#1255: “I’ve been conscripted! As an unwilling beta reader of somebody’s very personal fan fiction!”

Dear Captain Awkward:

Well, not exactly. First, some background: I (she/her) am a member of a Face Book group for fan-fiction readers and writers. I’m a longtime writer of both original work and fan works, so I like to leave comments when people post questions about plotting, characterization, etc. Trouble is, I commented on one post a couple of weeks ago, and now the original poster won’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She private messaged me within about an hour of me leaving the comment, specifically requesting elaboration on what I’d said. Sure, fine, not the first time this has happened. We kept chatting, about the fandoms we were in, that sort of thing. Hey, great, maybe I’m making a writer friend, I’ve been looking for that. And then she dug a little deeper into what I liked- did I read/write mostly G rated or X rated, was it mainstream stuff or fringe, etc. For the sake of the story, we’ll say that I ended up saying, well, I mostly like m/m, I sometimes like f/f, and I’ll only read m/f if it’s really special, and that I really like reading when men tie other men up and have sex with them. So she starts sending me bits and snippets of stories she’s been writing, and most of them turn out to be m/f, where the woman is being tied up to work through childhood trauma. And in between there are questions- “if her legs were tied like that, would she be able to stay in that position?” “would he check in with her at this point, or would he just keep tying knots?” I’ve tried to answer and respond in good faith, but it’s becoming draining. Worse, as all this has progressed, I’ve realized that the writer herself probably has childhood trauma surrounding being tied up, and she is using the writing, and by extension me, as free therapy.

I didn’t sign up for any of this! I was never even asked if I was up for (or even interested in) so much as being a beta reader, let alone this mish-mash of editor and therapist that I’ve been shoehorned into. I’m generally a big fan of “use your words” but this situation has me speechless. Can you recommend any scripts to disentangle from this boundary-challenged person before I say something I’ll regret?

Thanks for all you do!

Dragooned

Hello Dragooned!

Here’s a general reminder that “Will you read my writing?” and “Will you read my sexy writing?” require consent just as much as any other human activity, and it’s better to wait and get real, active participation vs. “Well, they haven’t said ‘stop,’ good enough! I’ll keep going!” 

Stop commenting on anything she sends you, except to tell her to stop sending it.

No need to speculate on her reasons (kinks, childhood traumas, etc.). In fact, don’t speculate about that anymore – disengage! What she’s working out in her own history is her business. What matters is that even if you were okay with it at first, you’re not enjoying it anymore, so that’s a good enough reason for it to stop right now.

Here are some scripts:

  • I’ve enjoyed speaking with you about [the very first piece you commented on that sparked your initial conversation]. The snippets you’ve sent since are really Not My Thing, so I wish you good luck with the projects but please stop sending me material, especially sexually explicit writing. See you in the [Main Group]!” 
  • “Oh, I’m not interested in being a beta reader. Let’s just keep it all in [Main Group] from now on.” 
  • “Oh, this is way too personal for me, I’m not comfortable chatting about this. See you in [Main Group].”

She might have a big reaction to being told to stop (Maybe she was just really enthusiastic and didn’t mean any harm, she’s shared some vulnerable stuff, she thought you were on the same wavelength, she’s embarrassed, etc.) and it’s okay if she’s upset. You didn’t do something horrible by saying no, it’s actually good when people tell us where their boundaries are even if it can sting in the moment. As long as she gets the message and stops sending you the stuff, hopefully you can go back to being peaceful participants in the group conversation.

From there, in your shoes, I would not reply to more messages from her. Use whatever filters you need to so she can’t even see you are online, and definitely make sure she can’t see ‘read receipts,’ etc. You told her to stop. In the main group, focus your energy on other community members and friends, don’t give detailed feedback on anything she submits, and consider hiding her posts from your view. Basically, starve the conflict of attention for a while. If she’s cool? Everything will be cool. If she’s not cool? Read on.

If she responds to “Please don’t send me more material” with all the reasons that it’s actually okay for her to still send you that material (“You’re the only person who understands me,” “I have no one else to talk to about this,” “It’s actually your fault for not saying so sooner,” etc., choose your favorite tune from the Manipulation Jukebox) say “Hey, I’m sorry it worked out this way, but like I said, I’ve realized that this is incredibly Not My Thing, so please stop” and skip directly to the block button.

You can think you and somebody are going to click as friends and then find out that you don’t without anyone being a bad person. You and this lady aren’t meant to be friends, I think, so, time to end it before you get deeper in.

You can wish people well in life without trouble-shooting either their feelings, their rope safety techniques, or their manuscripts.

———————————————-Addendum—————————————————————–

Now, when it comes to friends and the fraught process of sharing/commenting on creative work, I had one final thought: It’s March 1, 2020. May I suggest April 2, 2020 as a General Amnesty Day for reading friends’ writing that we promised to do but haven’t gotten to yet? (Not April Fool’s Day, that’s just adding insult to injury).

It’s vulnerable and scary to share work and wait and wait and wait to find out if people liked it and then find out they haven’t even read it.

It’s upsetting to commit to reading somebody’s work and not be able to follow through while reserves of dread and guilt build up in the “should” pile. When enough guilt/shame/dread builds up, friends who should be pleasantly eating pancakes together start avoiding each other, because the weight of “SO, DID YOU READ IT YET” and “OH NO, THEY’RE GOING TO ASK ME IF I READ IT” become too much to bear.

We can like people a lot, and root for their work a lot, and yet be a bad fit for this role in each other’s lives.

Hence, I propose that we all have 31 days starting now to either read the thing or to return it to our friends with apologies because we know we won’t get to it in any kind of reasonable timeframe. Anyone exercising amnesty has the option to say “Do you still want me to read x, I’d love to dive in?” at some future date and everyone can decide at that time on a realistic timeframe and parameters for giving notes, etc. Until then, either read the work or say you can’t, no excuses required, no questions asked, just pancakes, hold the guilt.