Catherine Ryan Hyde Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of more than 25 published and forthcoming books, including the bestselling When I found You, Pay It Forward, Don't Let Me Go, and Take Me With You.


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Filtering by Category: Opinion Pieces

Do authors have a "duty to warn"?

Catherine Ryan Hyde

A couple of weeks ago the very first novel I ever wrote, Funerals for Horses, got a scathing 1–star review on Amazon from a person who said “someone should have warned” her that there was sex in the book. Well, I did, actually, in my new introduction. I didn’t respond, of course, because I don’t think authors should ever respond to reviews. But I did begin to discuss it a bit on Facebook in the context of a recent post regarding authors leaving reviewers alone.

Interestingly, I heard from another woman, a Facebook friend, who also strongly believes in book “warnings.” She feels that if a book contains sex it should say so in the promotional description, because otherwise she will already have spent her money by the time she finds out, and it will be too late.

Actually, the book is for sale exclusively on Amazon, and the reader can use the “look inside” feature before buying. Plus Amazon ebooks can be returned for a full refund in the first few days.

That said, I’m looking further into whether something should be said in the book description of Funerals for Horses. But I have a feeling the problem will not be so easily solved. While I totally support people’s right to read only what they care to read, I’m not sure the author can solve the problem with warnings.

Here's where I stand on "warning" readers. Or, at least, where I think I stand. I’m hoping to hear from readers and get more information that will help me decide.

How do I know where the reader’s line will fall regarding sex? I have a couple of books in which characters have sex, but it's described in very non-specific, emotional-observations-only terms. Do they need a warning? What about the adult edition of Pay It Forward? Reuben and Arlene have sex, but we leave them at the bedroom door. But they wake up in the same bed. Does that need a warning?

I'm really shocked by how many people won't read a book with "swearing" in it. Do I need to warn about that? What about damn and hell? Does that count? If I soften the s-word by saying "crap," will that offend? Some people it will, other people it won’t.

I’ve actually had readers write to me to learn in advance if the name of God is taken in vain in one of my books. I did a search for one person, and found that it was used in sentences like, “I hope to God it’s okay,” but not in the context of swearing. I returned that information, saying I hoped it helped. The reader in question said it did, but without telling me where it fell on his line. But it wouldn’t have changed much if he had, because someone else’s line will be different.

I myself don't like to read books with upsettingly detailed violence. But how can the people who market the book know how much violence I will find upsetting?

Then there are people who will not read a book in which an animal is mistreated, or even one in which a pet dies a natural death.

Several people complained about When I Found You, feeling that they should have known in advance that the book includes boxing and hunting, because those are activities they don’t like.

I’m really not saying any of this sarcastically, or as if my view is the only one. I just don’t know how an author can  address in advance what a reader might find unacceptable. I may still decide to warn about the sex issue in Funerals for Horses, if only because it’s so different from my newer books, and I can understand why some readers would have come to expect something different from me. But I wonder if the only real solution to the problem at hand is for the reader to read the free sample, then buy the book, then stop reading and return the book if they feel they’ve made a mistake.

I’ve been in the book business for a long time, and this feels like a new problem to me. I never heard a word about a responsibility to warn readers about sex and language until a year or two ago. I’d be interested in hearing what my readers think on the subject. Because if I should be doing better to help readers have a good experience with my work, I want to know.

The Ethical Author Code

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Historical novelist Jane Steen recently wrote a very good opinion piece on ethics in self-publishing for the ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) website. I'll link to it HERE.  

I'm sure very few readers are strangers to the fact that "authors behaving badly" incidents have been a sore subject for the last several years. Authors have stalked reviewers and then proudly written articles about it, hit them over the head with wine bottles, bought false reviews or written sock puppet reviews, and mercilessly spammed potential book buyers by email or in social media. And that's a short list of what's going wrong.

Several years ago I wrote An Open Letter to Authors on this blog, offering my opinion on what to say in response to a bad review. (Hint: NOTHING!) Unfortunately, we are still swimming in the same issues today.

A few important things to remember:

  • This is a tiny segment of authors causing problems. Most authors are polite and ethical. As with all "news," you just don't hear as much about the good news.
  • This is not exclusively an indie author problem. However, in the past, publishers have tended to rein authors in. And in decades past, mountains of criticism and rejection have faced authors long before their books ever saw the light of day. We learned to deal with it before hitting the public eye. Now, I'm afraid, some are learning to hear criticism in public. 
  • Like most bad trends, fighting against it yields poorer results than committing to its solution.

So I'm speaking out on this positive new trend of the Ethical Author Code. The code is available on the Alli website. I think my readers already know that I bend over backwards not to violate any points of this code. For example, for years I've been encouraged to keep an email list of readers, but I have always refused. I feel that emailing you to tell you I have a new book out is spamming you. So, though you give me your email address for the purpose of giveaways, I don't save those addresses or use them for any other purpose. I put news on my website, on this blog, and on my social media pages, so you know where to find it. If you want it. That's the key.

I publicly commit to all points of The Ethical Author Code, and encourage other authors to do the same.

But I want to know what happened!

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Sometimes when I write fiction, I leave certain details open-ended. Yes, there is always more to know about the arc of characters’ lives, but in my opinion some of it belongs in the story and some doesn’t.

            Unfortunately, this seems to drive a percentage of readers crazy.

            People write to me asking how things turned out for a character or characters. Sebastian and Maria (from Chasing Windmills), for example. Will they be together again? People have said in their reader reviews that they’re taking away one star because I didn’t tell them if Nat and Carol get back together at the end of When I Found You. People request sequels with surprising frequency, which is a lovely compliment—but it’s another example of curiosity regarding what happens after the last page (although I know it some cases it’s a desire to spend more time with the characters, which I love to hear).

            Then there’s Pay It Forward.

            Right now I’m in the process of reading over 100 emails from middle school students who are studying Pay It Forward in school. Which is a lot of fun. But they want to know all this stuff beyond the last page. What happens with Trevor? Did this or that character really Pay It Forward?

            I find myself having more and more to say about fiction as it relates to any open questions in the work. I think there’s a flaw in how we’re looking at the whole issue. And I think reading becomes more meaningful when we clear up the misunderstanding. So I’m going to air my thoughts about that in this post.

            When I worked with my editor at Simon & Schuster to create the Young Readers’ Edition of Pay It Forward, I had a big decision to make regarding the ending. I decided not to go against my original intention, exactly, but rather to end the book before Trevor’s fate is known and let young readers decide for themselves. I knew I’d get questions about it, so I included the following in my introduction/author’s note for the Young Readers’ Edition:

            “This is the same book, just a bit shorter, and much more appropriate for the young reader. The characters and the story are the same.

            One thing is slightly changed, however. I’ve done something a little different with the ending. Left it more open. And I know I’ll get a lot of questions about it. Children, and probably adults as well, will email me to ask what happened after the last page.

            But fiction isn’t like that. I don’t have a secret key to any parts of the story that aren’t on the page. After I stop writing, it’s up to you. That’s the magic of a story. It’s a combination of your imagination and mine. Whatever happens in your mind is just as real as what happens in the mind of the author.

            So don’t write to me and ask me how it ended. Write to me and tell me how it ended for you.

            We’ll pool our resources and come up with a memorable story. And maybe … just maybe … a kinder world.”

            So here are a couple of answers for those who want to know what happened to/with [fill in the blank]:

            1. Nothing happened. It’s fiction. Those people don’t exist. I do want to say, though, that I’m pleased and flattered that you feel like they did. That’s a great compliment. But they can’t do anything beyond the words on the page, because they’re not real.

            2. Reading is a different kind of experience from, say, watching a movie. It’s a fictional world where you bring your imagination to the page with mine, and we create something together. Don’t give my imagination too much credit and your own too little. Do Carol and Nat get back together? Do Sebastian and Maria come back around to each other? They do if you say they do. There’s no reason to ask me, as if I own all their details. That’s the beauty of reading. You own them, too.

            Please feel free to share your thoughts on how any of these characters or story lines evolved in your imagination after the last page, because your assessment is every bit as valid as mine.


Speak Loudly for RAINN

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Those of you who have followed this blog for ages know that I was one of many authors (and others) to Speak Loudly for the book Speak (by Laurie Halse Anderson) when it faced a censorship challenge. I tweeted and Facebooked about it, and wrote an opinion piece about the initiative for AOL News.

Starting today, in honor of Speak, the publisher Macmillan is partnering with RAINN (the Rape and Incest National Network) in a Matching Donation Campaign to raise funds for the RAINN organization and awareness during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April 2013.

RAINN is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization and Laurie, a longtime supporter, is committed to furthering their goal of giving every victim of sexual violence a voice. The campaign launches April 2 (coinciding with the National Sexual Assault and Awareness Day of Action) and will run through the month of April. Macmillan will match up to $10,000 in donations and will also be facilitating several incentives programs, including a ‘How Speak Spoke to Me’ creative contest, signed book giveaways, a manuscript review (by Laurie) and a chance for the school that raises the most money to win a visit from Laurie.

I hope you'll support this important initiative, and help give a voice to those who need it most. You can learn more about the #Speak4RAINN Campaign HERE.

More About How to be a Writer...

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Most of you know that I collaborated with friend and publishing industry blogger Anne R. Allen on a nonfiction book for writers, How to be a Writer in the E-Age...and Keep Your E-Sanity. I'm dedicating today's blog post to our book because it just passed a lovely milestone. Its first updated ebook is now live.

When we set out to write a book about our rapidly-changing industry, we knew it presented a challenge. On the one hand, writers desperately need a map to navigate these changes. On the other hand, our information was fated to date quickly. Enter our publisher, Mark Williams International, who offered the ebook with free updates every six months. 

Our book is evolving.

This, of course, is something that can only be accomplished in the digital age, and a great example of the value of ebooks. But I'm also aware that How to be a Writer has fallen victim to a misperception. The market has been flooded with books about how to make lots of money self publishing ebooks. And because Anne and I are obviously writing about authors in this new digital era, I'm afraid many people think that's what our book is about. But How to be a Writer in the E-Age is about all aspects of being a writer. It compares and defines many publishing models without taking sides in the debate. And when we suggest our goal is to help you keep your sanity, we mean it.  

Anne and I write about topics that extend all the way from getting your first draft on paper to keeping your head on straight after that major shot of success. In between we offer advice on rejection, unsupportive friends and loved ones, the care and feeding of your critique group, social networking and the creation of an online author's platform, and.... Whew. There are a lot of topics. Have to stop to catch my breath. We compare and contrast the different publishing models and offer helpful suggestions for writing the pitch, query letter and synopsis. We even offer new perspectives on depression and writer's block. And of course Anne goes into great depth on her specialty, how to blog.

And that is by no means an inclusive list. I'm just skating over the surface of the table of contents to give you an idea of our scope.

Here's an example of one of my short pieces on making sense of criticism. I chose this piece because I know many of you reading this blog are not writers. But everybody has to deal with criticism. So I thought everybody could potentially relate. 


My first short story acceptance praised the way I “depicted the characters with brief brush strokes." The same story had just been rejected by another magazine because of the “hollowness” of the characters.

One story was accepted with such enthusiasm that the editor thanked me for sending it to his magazine, citing such work as his reason for being an editor. He went on to nominate it for Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry award and the Pushcart Prize. The last editor to have read the same story rejected it, saying it did not hold the reader’s interest and was told, not shown.

When my novel Pay It Forward came out, Time Magazine called my dialogue tinny and my characters stunted. The Chicago Tribune called my dialogue believable and my characters well-drawn.

It starts the day you join a critique group, it intensifies when you get an agent. Every time your agent sends out the work, the rejections get more confusing. One editor says it’s too this, the other says it’s too that. In the face of such conflicting opinions, what do you keep and what do you throw away?

I like to say that you must never, ever, under any circumstances, change your work just because someone tells you to…unless, of course, they’re right.

The writers in the group usually laugh. Because, of course, knowing who is right was the problem to begin with. I can’t sum up this thorny situation in a handful of words and make it all come clear. But I can offer a few ideas for consideration:

1.) There is no “right” and “wrong” concerning art or creativity. Everyone’s opinion is just that. An opinion. I despise the work of Ernest Hemingway. If I had been a contemporary, I might well have told Papa not to quit his day job. Would he have been wise to accept my opinion as fact?   

2.) Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, don’t expect an apostle to peer out.” This is not cited to characterize those who disagree with you, only to make the point that people bring their own experiences and perceptions to your work. You can’t stop them. No two people will have the same experience with what you write.      

3.) Our egos tend to dictate that all the advice given us regarding our work is wrong. This is what I like to call the “You just don’t get it” syndrome. Sometimes that same advice sounds a lot saner and more workable a few days later. In a critique situation, it helps to write down everything that’s said and sleep on it for awhile.

4.) Try saying nothing when faced with advice. When you begin to argue you stop listening. Even if the person really is saying stupid things, arguing will only make him or her say more stupid things. Right or wrong, just listen.

5.) Your reader is important. If your reader doesn’t get it, you’re not done. Then again there will always be someone who doesn’t get it. If it’s one in ten, you can’t please everybody. If it’s nine in ten, it’s time to listen.

6.) Important as your readers are, their names do not go on the finished product. It is your own sensibility that you ultimately have to please. No matter how strongly someone disagrees with the direction of your work, it must remain your work, or you’ve lost everything worth having. 

One of the biggest breakthroughs I ever had was when I learned to stop saying, “Is it good or is it bad?” and switched to, “What is the market for this? Who would like this kind of work?”

Dealing with the opinions of others is, in my estimation, the hardest part of being a writer. I don’t know that anything I’ve said makes it all that much easier. But there’s a question you can ask yourself at times such as these, and the answer will tell you everything you need to know. The catch is that you have to ask it on a deep level and answer honestly.

The question is, “Do I agree?”

When you can answer that question honestly, a great deal of initial confusion will fall away. When you base changes—or the refusal to make changes—on that answer, you will be honoring your reader, your work and yourself. 


If you're a writer, check out our ever-evolving ebook HERE. If you're a paper book person, you can find the paperback HERE. It was also just updated. But after you buy it, of course it won't continue to evolve. And if you don't know my co-author, Anne R. Allen, you should. She's a wonderful author and Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris is an invaluable tool for writers. And you might want to check out this lovely interview with Anne and myself by Joanna Celeste for You Read It Here First

If you have writer friends who are still trying to figure out which publishing path is best for them, please spread the word that How to be a Writer covers it all, without undue slant.

I hope it makes a noticeable addition to your continued sanity in this crazy business.

A Post About Posture

Catherine Ryan Hyde

An unusual topic, I guess, but I feel compelled to write about the spine. In a literal sense.

When I was a teenager, I had deplorable posture. It’s still nothing to write home about. But, you know, when you’re young you’re under the thumb of your parents. And my posture wasn’t good enough for mine. So they sent me to this special doctor, this bone specialist. To see if there was something seriously wrong with me.

I took offense to that. I took it to mean that whatever I was doing was somehow not acceptable. That they suspected me of being defective. I could have told them exactly why I had bad posture, but I didn’t choose to. It’s because I had no self-confidence. I rounded my shoulders and carried my head down in a human version of a submissive gorilla, not wanting to meet anybody’s eyes.


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The Blurb and Me

Catherine Ryan Hyde

I have some news to share, and I hope I can open a conversation with it. And I hope other authors—and readers—will comment. Please do tell me what you think.

I’m completely stepping out of the blurb game. That is, I’m no longer going to write endorsements of other authors’ books. This is not because I don’t want to help other authors succeed, and find a wider audience. I very much do. As a result, this has been a difficult decision. But two incidents brought it to a head.

A couple of months ago, I picked up some tweets to and from a blogger I very much like, respect and trust. (He is one of the bloggers I interviewed for my Blogger Wednesday series.) In other words, someone tweeted to him, and he tweeted back, and I saw the conversation because I follow both of the people involved. It was a little bit like being a fly on the wall. The gist of the conversation was that he was being asked to make time in a very busy schedule to read and review a book…because I had endorsed it.

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Vance Hyde 1922-2012

Catherine Ryan Hyde

My mom passed away on Wednesday the 21st. Just last week. Needless to say, it's been a very rough few days. But I wasn't planning to say much about the situation on my blog.

But today the obituary I wrote for her, with the photo I sent, came out in our local paper. Not the way I wanted it to. The photo was supposed to be my mom on shipboard in the Mediterranean Sea. It went along with the text depicting her as a woman who remained hugely adventurous well into her 80s. They cropped it down to nothing but a head shot. With no advance warning that they planned to do so.

And I'm...upset.

I usually try not to share too much upset on my blog, but when you mess up someone's mother's obituary, even in a small way, there's just no do-over on that. Everybody only gets one. And besides, I'm sure you understand that anything involving my mom is likely to pull big emotional strings right now.

What can I do? Well. This. I'm creating my own do-over. Here's how it was supposed to look:

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A Post About Empathy

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Years ago, I was doing a lot of business travel. And I do mean a lot. I was supplementing my writing income as a public speaker. It got out of hand, at least by my standards. I was on the road for about a third of the year.

One day I was exhausted and trying to get home when an airline problem caused me to miss a flight out of Phoenix to San Luis Obispo, my nearest regional airport. And there are only a couple of USAir flights to SLO per day. It’s not like American or United out of LAX or SFO, where they go out every couple of hours. The next flight was a seven-hour wait.

I had a bit of a tantrum at the gate, in front of the gate agent. Not pretty, but I was just so

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I Support the Occupy Movement

Catherine Ryan Hyde

The following is a short piece I wrote for the Occupy Writers website:

I’m a fiction writer, so…nobody likes a good story more than I do. Thing is, there are fiction stories and nonfiction stories.  And the difference matters. If you don’t believe me, ask James Frey.

Here are two stories. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is true.

Story number one:

Once upon a time there was a country called America, which wasn’t quite right, because that was not its name. Its name was the United States of America, so just calling it America was a bit insensitive toward the Canadians and

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Look Up and See the Whale

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Almost every day, unless I'm traveling, or on a more strenuous hike somewhere else, I walk my dog Ella on the boardwalk at Moonstone Beach, in my little town of Cambria.  Now and then I'll run into a local I know.  But, since Moonstone Beach Drive is lined with motels and inns, most of my fellow walkers are tourists.  Some walk hand in hand, enjoying the view.  Which is nice.  Many stop to take photos.  Also nice.  And others are on their cell phones, lost in the conversation, eyes trained toward their feet.  And this I find perplexing.

I have nothing against cell phones per se.  And I

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Book Bloggers and the Future

Catherine Ryan Hyde

I think I’ve made it amply clear that I respect book bloggers as an invaluable puzzle piece in the modern book business.  But of course that business is rapidly changing.  A whole new model is becoming the norm—maybe not erasing the old model, but probably displacing it in terms of sheer popularity and volume.  It will have its advantages, and a definite down side.  I’m optimistic, however, and I’ll tell you why in this post.  I think it will work.  But here’s the linchpin of the whole deal: with the help of book bloggers, I think it will fill the needs of readers/book consumers.  Without them, it could be a nightmare.

The self-published ebook, along with print-on-demand technology, has opened a

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An Open Letter to Authors

Catherine Ryan Hyde

This is a situation that's just popping up everywhere these days. I have fiercely strong opinions about it, and I just can't keep them to myself any longer. I don't know if I can do much to change it, but I'm going to speak my piece. If one author (big or small, indie or traditionally published) reads this and thinks twice before hitting "send" or "post," it will be worth it. If not, may these opinions be some small solace to besieged reviewers.

Recently I tweeted the following message. "Dear authors, Here's what you say to a negative review: NOTHING!"

I stand by that advice. In fact, I'd like to elaborate.

No one has a right to argue with anyone’s assessment of a book.  There is nothing to

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About Gratitude and Clouds

Catherine Ryan Hyde

It started when I was walking Ella on the boardwalk of Moonstone Beach Drive one day.  I looked up at the clouds, and they looked for all the world as though they'd been painted on. I could see the brush marks. And of course I didn't have my camera.

Clouds are changeable. By the time you get home on foot and grab the camera, they'll be something else entirely.

I had very recently started doing my "Daily Gratitudes." Rather than keeping a gratitude journal, as I've done intermittently in the past, I began posting one thing I was grateful for, every day, on Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn. Why online?

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A Post About Hiking Boots

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Okay. Right up front. If you don't hike, and aren't much on the great outdoors, you'll probably think I'm insane. Or...maybe not. Maybe you have your own story about some article of clothing or gear that took on its own meaning over the years. If so, please do comment and tell me. I'll feel much better.

I finally broke down and bought a new pair of hiking boots to replace my old Birkenstock Rockfords. After nine years and what I very conservatively estimate to be 3,000 to 4,000 miles together. About the equivalent of lacing them up in New York City and walking home to the coast of California, only much more

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More About Book Bloggers

Catherine Ryan Hyde

So, this is what I'm hearing, after the fact.  I missed last week's YAlitchat, a Twitter chat for the book business. But it seems some feathers were ruffled.  I confess I have not read the transcript, because I couldn't find one posted.  I tried to access the Tweets, but, beyond a certain point in the chat, they were unavailable.  So I'm going on blog wrap-ups of the issue by those who were there.  If I get anything wrong, please feel free to let me know.

Apparently, a small handful of authors (I'm sure it was only a small handful, and I do not blame it on YAlitchat, which is generally awesome) expressed some unflattering thoughts

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A Photo of Lenny

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Maybe it's just me.  But this blew me away.

I was having a Twitter conversation with a reader and friend who was once on Sesame Street as a child.  She even linked me to the video on YouTube.  

It reminded me of the time I was on Romper Room School at age 4 or 5 (Romper Room School is infinitely less cool than Sesame Street, so I'm not comparing them in that regard--it just reminded me).  And I dug into some old photo albums, sure I could find the photo.  It was up on my bathroom wall maybe a decade or so ago.

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A Privilege, a Duty

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Tuesday.  Voting day.  Did you vote?  Are you about to vote?  Or did you already send an absentee ballot in?

Whatever our views, this is no time for apathy.  The U.S. seems to be at a turning point.  Hell, mankind seems to be at a turning point.

I think the #1 reason people don't bother to vote is discouragement.  They feel whatever

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Book Blogger Appreciation

Catherine Ryan Hyde

I think everybody knows that the book business can I put this in fairly positive terms...unsteady, right now.  And I think everybody knows that print newspapers are dying an agonizing death.  I'm not sure anyone but an author would put the two together and nervously realize that print reviews are drying up just when authors need them the most.

So what do we do?  How do we get the word out?

Enter book bloggers.  Have I mentioned that I love book bloggers?  They are the present

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