Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Writing Advice - Help or Hindrance?

On Monday, we were treated to a great interview with Julie Cantrell, author of the bestseller, Into the Free.  It's always fascinating to read about an author's road to success.  I was shocked and saddened, however, by her 12th grade English teacher's advice:

 “Whatever you do, don’t waste your scholarship to study writing. You’ll be lucky if you ever publish a greeting card.” 

My first thought was, "Who says that to a young person?" My next thought was to hope that her English teacher would see Julie's name in print and realize what poor advice she'd given. But when my indignation for Julie cooled, I suspected that there was something more behind her teacher's words.  Perhaps she truly thought she was giving Julie practical advice.  But it may have simply been wisdom distilled from her own struggles to see her work in print, culled from a dark place of disillusionment You never know.  For whatever reason, it's still just bad advice.

I once heard Debbie Macomber speak about her attempts to sell her first novel.  A heavy-handed editor sliced and diced her manuscript and told her to throw it away.  Debbie screwed up that place inside of her that knew better and sent it anyway.  Now a New York Times bestselling author, she encourages writers to follow their dreams as she did.  

We can't all be Julie Cantrells or Debbie Macombers. We won’t all be bestselling authors. Some of us won’t even see our books published through traditional means. Our stories will be different. We all get bad advice during our lifetimes.  How do we know the good from the bad?

Julie said it took ten years to get her teacher’s voice out of her head and to believe that she could write, only after remembering that a different teacher had said she had talent. We need to carefully choose those whom we allow to speak into our writing lives.

There is much technical advice for writers, and not even these rules apply 100% of the time.  ‘Show don’t tell,’ and ‘don’t use adverbs’ would be two.  There are times when both telling and the use of adverbs are appropriate for the story.  But the advice about whether or not to write or what to write has to come from a place inside of us. I don’t think anyone else can give you advice for this.  I could be wrong. 

Have you received advice – good or bad – which helped or hindered you in your writing?  We’d love to hear. 


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, goodness. I've received both in abundance over the years. At first, I considered the advice of any and all who talked to me. I've learned that nothing will kill my writing faster than that. Now, I have a short list of people to whom I'll listen. Of course, the Novel Matters ladies are on that list.

Several years ago (possibly at a Festival of Faith and Writing), I heard someone advise that it is to a writer's advantage to stop fighting their editors on every single edit. The point was that editors know the industry and they edit to make you look good. Let me tell you, from my recent experience, it's true. I had the opportunity to work with Dina Sleiman on edits for "Paint Chips". Through the process, she made me a better writer. A much better writer. I'm so glad that I entered that collaboration with an open mind.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

One college professor told me to be harder on myself as an editor. I now see it as some of the BEST advice I've ever received. I chose him to be my advisor!

~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Susie: I'm amazed at the advice I've received from people who don't write fiction or don't write at all. Sometimes I think family members especially(thankfully not mine) feel it's their responsibility to keep your feet on the ground. No thanks!
Wendy: What a smart guy, that professor! It makes it easier to accept the publisher's edits, as Susie mentioned. They're usually right. :)

BK said...

I've received plenty of good advice. The problem is, no advice is one size fits all. The advice that has given me the most problems is not technical related, but regarding the writer's life.

There are many, many people who will drill into you "Write every day." There are a few who will make you feel like slime or that there's something wrong with you if you DON'T write every day. After all, if you don't write every day, then you can't possibly be serious about being a writer, is the intimation.

I've tried hard to make myself believe it. In fact, if you looked back at some of my writing phases, I would've had blog posts just gushing over the value of writing every single day, crap or not.

But it just doesn't fit who I am. I'm an all or nothing person. I wish that WASN'T the case, but it is. If I can't give my all to my writing, to my exercise program, to my (insert whatever here), then I have a tendency to not do it at all. And that makes for MANY rounds of burnout.

And that means my writing journey progresses VERY slowly. And I understand the risks. I may never publish. I may never finish more than one book. But I just can't write every day. Not until some miracle happens and I become a different personality then I am today.

Cherry Odelberg said...

The answer is yes.

Oh, you want more details?

The best writing advice ever came as songwriting advice from Bill and Gloria Gaither at a Christian Artists seminar in the Rockies. "If you want to be a great songwriter don't waste time taking courses in songwriting, take courses in literature. "
To read great fiction is to learn in every area of life. As Julie Cantrell said in the previous post,"There is no better way to deliver truth than through fiction. It’s as simple as that." Reading good books gives me great examples of sentence structure, voice, and even punctuation.

Recently I have begun to acknowledge I am making progress as a writer because I can see the flaws or weaknesses in what I read and it gives me hope. If that writer can be published, so can I!

21st century bookmark said...

"You're a journalist. You can't write fiction." That's the advice my own mind offered me for many years, and I believed it. I came to embrace fiction after reading way too many novels, and realizing, I can do better. Thanks.

Sharon K. Souza said...

BK, you're so right, advice is never one-size-fits-all. My daughter has a saying that I love, and that is fitting for a lot of occasions: "Chew the meat and spit out the bones."

Debbie, your point about the teacher perhaps giving advice out of her own disappointing experience might well be what was behind the bad advice. I know my perspective has changed drastically over the years, and I'm not nearly the optimist I used to be. But I like to think I would never be so hacking with my advice. It's like telling your friend not to get married because you had a divorce.

Forest Wells said...

You know what, I actually agree with her teacher.... to a point.

I've taken a couple or course, gone to conferences, and listened to info on writing for years. I've learned a lot. But there came a time when I realized, I'd learned enough. I got advice and when I tried to apply it, I couldn't. It didn't work.

That's not to say I'm not still learning. I'm still unpublished so far, so I still have things to learn. But there is no point in me spending any money on complex writing courses. I've learned what I need. Now I need to apply, fix, and work with the story to make it work right. classes just won't do that.

That said, no writer should just blow it off. And it's not a clear cut time when you can stand up and say, "I have learned all that I can learn" and never take another class. About he only time is when you go to a number of workshops, and you find they're full of info you already know. After that, you can take a step back and really ponder. Will more schooling help?

There's the old metaphor about trying to put water in a cup that's already full. I take it a step further and say it's like adding hot water to tea. You need the water to make the tea drinkable, but if you add too much, you'll dilute the tea beyond it's best levels. And if you keep adding to make it better, you'll only make it worse.

The trick is finding that balancing point.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Forest, I think you pegged it. It's like the question,"How do I know when I've done enough research?" the answer is "When you start seeing the same information repeat itself." This also applies to learning the craft of writing. At some point you will be saturated and need to just apply what you already know. Blessings on your writing.

Forest Wells said...

Ok, had to post again to share this. A bit of advice I got from a writer's message board I visit regularly.

Tell me I'm not the only one laughing, yet realizing how utterly useful this is likely to be.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Forest, thanks for your excellent insight. And thanks for the link. You're right. Utterly (and humorously) useful.

Lily Whalen said...

I've been fortunate enough to have been surrounded by people who encouraged me in my writing all along. Encouraging me to make a *living* at it was another story, however, and at the time I was making my career decision I believed it important to choose something more "practical". That's my main regret, that I didn't pursue studies in creative writing when I was in my 20s.