Taking Advice

Everybody has an opinion. Oftentimes, a person’s opinions and ideas about a given subject will contradict those of other people. Writing is no exception.

Take any topic within writing, ask a bunch of writers what they think about it, and the answers you’ll receive will be all over the board. It doesn’t matter if the topic is agents, dialogue tags, or the best hours of the day to write–opinions on such things will vary widely. But does this mean there is no one right answer to the question you’re asking?

At first, it might be easy to think so. After all, what these authors are doing obviously works well for them. But there’s the rub: what they’re doing works well in their situation.

Now, I’m not advocating the position that there are no universal truths in the world or in writing, which I would argue is a philosophically invalid and practically worthless position. What I am advocating is the notion that these universal truths only apply within a given context.

For example, let’s say you’re trying to design a book cover for your Tolkienesque epic fantasy novel. You might think, “Well, book covers that have tramp-stamped female characters on motorcycles holding shotguns are selling like mad. I’ll think I’ll jump on that bandwagon.” Doing so would absolutely ruin your book and everyone who read it would hate it. Why? Because books with that kind of cover only sell well in the context of urban fantasy novels, not epic fantasy novels.

The reason context is so important is because our careers, our writing styles, and our stories, could potentially manifest themselves in a vast number of ways, some of which could be very unlike others who have written in our respective genre. While a particular method for getting published or selling books might have worked for one person, that same method applied by someone with very different personal qualities or writing strengths could crash and burn.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have anything to learn from those who have come before us. It does mean that we have to know ourselves, our situations, and our writing, and that we have to know how to apply the things we’ve learned in a way that benefits us. While our writing and our careers may look nothing like someone like Stephen King’s, there is still much we can learn from him (if you haven’t already, read his book On Writing).

So if I were to give you one piece of writing advice that is universal, it would be this: do what is appropriate for your story, and do what is appropriate for your career.

4 responses on “Taking Advice

  1. Frank Morin

    One of the things that makes books so great is that there is such a great variety. The possibilities are endless, and like you say, we need to discover what is right for our world and characters.

    With that said, I think one of the greatest dangers for new writers is learning which aspects of writing are flexible, and which are not. Many new authors are rushing their manuscripts to the market via e-publishing without taking the time to learn the Craft. The result is many books are being released too soon.

    For example, the underlying plot structure of a book is not really flexible. You need an inciting incident, the right plot points in the right places, etc or your novel won’t work. Once a writer knows how to build a story properly, then they’ll know how to give their imagination and creativity wings without torpedoing their own stories.

  2. KDAlex

    Damn right, Brandon. I was actually considering writing a similar post for my next topic.

    Everyone has advice. The problem is some people give good advice, others give bad advice. And in the end, it’s you and only you who can choose whether to heed or ignore it. The repercussions or rewards are things you’re probably going to have to live with for a good long while.

    See the recent alternative publishing hoax propagated by someone posing as a major player in the agenting business if you want a lesson on following bad advice.

    With that, this author thought she had been receiving offers for agenting and book deals from someone posing as a big NY exec. She followed the advice given to her by friends and colleagues and told the whole world that big NY was knocking on her door offering her something to the tune of $250,000 for an advance. .

    And then when it turned out to be a hoax, she was left with egg on her face. But, the poor author was kind of in a catch-22. It all goes back to due diligence.

    But can you research good advice?

    That’s why I generally find I do better not giving advice. Because, quite frankly, I’m a nobody. And nobody listens to a nobody. 😉

  3. Brandon M Lindsay

    Frank, that’s very true; a book will not do well if the author does not understand craft. And there are definitely rules to craft… but those rules can be broken by an author who understands what they are doing (and is willing to take a risk). Given the nature of the story being told, those rules can change. Context is king.

    Different bits of advice can be thought of as tools. Some you can find a use for, others seem to have no purpose. Some you will discard immediately. Of course, using tools of that sort in writing isn’t easy and requires a lot of thought. But that’s where the writer comes in.

    Again, I’m not saying people can’t learn from each other, nor am I saying that there aren’t standards for what qualifies as good and bad writing. What I am saying is take what people say and analyze it critically, and be willing to discard it if you can’t reconcile to what you’re doing. Don’t try to fit other people’s expectations simply because they say so. In writing as in life, we are ultimately responsible for what we do.

  4. Colette Vernon

    I was thinking about this the other day, considering that it might make a good post. I reached this conclusion; we need to swallow our pride and follow our instinct. Being able to take good advice, even when it means we have to look at our work or one aspect of it and admit it needs work, is paramount. But if we take it too far and make changes beyond what we instinctively feel works, we’ll end up sabotaging our own writing. At least, that’s been my experience.

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