Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Advice—Sifting the Good from the Bad

These days, there’s a lot of advice out there for aspiring authors. This is one of the best (and I’m going to argue, potentially the worst) things about the internet, on-line loops, list-serves, blogs, conferences, writers’ groups, workshops etc.

Molly’s great talk and blog on beginnings—particularly her point that if you believe all the advice you’ve heard about how NOT to start a book, it would be impossible to start one at all—combined with me extolling the virtues of reading industry blogs last week, spurred me to think about how hard it can be, for newbie writers in particular, to sift the good advice from the bad.

And newbie probably isn’t the right word. And it’s a totally subjective thing, anyway. I think some people who decide write educate themselves quickly (Sinead) and stop being newbie writers within the first year, even if it takes them another ten to get published (but it’s not going to take Sinead that long). Others are still newbies after publishing their tenth book. (No names mentioned here, but definitely NOT Molly.)

My point is, a newbie in the context I mean here, is anyone who gets confused/overwhelmed by conflicting advice. She/he hears advice and lacks the filters or experience to decide whether it ends up in the good advice or bad advice bin.

And there’s a LOT of bad advice out there. A LOT. And to complicate things, what I consider bad advice, others—at least the person offering it—considers good advice. So what’s a writer to do?

For me it goes back to what I’ve said on this blog before. You have to decide what kind of career you want. What kind of a writer you want to be. Then knowing that, you’ve already got your first filter. Does this make sense for the type of career I want. Does the person offering the advice have the kind of career I want? Write the type of books I write?

But even then, each successful author’s story is a little different. For example, some will say get a great agent first. That is, never submit to editors without an agent because then if you get rejected, agents won’t touch your project because it’s already been shopped. On the opposite side of the advice wall, others will insist it’s much easier to get a publishing contract than literary representation, so you should submit to editors and once you have a contract in hand, call your top five dream agents and choose one then.

I know people who’ve been successful both ways, but personally, in sifting through this particular instance of conflicting advice, I thought about what kind of career I wanted, what kind of publisher I wanted (did they even look at unagented submissions), how many years ago the authors offering the advice first sold and who they sold to. Also what other circumstances may have come into play—like what the market was doing at the time, how they met their editor if they did the editor-first route etc. After applying those filters it was clear for me. I took the get an agent advice.

Another thing it’s important to remember when reading advice is that there are no absolutes. Nothing in writing is black or white. (Except maybe paper and ink?) Diana Peterfreund has a great series of articles on “Good Advice Gone Bad” I wish I had written. They basically all make the point that if you take any piece of advice too literally, you’re probably making a mistake. The articles are indexed at the side of her blog. Check them out.

So when you hear/read some advice (including what I’m writing now, LOL) the first thing to consider is who’s giving the advice? Check out their books, their website, other things they’ve said. There are (in my not-always-as-humble-as-it-should-be opinion) some real idiots out there on the loops offering up their “wisdom” to the masses. And I’m sure there are people out there who think we drunk writers are idiots. (They’re wrong. At least about Sinead and Molly.)

It's also important to understand the reasons behind any particular piece of advice. Don't just accept it as a "rule". I think this is particularly true with advice on craft. I mean, of course you can have a flashback in a book. Lots of great books have flashbacks. But I think it’s important to understand why Jenny Crusie and many others think they are a very bad idea. She’s smart and her reasons make sense—but that doesn’t mean that, after knowing those reasons and thinking about your particular book, that a flashback won’t be the very best way to tell your particular story. Just be honest with yourself.

Another thing to remember with craft advice: there are many, many ways to say roughly the same things. Three act plotting, four act plotting, hero’s journey, heroine’s journey (all loosely the same thing); inciting incident, put your hero up a tree, first point of conflict (all loosely the same thing); turning points, plot points, reversals; black moment, climax; GMC, conflict, tension; outlining, storyboarding… And two great books on writing (McKee's Story and the Browne & King book on editing) both use the term "beats" and mean something completely different.

There are as many ways to think about writing as there are writers writing who enjoy writing about writing. (Phew!)

Don’t get bogged down in the vocabulary or conflicting advice. Learn what you can, figure out what works for you and then JUST DO IT. (Am I going to get sued by Nike now?)


Kimber said...

I think writing advice is much like investment advice (a subject I know more about). I'm happy to say "this is what works for me" but I try to resist saying "this will also work for you."

Because I don't know the other person. I don't know her goals, her strengths, her weaknesses, what her mother said about her in grade two, that sort of thing.

But mostly because I'm slowly coming to terms with my weirdness. You ladies might need a few drinks to get silly. I get there sober.

Sinead M said...

Great, great post, Maureen. I know at the beginning, I took all the advive so seriously, and only in the last couple of years, have I really thought about whether it applies to me.
So important to really think through what people are telling you, plus, the only way you really know if it works is to put it into practice and write. Write lots, more than one book, and see what feels the best and most comfortable.
I know I've said it many times before, but Maureen is smart!
Kimber, you sound like you'd be fun to have out for DWT...

Molly O'Keefe said...

you know it's funny I'd go to workshops by really established authors that I adore and they'd say things like "you've got to do what works for you" and I'd walk away feeling like I'd gotten nothing from it and now...I see what they mean. I love giving workshops and I love talking process and craft - but I think it's all guidelines right? It's all -- it works for me and maybe it will work for you.

The problem is as newbies (which, by the way after nearly ten years I am only NOW beginning to feel like an advanced beginner) we don't have filters. They come in time. It's part of the learning curve.

Smart lady, Maureen. It's why I hang out with you...that and your high alcohol tolerance...

Amy Ruttan said...

I don't mind being called a newbie, even though I've been writing for as long as I can remember. I've been actively pursuing it for about 2 years. I'm fairly new to the TRW and the echelon of the publishing industry. I didn't know near the amount of stuff when I first started seriously writing.

I make up my own mind what I listen to. I've had people in my critique group try to tell me HOW my story should be ... but they wanted me to rewrite it the way they would tell it. I take what I want now and discard what I don't because I don't want my voice to become silent.

Although I have not actively pursued an agent, I plan to shortly because the more I think about the more I realize I want a career and I just don't know what goes into a contract etc.,

Great post.:)

Maureen McGowan said...

Amy, I think I'm a newbie, too. But I do feel like I'm getting a little better at sifting through advice now.

One step at a time, right?

Maia said...

I've read and bought enough how-to-write books to start my own library. Some offer conflicting advice. I find that I'll read a new how-to book and finally "get" some concept that I know I must have read many times in other how-to books. It wasn't until I was ready to hear that particular piece that it finally penetrated my mind.

I've been obsessively reading agent blogs and also studying submission guidelines and advice agents offer on their websites. I learned a lot the other day on the McManus & Associates website. Maybe the agent delivered her advice in a certain way I was able to finally get what they look for in query letters. Duh. Takes me awhile, but this is an on-going process. Still love it, though.

Sara Hantz said...

This is a superb post, Maureen. When I first started I got so totally bombarded with advice it scared me.... thought I'd never make it...

Christine said...

Awesme post Maureen. I wish I had read it sooner! Advice is such a tricky topic. Anyone who's a partent knows that you can read ten books on how to raise good kids and you'll get ten different suggestions.

I like how you say it comes down to the type of book/career you want to have. I was reading on another blog about doing business plans. I think this is a good way to figure out what type of advice you want to listen to. Will it take you to where you want to go?

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