Monday, March 10, 2008

Writing Advice and Grains of Salt

It seems like lately I've been seeing a lot of writing advice around, and sadly not all of it is good.

I don't mean not good as in, not the way I do things or not the types of characters or stories I want to create. That's not bad advice, necessarily, it just perhaps isn't the type that's useful to me, or it's a writer outlining the way they do things and might not work for everyone (for instance, I have recently realized that if I do a full synopsis of a story before I start, I have a much harder time actually writing the story. Whereas some people swear by them. That's a style and preference issue, and there's really no right or wrong there.)

But I've seen a few things recently that I found honestly disturbing. For example:

*That in order to interest and agent you must have a "portfolio" to show them.
*That it is impossible to interest an agent or editor unless you meet with them personally.
*That you should call an agent up and introduce yourself before querying.
*That advice about not using adverbs is only for non-fiction, and that fiction writers should use them plentifully (see what I did there?)
*That it's okay to start submitting a novel before it's finished.
*That it's necessary to hire a professional editor to go over your ms before submitting, and you should tell anyone you query that you've done this or they'll think you're an amateur.
*That "said" is dead.
*That a contest is the best way to get someone to look at your ms.
*That you should have your ms perfect-bound like a book in order to submit to agents and editors.

...and the list goes on and on, seriously. Those are just some of the most flagrant examples I've seen of the kind of advice that can destroy someone's work, confidence, and chances at a real career.

But how do you know what's good advice and what isn't? It seems like it should be obvious, but it really isn't. Say, for example, the line about calling an agent up. You might see that and sense something is wrong about it...but when you look to see who wrote it, it's someone whose byline says "Literary agent". So, you think, maybe this is just something I've never heard before. Or you see the bit about "said is dead" and see the writer claims numerous publications. Especially if you're new at all of this, you may well start doubting yourself.

But don't. Stop and take a deep breath. And do some research.

Anyone can call themselves a literary agent. It doesn't mean they know what they're doing. Look at who their clients are, and where they've sold. Google those publishers (if you can find any). Google the writer giving the advice. They may be multipublished, but by whom? Do most of their credits seem to be from now-defunct free webzines you've never heard of? Or from a very tiny, upstart epublisher? Or from someplace like Publishamerica? (Which is the source for a couple of those Terrible Tidbits above.) Remember, just because they're giving the advice, and it worked for them, doesn't mean it worked enough to give them an actual sale with an actual publisher.

If the writer has a website, look for excerpts. Do you like their work, or is it at least clean and professional? Is it full of typos? Does it make sense?

Look around, too. Is this the only place you've seen this particular advice? Go to a website for writers, like Absolute Write. Are people there also giving this advice? How about books on writing--do you see that same advice in any of those?

Remember, before you take someone's advice on how to handle your career, make sure they have a career you'd want to emulate.


Anonymous said...

"Remember, before you take someone's advice on how to handle your career, make sure they have a career you'd want to emulate."

Aaaaaamen, sister! -V95

BernardL said...

"I have recently realized that if I do a full synopsis of a story before I start, I have a much harder time actually writing the story."

I'm the same way. If I leave the outline in my head, I'm okay. The moment I type it up, I'll need someone else to write it. :)

Anna J. Evans said...

Excellent points all, Dee. It's a shame people are leading other writers astray.


kirsten saell said...

I couldn't get over one writer's advice to never write sex scenes that personally turn you on. She had what seemed on the surface to be a logical reason for this, but one that didn't survive further scrutiny.

Yeah, let's us romance authors all write sex scenes a la Norman Mailer. Wasn't he the guy who likened a man's wing-dang-doodle to a coil of excrement?

December/Stacia said...

*bows* Thanks V95!

I know, Bernard, why are we like that? I try to write an outline but it's like I totally lose enthusiasm once I'm finished. I already know how it ends, so why bother? I can write a lot of notes, but I can't logically lay the tale out start to finish. Sigh.

I know, Anna. You have to be so careful. :-)

Kirsten, WTF? If I'm not turned on, how can I expect anyone else to be? I should have been waiting for these people to finally get down to it even longer than the reader, ffs. Ugh. Logical or not, that's just...not good.

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow that was a remarkably bad list of advice. Your point about checking things out online, looking at samples, looking at client lists, etc., is the way to go.

Bernita said...

Research, research, research.

Gabriele C. said...

The sad thing is that so many aspiring writers have dreams upon such advice plays like telling you the secret handshake, and when dreams are in the play, common sense often goes down the river. Half of the victims of PA and other scams would never fall for, say, an insurance offered by a snake oil vendor.

December/Stacia said...

I know, Charles. It's amazing some of the stuff you see out there. My favorite is the one about how agents won't look at you unless you've met them persnally. Um...?

Exactly, Bernita. Make sure you're getting the same advice from several different places and from several reliable sources.

Funnily enough, Gabriele, a few of those pieces of advice came from the PA boards. I've since seen them in other places, but they're PA all the way nonetheless.

Demon Hunter said...

I'm glad you posted this for new writers, December. I've had a few ask me questions about bad advice they've gotten and didn't know it. I'm glad I met the people I did years ago and avoided all of the headache. Great post! :*)

Miss.Snark said...

Call before querying??

Nitwit alert!
That's not bad advice, that's criminally bad advice. Are you sure this wasn't a parody of some sort?? (I hope!)