On Not Giving Advice

I did a tweet yesterday morning that seems to have triggered an enthused response from a lot of people: “My Saturday morning writer’s advice for writers: try not to get hung up on writers’ advice for writers.”

I was being cute with the phrasing but am really serious about the point. It sometimes seems to me that next to Top Ten Lists, the internet breeds writer-advice more furiously than almost anything else. (Well, maybe cat pictures. Or Benedict Cumberbatch photos. Or … fine. We’ll leave it there.)

If you play pick-and-choose with the advice tossed out there is no ultimate harm done. Someone ‘famous’ says something that resonates for you, you have that to work with. Maybe you write that way anyhow? But if that famous person says something that runs utterly counter to your own work method, your creative approach, your life options (“Jog five miles every morning before sitting down to write.”), I find myself worrying about or irritated by what I’m seeing, depending on time of day and what I am drinking (coffee or scotch). “Drink three glasses of Highland Park each time you sit down to write.” (Expensive advice, that would be. Also a tad life-damaging.)

The creative process is deeply and profoundly individual. That applies to the Nobel laureate and the undergraduate poet and the person keeping a journal of his or her dreams and desires.

A writer I know asserted earlier this summer online: never rewrite until you have the whole story finished, then you can go back. I’d never have written a novel if I tried to work that way. A writer declared last week that for success in YA fiction, ‘never kill the dog’. Stop a bit right now and think about how many of the books that reached into us and have never gone away (and perhaps taught us how powerful fiction could be) we’d not have if those authors had followed that advice.

When people ask me about, say, outlining I give an honest answer: I don’t block everything out, I am discovering details as I go. But I add, that’s me. That is reporting something not suggesting a process to other writers. Dorothy Dunnett outlined the shape and arc of the entire six volumes of the Lymond Chronicles before she wrote the first book.

There is so much variation to the writing process, it feels wrong to be prescriptive – from where I sit. If my arm is twisted (hard) to solicit advice I’ll urge writers to travel if their life allows it, because travel does important things to us as people, and that affects us as writers. I try to steer younger writers to read outside their comfort zone, their favourite genres and styles, because we get stretched as people by doing that. But I try hard not to get drawn into technical advice.

‘What worked for them might work for you,’ Robert Frost once wrote in a very different, chilling, context. But equally, it might not. I think we all need to go slow on giving How To lectures … and reacting to them. (But everyone should read Frost’s brilliant ‘Provide, Provide’.)

Parking the soapbox behind the curtain for the night, I can report the NY meetings earlier this month were very good, extremely useful. I did not succeed in getting agent or editor to agree to write the next novel for me, but I wasn’t hugely optimistic when I went, so…

Oh, sharing: Vermeer’s ‘Head of a Young Girl’ (the Pearl Earring painting) is headed to the Frick in Manhattan in October. Just saying. In case that’s closer than The Hague.

In Toronto, we’re in the midst of cover discussions. To stay with the blue figure from the hardcover for the trade paperback next spring, or think about a new look, and if the latter … what? Covers do matter, and different formats can suggest a different look. Or not, if everyone feels the current one works. There is no science to it, this is part of the publisher’s art and, as I’ve said here before, I think, it can also be  different in different markets. I’ve been very well served by my English-language covers for River of Stars, I’m working with extremely good people. Not worried. Will report back when a decision is made.

I’m also hoping to have some breaking news to share soon. That’s a tease, but it is better than another bad pun, right? And if you really want writerly advice as a last note, I’ll suggest everyone go with what Schiller did. He kept rotten apples in his desk drawer. Sniffed when creativity flagged. Clearly the only possible way to get anything written.


7 thoughts on “On Not Giving Advice

  1. Yes, I also often find that even when advice _is_ the right thing for me, I can’t take it. I listen to it, but I don’t really understand it. It’s only years later, when I’ve figured it out for myself, that I understand that the thing I’ve just learned is the same thing as what some famous author once told me.

  2. To me, writing advice is a “finding tricks to add to my bag” sort of thing. I admit I do read more bits of writing advice than I should, but I find that gathering together useful information from other people gives me ideas for new things to try, such as how I do multi-pass outlines now.

    Without such, I don’t think i would have learned I am an outliner by necessity (I tried multiple times to write without one, and every novel was an utter disaster, where as now I feel like I have the core of stories that can be edited into something worthwhile).

    I do agree though that some people take too much advice as gospel, and wonder how much it stunts the growth of those writers (if not destroys them outright).

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