Writing advice to take with a grain of salt

As a writer, I rub shoulders (virtually) with lots of other writers. On Facebook I’ll often see quotes from people like Stephen King, or Hemingway and others. Inspirational stuff. I think. But sometimes advice needs to be weighed and measured before it’s blindly believed. Here are a few I’ve encountered.

Read lots

Really? Oh, I don’t doubt you’ve read heaps of books. So have I – both for pleasure and as part of my university degree. Piles and piles, heaps of books. But reading doesn’t make you a writer. My husband is a voracious reader – and I do mean voracious. He isn’t a particularly fast reader, but he would go through a book or two a week. The prospect of him writing a book? Somewhere between Buckley’s and none. Reading may lead you to writing, reading may provide you with knowledge about a particular genre, it may cause you to think that you could write a better book yourself. But reading does not make you a writer.

Do more writing courses

How many have you done? Lots or none at all? I’ve done a few. But at the end of the day, all you’re doing is training up for the real event. Would I suggest people do writing courses? Absolutely. Then go away and think about what you learned and how you might want to apply that knowledge (if at all). Writing courses are subjective, in a way that (say) basic physics is not. You can learn Newton’s three laws of motion – and if you’re writing science fiction, that’s not a bad idea. They are facts, just as 1 + 1 = 2. But writing courses will teach you how a certain person thinks the job should be done. Do you think Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolkien, did a writing course? You might as well have done lots of reading (see above).

Take lots of editorial advice

So you’ve written the first chapter of your masterpiece and you take it along to the local writers’ group for comment. Or, in this electronic age, you post it to to Authonomy or some other, similar, group. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a necessary step along the way. Float your little paper boat and see how long before it sinks. Some will say they love it, some will say they hate it. Whose advice do you take? If you’ve done the writing courses, you’ll recognise others who have done the same courses. But beware, take care before you take advice from people who don’t read the genre, or people who haven’t read the whole book. Consider opinions by all means, but don’t turn your book into a hippogriff by trying to pander to everyone’s whims.

It’s cool to collect rejection slips

Sure, it’s part of the process. But you know what? It doesn’t happen to everybody. I have a writer friend who sent the synopsis and first three chapters of her first book to five well-respected agents. Within two (2) weeks she had a contract for three (3) books, with a six-figure advance. The other four agents passed – but she didn’t much care. Sure, I know some will paper their office with rejection slips. It might be smarter to think about why you’re getting so many? Have you targeted the wrong agents/publishers? Do your queries stack up? And then (um) is your book any good?

Your work is good enough to publish

Maybe it is. If you’ve been through rigorous quality control. That’s what it is, really, getting a book ready for publishing – even if it’s self publishing. Find out if people enjoyed the read – and I don’t mean the people who will love anything you do, including those sausages you burnt at the last family barbie. That’s where critique groups are useful if you can find people prepared to read the whole book and give you fair comment. If they say the ending’s weak or there’s lots of loose ends that go nowhere, maybe you need to reconsider your plot. But for now, let’s assume that’s not necessary. A professional edit from someone who knows what they’re doing is still a very good idea. So is copy editing. Remember that husband I mentioned? The one that reads a lot? He’s no academic, but he knows ‘drug’ or ‘drugged’ is not the past tense of the verb ‘to drag’. He knows the difference between their, there and they’re. If you write “apple’s”, he’ll wonder “apple’s what?” If you don’t understand all of these, go and learn English.

So what do you think? What other “advice” would cause you to pause and think?

Before you take well-meaning editorial advice…

I finished reading a book a few days ago. The cover’s at left – A Darker Moon, by J.S. Watts. This post is not a review. Yes I wrote one, and it is on Amazon, but I want to talk about the danger of making changes to an MS because of comments someone makes on a partial read.

I first encountered this book on the Harper-Collins slushpile site, Authonomy. This was some time ago, during a brief revisit to what had been a great place for me in the past. For those who don’t know, authors post at least 10k words of an MS on the site and invite people to read and comment, maybe offer some constructive criticism. The hope is the HC pixies will notice your masterpiece and sweep it into publication. It doesn’t happen often.

Watts posted the first eleven chapters of A Darker Moon. It was one of those rare books which grabbed my imagination, well written, intriguing. Despite the klutziness of the Authonomy reading interface, I read all eleven chapters – a rare and wonderful event. The book is an autobiography and a mystery as a man tries to find out about his past and why his mother abandoned him  on the steps of a synagogue shortly after his birth. I always tried to offer some constructive suggestions when leaving a comment on a book, or at least an idea of my feelings as a reader. In this case I had little to offer apart from “I loved it – I would buy this book”. If I’d been an agent I would have asked for the full.

Some time later (still on Authonomy) I happened upon the book again and had a look at some of the other comments, posted after mine. One attracted my attention, written by a gentleman well known on Authonomy for leaving detailed criticism extolling the virtues of ‘show don’t tell’ and exhorting the author to learn the rules of writing offered in a certain ‘how to’ book. He panned the novel. Tell, tell, tell is all it was (he said). How much better if Watts had shown her readers what was happening? He gave many examples and many suggestions along those lines. And indeed, maybe that’s why the book hadn’t been snapped up by an agent or publisher at that stage, since ‘show don’t tell’ has become a mantra. I might add that I have absorbed that mantra and use it in my own writing (although I didn’t buy that ‘how to’ book).

Yet for A Darker Moon that approach would have been quite, quite wrong.

Abe, the main character of the book, tells the reader his story. He shares what he sees, his insights, what’s going on in his head as he meets the love of his life, as he doubts his sanity, as he’s faced with increasing strangeness. He also mentions things in passing, clues for the reader. He doesn’t join the dots – that’s your job. In a way the book ends up in the air, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It’s kind of ‘this is my life – deal with it’.

If J.S. Watts had used the ‘show don’t tell’ mantra this would have been a very different book. Would it have been as good? I rather doubt it because the narrative would have lost that brooding psychological depth. At a few points, the reader is even directly addressed, told, effectively, to mind their own business. What’s more, right at the end the reader learns why this book was written in the way it was.

So – listen to well-meaning advice. Most advice is well-meaning, even if it’s delivered as ‘this is how you should have written’. But take all advice with a bucket of salt, especially if the person offering the advice has not read the whole book. Remember, the rules of writing – aren’t rules.

What about you? Have you received ill-advised advice to change a story? Please share.