil, but simply a response to the times, held that every action is morally ambiguous. (Also got his ass promptly kicked off the site.)

      If a book has a hero and a villain, it is NOT morally ambiguous. If it acknowledges that some acts are always good and some acts are always evil, it is NOT morally ambiguous. The fiction you describe is not morally ambiguous. It is simply layered.

      1. lala Avatar

        Ah I see. Thank you for clearing that up. I took it to mean that the morality isn’t black and white. That is also how I interpreted it when I was voting, so your poll may be skewed.

        On the other hand, I think there are some great stories where the conflict involves a good person against a good person or a bad person against a bad person. So it isn’t always necessary to have both a hero and a villain. I suppose it still fits if you think of your villain as being abstract instead of necessarily being a character.

        I wouldn’t like to think that I’m someone you don’t want on your site because I buy your books, enjoy them, and greatly benefit from them!

        1. WandersNowhere Avatar

          Hi lala,

          I can see where both you and Holly are coming from on this one, and I think you’re on the same side, just maybe talking about different things ^^

          In your scenario where two good or two bad people are put into conflict, it’s still not ‘moral relativism’ because of one key element: you’re able to actually identify those people as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in the first place. The story acknowledges that those characters -have- a moral stance and are standing up for it, whether right or wrong. The story you’re describing isn’t going to say that no matter what kind of deeds the character commits, they’re justified because morality doesn’t exist.

          Here’s a good example; I have done quite a deal of research on Vlad III Dracula, Vlad the Impaler. I understand the environment that produced this man, I understand his upbringing, his experiences, the how and why of his actions and his justifications for them. I in no way consider him to be a person I would want to meet in this life, the next life, or ANY life.

          If I was a moral relativist I’d shrug and say ‘sure, he impaled thousands of people, it was medieval Romania, that’s just how things were done.’ Yes, it was how things were done, and that gives it a historical and sociological context, but that doesn’t change the basic (im)morality of impaling thousands of people, for god’s sake!

          There’s a well-known fantasy author I stopped reading after his protagonist started committing what in the real world would be considered heinous and horrifying war crimes. The author kept trying to justify this character’s acts by making the main villains even worse kitten-raping-puppy-kicking strawmen, and therefore it was all okay, and anyone one the villains’ side, even the unarmed civilians, were evil by association and deserved to die horribly. The writer wanted it both ways, wanted to make a gritty grey world where the hero was justifed because the villain was worse – but still wanted us to think of him as a ‘hero’ – and it bombed for me so hard I never looked back.

          Whereas someone like George R.R Martin gives us a morally complex world that -works-, because all of the characters are layered, many of them are sympathetic in surprising ways…but everyone has a reason to do what they do. Everyone is coming from somewhere and fighting for something they hold dear, whether that’s family, love, power, revenge, or even just survival.

          I wouldn’t call THAT a world of grey, I’d call it a world of many colours. Which is a lot more interesting than grey.

          1. Laura Mollett Avatar
            Laura Mollett

            But if you’re examining Vlad the Impaler within the context of his own society, would you really just say “that’s just how things were done”? I’d have to argue that it wasn’t the normal course of events in that time and place and that’s why he’s named and known for it. While excluding some written sources as exaggerated for sensationalism or political propaganda, I think anyone would be hard-pressed to characterize his reign as less than dark and cruel to a legendary (if one would use that term about a brutal man) extent. While he is sometimes portrayed as a Romanian hero, those sources are generally much later than his lifetime, and all accounts of his life describe him as ruthless, even if they don’t devolve to sadistic or insane. And even those anecdotes intended to portray him as a madman for political reasons, exaggerated to lurid effect, indicate that those kind of activities (atrocities and torture) were ones that caused the reader to view the perpetrator with horror and disgust – painting him in a bad light being the point (as well as to titillate the worst of human curiosity with such sensational material). I simply cannot see how that counts as morally sound in the view of his own time and place. He didn’t want or intend to be “good” according to the moral standards of his own time (and punish a lot of people he didn’t like).

          2. WandersNowhere Avatar

            Weellll – Vlad was definitely not the only ruler of the period who used impalement as a form of execution or for intimidation purposes. He just seems to have done it on an unrivaled scale. Considering he was the prince of a relatively small locality (Wallachia) facing, simultaneously, treachery among his own vassals, pressure from neighbouring rivals, and a powerful foreign enemy (the Ottoman Empire) that outnumbered and outgunned him in every encounter, I’d say this was primarily a strategy of psychological warfare.

            And, as you’ve mentioned, a great deal of what was said about the man was political; especially since Mathias Corvinus needed to justify to the Western powers, particularly the Papacy, where the money they had given him to support Vlad’s one-man crusade against the Ottomans had gone. But Vlad certainly had supporters at the time. The aformentioned Papacy loved the man, because he was the only enthusiastic respondant to the West’s failed attempt to call Crusade against the Ottomans they were rightfully terrified of after Constantinople fell. The contemporary sources do describe him as ruthless, but also portray him as an (extremely) strict proponent of his own brand of morality and justice, whereupon he all but erased crime from his country by making impalement the default punishment for …everything. So I guess I’m saying it’s quite likely Vlad really did believe what he did was right or at least necessary.

            None of that is terribly relevant, though, because I only used him as an example to point out that regardless of what HE might have thought, and his allies and proponents might have thought….sticking ten foot spikes through people is a horrifyingly evil thing to do.

            If I was one of the people Holly dislikes, I’d be arguing that there’s nothing wrong with it, because, hey, Vlad and his buddies thought it was an appropriate way to scare their enemies and keep their peasants in line, it’s all relative, so impaling people is okay.

            Thank GOD I am not one of those people, lol.

          3. Laura Mollett Avatar
            Laura Mollett

            But I am one of those people ๐Ÿ™‚ – at least, I’m a moral relativist. Morality, in my opinion, is “relative to the traditions, convictions or practices of a group of people,” and individuals will disagree about what one “ought” to do based on societal norms.

            But I am not arguing that there’s “nothing wrong with it” because some people did it. There are people who behave badly *within their own societal norms* – ours or any others. And their behavior is still immoral, no matter how effective. Actually, for psychological warfare, I’d say it was effective primarily because the people in that time and place found it “bad” (immoral). People that will do anything are much scarier than people who try to behave well.

            What I’m trying to say is that moral relativity does not mean that good and evil cannot be judged, that nothing is moral or immoral (that’s moral nihilism). But moral relativity means that morality must be judged in context. Admittedly knowing context might be difficult or impossible – there’s a reason why judgment is generally left to those who are omniscient – but we can make some pretty good guesses.

          4. WandersNowhere Avatar

            Aah, I’m sorry if I trod on something you believe in – when I say ‘moral relativist’, I’m working from Holly’s definition, as presented above. I’m closer to your own definition myself.

            I’d still argue that in Vlad’s case that the existence of people who supported him, who allied with him, and who painted him during his lifetime as a valiant crusader against the Turks and after it as a Romanian hero – as you’d mentioned yourself – suggests there were (and still are – bringing him up around Romanians gets you some very diverse and divisive opinions) people who believe he was justified. Of course, the psychological warfare was effective. Nobody wants to die like that. But the same Turks he impaled in great numbers were the ones who taught him the technique. Honestly I think if there was any period of history that was morally grey (and the cynical could argue that ALL of history is) the late medieval period was it.

            I checked the wikipedia article on ‘moral relativism’ – I think my beliefs agree with the first but not the second and third types. Different cultures have different standards and what -I- believe is right may not be what others believe is right. But then there are some that believe, for example, that sex before marriage is a heinously immoral sin punishable by death, but that religious warfare and genocide is not only a morally shining thing to do, but something that God or The State requires be done.

            I’m just saying that for me, religious warfare, genocide, oppression, sexual violence, abuse of children, cruelty to animals, enforced poverty, torture, slavery, etc, are never justified no matter what the culture committing them believes. I will always judge such actions to be wrong, and while that may be my personal context, if I didn’t believe in it, I wouldn’t believe in it.

            I think we are possibly arguing about slightly different things though ^.-

          5. Holly Avatar

            Laura Mollett said: “Admittedly knowing context might be difficult or impossible โ€“ thereโ€™s a reason why judgment is generally left to those who are omniscient โ€“ but we can make some pretty good guesses.

            Here I disagree utterly.

            I don’t accept that passing the buck on judgment until after we are dead is a valid way to live our lives. No god is necessary for judgment to be just.

            A simple, objective standard exists. It is the value in which the government, culture, or person in question holds the life and freedom of the individual—and it against that standard that you can judge any government, and any culture, and any action taken by any culture, and any action taken by any individual within any culture, and know that your judgment is right.

          6. Laura Mollett Avatar
            Laura Mollett

            I’m not sure we really disagree. It sounds to me like we were saying very similar things, but your phrasing is a lot more resolute. In any case, I read this article today and, in light of this discussion, I thought you might find it interesting:

          7. WandersNowhere Avatar


            There do seem to be some fundamental differences between your arguments and Holly’s, though I think my personal opinion is somewhere in the middle (as much as it can be, lol). You’re right though, she’s certainly a lady of strong convictions.

            In any case, I did want to say thanks for expressing your opinion and being civil about it. A good intellectual debate stimulates the mind, and is the exact kind of thing Holly was talking about in her article. I’d say you’re more than welcome ๐Ÿ™‚ cheers.

          8. Laura Mollett Avatar
            Laura Mollett

            Thanks Wanders. I enjoyed discussing it with you (all) ๐Ÿ™‚

  37. Eileen Clifford Avatar

    Thank you for this insightful posting, Holly. As a teacher you are the best, you always make your point very clearly and I appreciate that very much.
    I hope your health is now improving, too.
    Take care,

    Eileen xxx

  38. Liia Ann White Avatar

    Holly, this was a great post! Thank you so much.
    It meant a lot to me. My debut novel is being released in March and I’ve been wondering how on earth I can promote myself.
    I’m lucky I have some great friends in the writing community who will help me, but this post just cemented my thoughts.
    Hope you’re feeling well!!
    Liia x

  39. Linda Nagata Avatar

    Holly, thanks for writing this. I picked this up from twitter, and have to say, I’m impressed with everything you’ve said here, and how you’ve expressed some ideas that have been in my head for sometime. I’m particularly enchanted by your definition of Romantic (Big-R) fiction–something I tried to convey years ago and finally gave up trying to describe. And also your thoughts on moral fiction–right on target. Thank you.

  40. Josephine Myles Avatar

    Hi Holly,
    I’ve been thinking about this topic lately, and reading your post was very encouraging. I may not get huge numbers of commenters yet, but those that do take the time generally leave thoughtful comments so I must be doing something right. I remember getting one negative comment a long time ago but I took the time to clarify my point of view with her and she’s never been back – much to my relief!

    I think the advice to not be afraid to be yourself is key. You can’t please everyone, but at least by being true to yourself you will attract those who are genuinely interested in what you have to say and in entering into discussion.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Quality trumps quantity every time. And people you’ll like know other people you’ll like, and will sooner or later refer your site to their friends.

      A few intelligent comments are worth a million, “K3wl s1t3, wat du u l00k l1k3?” scrawls in response to a post.

      1. Angela Knight Avatar

        Could I get a translation on that last bit? โ€œK3wl s1t3, wat du u l00k l1k3?โ€ Looks less educated than the catspeak at ICANHASCHEESEBURGERS.COM. Yes, I like Lolcats. Can’t help it.

        1. Holly Avatar

          It’s called l33t, as in Leet, as in Elite. The translation is “Kewl site, what do you look like?”

          The way to discourage the l33t crowd is to spell, punctuate, and write long, involved articles. And, from what I can tell, not post nude pictures of yourself.

  41. Heather Ordover Avatar
    Heather Ordover

    Ditto the previous with one addition.
    It is a testimony to you and the people you draw to you that one poster felt safe enough to admit to previous shakiness — and was not ripped apart in response.
    You and everyone here should revel in the community you’ve created.
    I do.
    Thank you.

  42. Catrina Avatar

    Thank you very much for your insight. I’m awed every time I read your newsletter by the vast knowledge you possess.

    I hope that when I do complete my website that it will help others in some small way.

    You have already helped so many of us aspiring writers. It gets rather aggravating to try to decipher ‘lit speak’ in reviews and such. Thank you immensely for creating a space where those of us serious about wanting to learn the craft, can.

    By the way I simply loved you “How to Write Sukitudinous Fiction” article. I cracked up so hard while reading that.

  43. Quinn Ainsley Avatar
    Quinn Ainsley

    This article could not have been more timely – but I’m coming to expect that from you! I want to plan a Nanonovel, you write How To Think Sideways. I need to revise an old Nanonovel that I can’t figure out how to fix, you write How To Revise Your Novel. I start planning a *hopefully* significant, relevant and cheerful website, and you write this post. I’m starting to feel special!

    Thank you for being the teacher who keeps coming when this student is ready.

    I have to join WandersNowhere in recommending ‘Sintel’. I actually thought of you the first time I saw it.

  44. Sarah Avatar

    Hi Holly, I’ve been getting your helpful emails for a while now, and that’s how I found myself at this post. I love the way you write these, and how you’re not afraid to offend people, but at the same time you’re not downright rude or insult people for no reason. It’s nice to know there are people like you in the world ๐Ÿ™‚

  45. Dawn Avatar

    Thanks Holly, you’ve trigged an idea for me. My website/blog was missing something, and now I know what it is. Something beyond “what I’m working on”. ๐Ÿ™‚

  46. WandersNowhere Avatar

    I’ve fallen into the shark-trap before and it’s always turned out negatively for me. You are 100% right about making things positive.

    I do wonder, though, how to draw the line between writing stuff like ‘How to Write Suckitudinously’ to scare away the people who won’t benefit the community or themselves by being here, and inadvertently encouraging sharkiness by doing so.

    For example, I had written a very angry post for my tumblr about some of the subcultures that frequent my shop on Second Life and occasionally cause trouble (mainly how incredibly senseless and offensive I find it when someone dressed as a cartoon bunny with giant balloon boobs gets on a soapbox and compares their struggle to be taken seriously to the Holocaust…and is not joking.)

    I ended up not posting it because of exactly what you said up there about negativity feeding off itself. I didn’t want my blog to become an anti-furry, anti-Gorean flamefest, because my issues are with specific groups and specific attitudes, not the whole subculture (okay, in the Gor case, maybe). I’ve also been careful to keep my criticism of the, uh, recent-trend-in-sappy-vampire-romance-novels very low key, because while I like my vampires old-school and I’m really not a fan, even mentioning the ‘T’ word in a in any public internet arena seems to instantly attract hordes of ravenous haters and defenders simultaneously, who then proceed to dismember each other and the work in question with terrifying fervor.

    To call it ‘alarming’ is an understatement. Holly, you’re NOT shy in expressing your opinions. How the heck do you balance that when writing something like ‘How to Write Suckitudinously’?

    1. Dusty Avatar

      I can’t speak for Holly, but I think the way she managed it may have been because of the angle she took – she wrote a humorous article on how to suck, and not an article that said “I hate this and this and this and if you do this I hate you too,” which gave it a positive spin. The latter breeds negativity – the former breeds fun and more humour, and doesn’t send readers into such a negative frame of mind.

      1. PD Singer Avatar

        I think this comes under Oscar Wilde’s advice: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

        1. Holly Avatar

          And there you have it. Find the positive spin (“Here’s how to win a Pulitzer”) on a negative phenomenon (“Here’s how to write a book about how life is meaningless and worthless and how the reader is, too, because I, the Author, thinks everyone is”), fill it with useful information on how to write books that ARE NOT about how life and the people who live it are worthless, and keep it light.

  47. Julian Adorney Avatar
    Julian Adorney

    Great post, Holly, as always.

    I was, until very recently, both an ardent fan of your site and one of the sharks you describe. I took huge enjoyment in shredding books (and particularly, political posts) that I considered stupid. The interesting thing is that I attracted people who did the same. I developed a group of associates with whom I might spend hours trashing a political article or a bad book.

    Eventually I realized something: doing that is like banging your head against a wall. Sharks don’t fix anything. They don’t improve the world. I can’t speak for anyone else, but all my sharking managed to do was make me miserable. When you surround yourself with people that you don’t respect and spend all your time publicly ripping apart people/articles/books you hate, you start to hate life. I’d much rather enjoy life.

    The world’s a beautiful, wonderful, magical place, and sharks don’t seem to see this. One of the things I love about your site is that, every time I come here, you and everyone else on here reaffirms my faith in humanity. You’ve built a great site, and I have the utmost respect for everyone on here.

    I’m starting my own website early 2011, and hopefully I can attract a crew as amazing and humanity-affirming as the one here.

    1. Holly Avatar

      It’s amazingly easy to get sucked into shark-dom. The noisiest people you know are always happy to join you there—if you refuse to participate in ripping people apart, on the other hand, you get such charming labels as Pollyanna and idiot optimist.

      But life IS good. And joy is attainable. I’m glad you’ve broken free from the bloody seas of sharks.

  48. Johanna Avatar

    I loved this post. I love how you can explain how you do what you do. You are a very good teacher. I love this site and its content; I have so much respect and admiration for what you have created, and now you have given me the tools to create my own haven.

    And yes, How To Train Your Dragon is a wonderful movie, for all the reasons you said, plus the animation is cool too ๐Ÿ™‚

  49. WandersNowhere Avatar

    Holly, your ability to stand up and lay your beliefs on the table in a way that is simultaneously uncompromising, honest, inspiring and funny never ceases to amaze me.

    I don’t always share your opinions (for which I’m glad – if we all thought exactly the same way we’d be Tapioca People, and everyone here seems to be the opposite of that) but I like the way you express them, and I agree with plenty enough to be able to say I’ll be around here for a long time yet.

    I posted a bit more on my tumblr so I don’t spam out this thread. Anyone who might be interested in more musings can check there. ^^ Gomen, I get a bit verbose.

    1. Holly Avatar

      It was a wonderful post. I’m not on tumblr, and cannot keep up with the social sites I do use, so rather than add another one, I’m posting my reply here.

      I cheered for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, too. (I also cried the first time I saw dinosaurs in the movie—the apatosaurus rising on his hind legs to pick leaves off a tall tree made real for me a world I’ve hungered for since I was five. It was a beautiful movie.)

      So now I ask: Have you seen How to Train Your Dragon? If you haven’t, you should—from everything in your post, it sounds like it could have been written by you. Cleverly disguised as a kid’s movie, it is in fact a paean to brains over brawn, to the power of applied knowledge, and to the beauty and wonder of discovering the truth by slashing your way through misconceptions, ignorance, and lies.

      It has earned its place on my shelf as one of my all-time favorite movies, and I recommend it to anyone who values his own intelligence.

      1. WandersNowhere Avatar

        Holly, I really appreciate that you took the time to read my tumblr, thank you!

        On How to Train Your Dragon – you’re not the first person to recommend that movie to me recently, so I think it just jumped to the top of my ‘must see’ list.

        I will, in return, recommend ‘Sintel’, as a beautifully made and emotional short fantasy film, although I will also recommend keeping tissues close at hand when watching it. GAHHHH. I’m -still- recovering.

        On Jurassic Park – yes! Spielberg understood (at least in the first film) that the appeal of dinosaurs with children and adults alike is the sense of awe, beauty and wonder they inspire as much as their potential for being scary. So we got our brachiosaurs and our triceratops as well as our rampaging t.rex and raptors. I mean, any kid will tell you why dinosaurs are awesome: they are just as cool as dragons and minotaurs and unicorns, but they get extra coolness points because they ACTUALLY EXISTED.

        Good to hear you’re writing, I can’t wait for the Rebel Tales launch. Cheers!

        1. Wisemoon Avatar

          @ Holly: Thanks for the wonderful post, it was awesome and inspiring.
          @ WandersNowhere: I really enjoyed reading your post on your tumblr site, and I totally agree with you. As a recommendation: you might want to check out the webcomic “Goblins”. It is based on Dungeons and Dragons, and the premise is “what if a group of goblins decided to become adventurers?” While it turns the concept of villains/heroes on its head a bit, the truth is the values Holly mentions in the above post are totally there. And it brings out what you said also: sometimes the ones who *present* themselves as heroes are actually self-centered, bigoted, or frankly psychotic.

          While it has many elements of humor in it, primarily inside jokes about D&D or other fantasy stories/games, it has developed into a deeply moving and inspiring story. A few scenes with the paladin Goblin, and his selfless sacrifices for his friends, brought tears to my eyes. I highly recommend you check this out.

          1. Wisemoon Avatar

            Sorry, I forgot to post the link! You can find the “Goblins” webcomic at:



          2. WandersNowhere Avatar


            Thanks for the link! I had read a little bit of it before, but now I’ll definitely check it out.


  50. Ed Avatar

    This was such an insightful post, Holly. I always enjoy getting to peek behind the scenes at how things work, especially how you make things work.

    I’m like your son: I didn’t think anyplace like this existed on the internet, either, until I found your site; reading the comments section on any other site, whether it be Yahoo “news” or YouTube, makes me seriously doubt humanity far too often. Thank goodness for people like you who *have* created bastions of intelligence and creativity in a terribly destructive world.

    Even though you know that you attract the people you want to your site, I just want to reaffirm you in the battle you’re fighting; never stop doing what you’re doing, and thank you again!

    1. Holly Avatar

      You’re welcome. From the very beginning, I created this place to be someplace I would want to be—I love talking to readers and writers who share what matters to me. Reading, writing, learning, life.

      Thank you for being here and for adding to what’s good in this place.

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