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Saturday, 22 February 2020

The Power of Kind Words

The day before my dad died, when I was sitting beside him in hospital, an email popped up on my phone from a woman who had taken it upon herself to trace me in order to let me know in advance that she was going to give me a shit review on Amazon. Quite simply she didn’t like the story. I never think my books are going to satisfy everyone on the planet, but I did wonder if she ever stopped to think how much her words would sting me, what exactly I would be doing when I got her email. If she experienced a sense of pride imagining me opening it - me, the smug bitch who needed to be taken down a peg or two for having the affrontery to be a novelist - and not as someone who would read her words whilst my heart was breaking as I held the hand of my beloved father on the last full day of his life? In the old days (pre-internet) she would have been cross but then forgot about it because it was all too much effort to track me down and then write a letter to the publishers to be forwarded. But these days, it's much easier to vent, so much easier to spew bile.

Guess what - we authors feel very deeply, we mine into our emotions and that's what makes us write the words that affect our readers, make them laugh, cry, rejoice.

Words, are powerful tools. A simple ‘thank you’ – said or withheld – can change the course of someone’s day, often beyond.  But with power comes great responsibility, as Spiderman’s uncle once said.  Words, as we are seeing more and more, can pull someone back from a brink ...or push someone over it.

Where once upon a time we might have shared a discussion about someone on the TV with a friend, we now use the internet as ‘a mate’. We parade our feelings about people we don’t know – to people we don’t know. Some might say ‘we have freedom of speech so what’s the problem with that?’ Well, just because you can write something, doesn’t mean you should, love. Words are often like handguns; they should be used responsibly, with care and sense not wantonly as if we were power-drunk cowboys. Our safety catches are off; the internet has stripped away our awareness of empathy, how much we can affect other people with what we say. We can shoot directly at targets that bleed these days. Did I say how powerful words were?

We’ve all done it.  It’s too easy, too habit-forming. We’ve all thought ‘Jesus wept’ when we’ve seen someone a bit non-conformist on Only Connect/Love Island/Question Time.  Some people take it to extremes, want to grind someone they can’t stand underfoot, even though they’ve never met them or are likely to. Most of us have taken to Twitter at least once to parade our observations to people we don’t know looking for what - affirmation that we’ve got our thoughts right? Until you’re at the receiving end of a trolling you have no idea how much those comments wound. We have developed a thirst for hate, Twitter has become the gladiatorial arena and anyone in the public eye is a potential bear to be poked with a stick for entertainment. No longer do we just turn to our partner in the lounge and say ‘look at the arse on her’, we have to submit our words to the internet where the person with the big arse might see them, even copying in the generously proportioned person to ensure they see them – possibly even adding a hashtag to make trebly sure. What have we gained by going that extra distance to the keyboard and doing that? Do we go to bed happier for it? Do we think what effect our words might have on that person if they read them and do we savour their distress?

We live in a negative age. We are more likely to rage online about a meal we’ve hated than one we have loved. Maybe it’s time to flip the coin. Maybe it’s time to reconnect with the kindness inside us – a quality that is often mistaken for softness and weakness, not for the strong, life-changer… life-saver - that it can so often be.

Words can be gentle hands or weapons, and we are producing a generation who see cyber-bullying as the norm. Schools should be teaching their pupils how to use words with care and thought. It’s too easy to hate. It’s too easy to think that there is only one opinion on anything and it’s mine and it’s the right one. Once upon a time there was healthy discussion, now a difference of belief is tantamount to a thrown-down gauntlet.  There seems to be a culture of ‘I believe in peace and love and tolerance to all people, unless you think differently to me then I want to kick your head in, you f-ing cow’.  One careless word, one thought voiced in error leads to outcries to ‘cancel’, to extinguish a person’s career, to take away their livelihood and profession in a world where the goalposts are continually moving. Once upon a time a mistake was 'tomorrow's chip paper', now even the smallest of innocent errors hangs around for ever, like mustard gas. And, to paraphrase Jesus who puts it better than I could, are we all really that pure that we can be classed as the 'without sin' crew worthy of casting the first stone'? Nope - are we hell.

Take for instance a word that swam into my radar last week. Not so long ago ‘queer’ was a word that had been thrown into insult jail. Now it has been released and labelled as de rigueur. I can't keep up with what I can and can't say and if we get it wrong, there seems to be an army of enraged people waiting to highlight it to the planet, refusing to let it die as the clumsy mistake it was. With every passing year we get closer to 1984! The world feels like a field full of eight foot pot-holes full of dissolving acid. No wonder anxiety levels are at an all-time high. Maybe it's time to take a moment just before we put fingers to keyboards to type in something derogatory and think what negativity we are releasing. Maybe think of that tweet being directed at us and how we'd feel reading it. 
No surprise then that the sales of the books us commercial fiction writers pen are rising. Our books full of kind people, friendship, love and acceptance, fictional communities who pull together and bad guys are thwarted.  Does this not signify a clear desire for millions of readers to escape this hard and unforgiving world? Or maybe to find hope that kindness will somehow leap out of the pages and become real?

There is no word for our genre of fiction – one primarily written for women by women – because no label really fits which doesn’t sound dismissive. Chick-lit has become a derisory term and in no way describes the depth, the intricacy and craft of our writing.  Women’s fiction (note: there is no ‘men’s fiction’)? Somehow it sounds sniffy, as if it is fit only for creatures with smaller brains and intellect; something for the little lady to read inbetween doing the cooking and washing, as if our lives are less important somehow. (Fem-fiction?  Not for me; anything with the prefix 'Fem' makes me think immediately of a sanitary towel.)

'I don't read romance, I read proper books.'  Like Doctor Zhivago. A love story. Hang on... it's by a bloke. Let's reclassify it then as an epic masterpiece. See the problem we women of romance have?


Whatever you call it, our books have the power to transform, to cheer and inspire, to act like aloe vera on troubled souls. In our works women sometimes find templates of healthy relationships for the first time, solace, motivation to change their lot. And they do, because they write and tell us about it. Though I don’t think any of us set out to alter the fabric of someone's existence when we wrote our manuscripts but our aim to entertain and tell a story often ends up having a massive influence on someone who desperately needs direction – and finds it within our pages.

Maybe it is time for life to imitate our art. For kindness and forgiveness and acceptance to be allowed to flower instead of being stamped out by big boots of intolerance and literary snobbery given the potential is has to be the salvation for so many. Until it does, we shall continue writing our tales of a nicer and infinitely more considerate world, of hope and 'within reach' happy endings. Our ‘little women’s’ books which seemingly have a power not really to be sniffed at. 


  1. Absolutely agree with you. Also, my deep condolences for your loss. Fathers are very special people.

  2. So sorry you had to endure such hatefulness at such a heartbreaking time Milly ���� I’ve listened to many of your audiobooks and spent countless hours out in the Forrest being entertained whilst walking my dog, listening and laughing and crying to your magical tales. There’s far too much hate in the world these days but I try to ignore it as much as possible ... looking forward to your newest novel with great anticipation. I love your words ����

  3. Really insightful and uplifting post, Milly. I totally agree with you. So sorry about your father passing away, and sad that you had to endure this spite, especially at such an awful time. xx

  4. Well said, Milly - one of the most articulate and reasoned responses I've ever seen to this ghastly problem. You sum it up perfectly - if only the trolls had a shred of your compassion, or a little more self-control. The most ridiculous aspect of their situation is that they are seeking their own 'success' (popularity? celebrity?) by deliberately sabotaging the happiness and success of others. Stay strong, treasure your precious memories of your Dad and know that there are many, many of us who admire and appreciate your writing.

  5. Very well said, Milly. And how awful that you had to put up with something like that at such a sad time for you. Your books have brought such joy to so many people and I hope will continue to do so for a long long time. My condolences on your loss.

  6. A powerful post. Sorry for your loss and totally endorse your message.