Tuesday, 3 November 2009


When my life hits its stupidly busy phases, I fall back on the useful practice of letting other people do the work. And when I came across this blog post recently, I bookmarked it for just such an occasion.

In case you need to be convinced as to my definition of busy, I should perhaps mention that at the moment I am trying to sell a house, buy two flats, write a novel, start a new business, keep up to date with my blog, create a new website, prepare speaking engagements and have a life. One day, I will accidentally iron the dog.

So, that post from Upstart Crow, about the lies you'll hear in workshops, is highly useful. And pointful: not only do workshop members often tell accidental falsehoodery, but so do members of your writing group and, definitely, your family. And friends. And anyone else who knows you unprofessionally.

When you're unpublished it can be all too easy to fall back on advice and encouragement from unpublished authors. And very understandably so, because it's probably the case that only unpublished authors will read your stuff and agree to comment. I'm not saying don't ask for advice from each other; I'm not even saying don't listen to it, or don't feel nurtured by it. I am saying don't act on it unless you can corroborate it with advice from someone who is either substantially published (and preferably in the right genre or at least an appropriate genre) or else is "in the business".

Since many / most of you are unpublished, you may now dislike me and decide never to listen to me again. Honestly, your willingness to advise each other is wonderful, and the comments on this blog reveal your general wisdom and knowledge. BUT, generally speaking you would rather have advice from an expert or someone with proven knowledge, than from someone who hasn't, wouldn't you? I only ask you to be careful and ruthlessly analytical about the advice you receive, from any source.

As an aside, I would caution you especially not to take advice about writing for children from anyone without experience of writing for children, or of publishing that writing. Thing is, people think if they can write, they can write for children. No, no, no, no, no. It's very different and the markets are different. Whole different set of skills and knowledge.

So, rely on your friends and family for support and chocolate; rely on the professionals for advice. Please.

I've done a couple of posts about myths myself: here  and here. In fact, that second one reminds me that this was supposed to be the start of a series. Note to self...

And now, excuse me, please: I need to go and see a dog about a house, or stand for Parliament or something.


Barb said...

Thank you very much for this interesting link. There are a lot of comments that need to be taken with several barrels of salt.

Also, many thanks for the Boo chocolates that have arrived and been fully tested. Lovely!

fairyhedgehog said...

Yes, the Boo chocolates were delicious. Thank you! They are fuelling my Nano writing which may not be a cause for rejoicing to everyone but I am happy.

You are clearly rushed off your feet, so thank you for the links and I hope your dog looks nice with straightened fur.

Harry Markov said...

I hope you do run for Parliament, since they do give out spots to random people. And I'd prefer you in there to drive back hope to people that smart people do get into Parliament.

Bland flattery aside, I am blessed in that regard. I have a mentor [sort of, I just bug the hell out of that person, but she seems to not mind] and she is a professional.

It's tricky to listen to advice from other unpublished people. This is why I feel uncomfortable handing them out. But it's always good to receive opinions.

Anyway thanks for the links and I hope everything goes well.

Captain Black said...

Here's my comment on the article in Upstart Crow, re-posted here...

As most developing writers quickly come to realise, there's a plethora of advice out there, from many sources. Some of it can be confusing and even conflicting at times. Some of it makes sense immediately as it seems natural and sensible. So how do we sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak? How do we decide what's useful for us and what to filter out?

I don't have a magic answer for this but I have noticed a common and disappointing trait with many advice givers: they don't justify the reasons for their pearls or wisdom. All too often, particularly in a teacher-student type of environment, they'll impart rules and guidelines, expecting you to dutifully record them but give no logic nor reasoning behind their advice.

Examples of such "advice in a vacuum" that I've been given, include:

* Never start a scene with dialogue.
* Begin the first page of your manuscript half way down.
* Avoid writing novels using the first person narrative voice.
* Don't use flashbacks.
* A first novel should be between 90 and 100 kw in length.

Thanks to Lisa Hendrix for the explanation of why fixed-width typefaces were preferred. This is exactly the sort of explanation I'm talking about that is too often omitted.

Clare said...

You expect to "have a life" - where would you fit such a thing into your crazy schedule?!

Seriously you sound in danger of overdoing things - let the dog do the ironing, miss the occasional blog-post, whatever it takes to ensure that you have time to look after yourself - horrible germy things have a habit of pouncing on people who are too busy to notice!

(This advice comes from one who has a professional background in the field of germy things but will hopefully also be corroborated by family and friends!)

DanielB said...

The comments on that post, and comments made to me by students in my classes, confirm to me that too many people agonise over stuff about which there can be "rules". Things like which font to use (I don't think I have ever given that more than a second's consideration), how many words the book should be, how wide the margins should be, whether to copyright the MS, what colour paper to use...

Then they can say to themselves, when the book is rejected, that it must have been because it failed to tick one of these boxes.

It's a way of wresting some measure of control back over the work, rather than something which is more intangible and harder to get to grips with. Sometimes people will do anything but face up to the truth - that the writing isn't good enough yet.

All these worries are the equivalent of stressing over what colour spoiler to get on your car, whether to go for tinted windows, or snow tyres, or a digital speedometer... when you haven't even passed your driving test.

Lost Wanderer said...

I do not ask other unpublished writers to critique my work, and I don't critique theirs. It's not because their writing isn't interesting or that I don't think they will definitely give me bad advice. It's simply because there is just so much conflicting advice that it just makes things more confusing.

I read writing craft books by published writers, and writers/agents/editors blogs for whatever knowledge I can gather. I rely on other unpublished writers for just community spirit. But when it comes to writing, I just keep working. And the first person to judge it after me will be an agent.

Jo Franklin said...

I think you are right that you should take comments for what they are, but being part of a writers community can have it's uses.

I belong to three at the moment.

The first one is local to me. It's very friendly but most of the comments are of the 'that's great' variety. Which is nice to hear but not very helpful. But it's a fun sociable thing to do on a Saturday evening and I am such a boring old bat these days, I've got nothing better to do than watch the X Factor. And chatting to other writers, whatever their experience, is better than arguing with my husband about going out and getting a proper job.

The second one is tutor led at an institution with a reputation for it's writing courses. This is more helpful but we only get to read twice a term which is limiting.

I am also on an online forum now which has been an interesting experience. Some excellent insightful feedback,much advice on punctuation which is always handy and many totally conflicting comments about individual lines!

Over all I listen to what people have to say and then make my own mind up but if 6 people say they don't understand xyz then there must be something wrong with it.

I had a very bad experience with someone 'in the industry' last year who offered advice with no follow through, which has led me to believe that I should not make any radical changes to what I write unless advised by my own agent or my own editor - sadly I don't have either yet but I'm still working on it and my writer's groups and helpful blogs like this help me on my way.

Anna Bowles said...

When I started exploring the writing blogosphere not very long ago, I was surprised to find out just how many sources of advice there are out there. However, I think most people who have enough awareness to be a good writer anyway also have the necessary awareness to seek out credible commentators. There’s a reason this blog is well-visited, for example.

What I find more confusing is the question of who is reliable on what subject. Like you say, it’s not just about who’s published/publishes, but also what field they’re in. For example, if I talk about (most kinds of) kids’ and novelty books you’re getting the word from a seasoned professional. But if in my next blog post I go on about adult literary fiction… well, I read a lot of it, I have a degree in it, and my nostalgia publishing experience makes me more clued up about the adult fiction world than a rookie perhaps would be. I can’t claim to be an industry source per se – but I could unintentionally fool someone by speaking da lingo.

With kids’ publishing in particular, the argument “I have four kids and I know what they like” is a particularly frequent and superficially persuasive one. But quite often that statement gets followed up by something that I know to be diametrically opposite from reality in the book trade. I guess four kids with the same set of parents just aren’t much of a population sample.

Anna Bowles said...

Jo Franklin said : I had a very bad experience with someone 'in the industry' last year who offered advice with no follow through

Hm, that doesn’t entirely surprise me, unfortunately. Those of us ‘in the industry’ meets lots of people who want advice, and the natural impulse is to give it. But too often that results in general statements that don’t take into account the individual’s work, which would of course takes time to read and consider.

Professionals can spout crap too, though it’s more likely to be irrelevant or badly-targeted truth than out-and-out crap. For the most useful feedback, the adviser’s heart (and better still, to be blunt, their wallet) needs to be in it.

Kristine Princevalle said...

What drives me crazy is when an author I'm editing responds to my direction for rewrite by saying, "My critique group_________." Fill in the blank: "loved it, felt this character was important, agrees with me on this, etc etc." I could care less what your critique group says. Let them publish you then.

catdownunder said...

I gave up belonging to a writers' group - the only one available at the time. The people in it kept treading on my tail/tale and telling me that there was a right way to write a book. I was told I had to learn on short stories before I could graduate to a 'real' book. I think they meant well but, while I did not stop writing, I stopped believing I could write anything worthy of publication. Okay, I do not have a lot of confidence in my ability to purr but I also think group members need to be very careful of how they behave towards one another.
If you end up homeless Ms Morgan let me know and I will send you my new cat blanket so you can keep warm enough to go on writing.

Sulci Collective said...

Apologies in advance to our American cousins, but I am relieved that the UK has relatively few creative writing courses within our higher education system.

You can nearly always spot writing nurtured within a creative writing course and even worse, crits that have also been institutionalised as part of the formulaic 'constructive but supportive' method, because unlike the anonymity of an online peer review site, in a creative writing course, the accusant has to face their victim.

I love the knockabout of a peer review site. My writing is so extreme compared to the middle road predominance there, it is far more illuminating to see if you can turn the preconceptions of say one in five of those who might otherwise throw their hands up and say this isn't literature and content themselves with decrying your use of the comma.

And as one of your contributors above states, if you are consistently being told such a section or plot device doesn't work then maybe you can afford to listen to the chorus of voices.

Jay said...

Thank you so very much for this post. It's truly a practiced art to receive advice or a critique from another unpublished author, and take it for what it is: advice or a critique from another unpublished author. As an unpublished author who also critiques, I sure hope my reviewees take everything I say in a similar vein - with several tubs of salt.

Nicola Morgan said...

Regarding rules and conflicting advice - there are good reasons why advice can be conflicting:
1) the people asking the questions often ask for rigorous factual answers to questions for which there are no rigorous factual answers. (As Daniel says, people often agonise over the wrong things - the things that seem simple, like word length.) So, someone asks me how long a novel for teenagers should be and they want an answer. And there is an answer, but not one answer, and it is not simple.
2) often, there is more than one correct answer. Because the question and answer are treading a line between specifics and generals.
3) there are different markets and different publishers and different countries and different groups of readers - these are made up of human beings, who don't all think the same.

BUT, the fact that advice often conflicts should not mean that you decide either to ignore it all or to treat it all equally. You have to analyse the advice and the advice-giver, NOT measuring it against your passionate love of your book, but measuring it against whether you think the advice reflects the general market / readership for your book, and whether the advice-giver has reason to know what she's talking about.

Critiques from unpublished authors are not to be ignored, certainly - and many of you have found ways to give and receive constructive criticism. Also, the fact that someone has been published only makes them an expert in their own book and specific genre. But there are other ways of being expert: in my case, i consider that my expertise comes from several sources:
1) I have actually written and been published in several different genres
2) I have acted as a consultant for publishers and book packagers
3) My work with the Society of Authors means that I have been exposed to the trials and tribulations, and publisher/agent/author behaviour, across the whole range of every type of writing
4) This blog has meant that many agents and publishers contact me behind the scenes with their own experiences

What this teaches me is that there are many many reasons why publishers say yes or no, and I beleive I understand them. I understand the vagaries of it all, and how there is much less science than people think, and much more heart and passion. Long may that last! And it's because there's less science than you'd think and more heart and passion that advice often conflicts and yet can still be correct. And why you need to tune into that heart and passion, and learn the science too, and through that understanding will come your best chance for publication.

It's a tangled world out there, and the best advice-givers do their best to unpick it. The best advice-receivers do their best to weave the threads into a pattern that makes sense.

Inkpen said...

Hi. Just found my way here to this thoroughly interesting blog (so thank you) and couldn't agree more with the comment about not accepting advice on children's writing. I've just spent three years on a part-time distance-learning MA in Children's Lit at Roehampton and I lost count of the number of people who said coyly, 'Oh, are you going to write children's books then?' Clearly, children's books weren't a valid subject for study; this must be a way into the cute little yummy-mummy hobby of knocking out children's books, which, ooh, anyone can do!
Of course too much study can work against you: after deconstructing the genius of Where the Wild Things Are, it can over-awe you out of writing at all ...

09smithjame said...

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