Tuesday, 16 March 2010

CONFLICTING ADVICE

You have doubtless found conflicting advice on the internet and elsewhere. You’ll get published authors offering rules, and agents blogging about how not to approach them, and publishers saying what they’re looking for – and then all those types of people offering the opposite advice. I have contributed to this conflicting advice myself. Obviously, some of it's good and some is bad. And there are good reasons why advice may conflict.

Good reasons for conflicting advice:
•    publishing and writing are arts, not sciences. Readers (including expert ones) are human and different from each other;
•    responsible people try to offer concrete answers to the specific questions you ask, when the real answer is usually “It depends on your book.” You don’t like that answer, so we try to say yes or no. Sometimes the answer is yes, and sometimes it’s no. Because… it depends on the book;
•    some advice is rubbish. Generally, it’s best to avoid taking too much notice of advice from people who have done nothing to prove that they know anything relevant. For example, an unpublished writer who has never worked in any relevant bit of publishing may be very well-meaning and intelligent but is not necessarily a reliable person to give you advice about anything other than how to survive being unpublished.

So, think carefully about where to get your reliable advice from. There’s no shortage of both sorts, and a little open-minded thought should help you decide who is worth listening to.

Believe me: I am by no means criticising people who do their best to share experience - it's very valuable, very often. I am simply saying that when you weigh it up, you should add in some other advice too, rather than only listening to the possibly unreliable source.


It's probably also true to say that you should always seek more than one opinion anyway, even from reliable sources.

Advice is more likely to be reliable from:
  • authors with several books published, including in your genre, unless they got there by being a celebrity;
  • people who work or have recently worked in publishing; 
  • other people with some clear reason why they know more than you.
Advice is less likely to be reliable from:
  • Everyone else. 
  • And anyone from the above list who has developed either supreme arrogance, horrible negativity or an alcohol problem. Some of them may be lovely people and well-meaning, but their advice is not reliable...

34 comments:

Catherine Hughes said...

Well, I can give you plenty of advice on perservering even when it all seems utterly impossible and pointless, and about surviving on even less money than you thought you had!

Other than that, I'm pretty useless. But, should I ever embark on the publishing journey (and I intend to) then I promise I will blog about it every step of the way, in the hope that will help.

Until that happy day, I shall just slink out of the frame...

Queenie said...

If you have supreme arrogance AND an alcohol problem, do they cancel each other out?

No?

Oh.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Important points.

Conflicting advice is the best advice, I think. Why? Cos it forces the listener to think for themselves, to discover which is closer to the right advice for that moment.

In the end, we have to learn to be our own advisors, some of the time!

Nicola Morgan said...

Good point, Vanessa. I get worried by people leaping on one bit of advice without weighing it up in the context of other advice.

Catherine - I'd like to stress that I don't mean "support", which many many people of all sorts can give beautifully, nor advice about how to cope with the stresses and struggles of trying to become published: I only mean advice about how to get published is likely to be unreliable and to be taken cautiously!

Nicola Morgan said...

Queenie - unfortunately not!

Stroppy Author said...

I don't think I can offer much useful advice about getting published (which is why my blog is about issues for writers who already have a publishing deal) - so don't believe every published writer knows what they're talking about, either! Not only does it all depend on the book, it also depends on the people - the writer, the publisher, the agent - and the circumstances.

I got where I am through a pattern of recognising opportunities and making the most of them. Some people call that luck. Either way, it's not something that lends itself to becoming a body of useful advice. Unless the advice is 'recognise opportunities and take them', but also 'recognise opportunties which are not right for you and let them go' - otherwise you end up down some side street without a sat nav.

Sally Zigmond said...

Excellent post,

When I was young and green I thought I had all the answers. The older I get the more often I find myself, when asked for advice or an opinion, say, 'It depends.' And as you say, Nicola, every book is different as is every writer,agent and editor.

When it comes to my asking advice, I only ever ask those I feel I can trust. (Either by reputation or by experience.) But, as Vanessa so wisely says, in the end, I can only go with what I feel is right. It may not be the right decision but all too often the only way to get things right is to make mistakes and learn from them--and remain open-minded. Things change rapidly and what might have been the right advice last year may be different this.

Dan Holloway said...

This is probably the one thing that caused me more angst and teeth-gnashing than anything else when I was scouting for agents.

On no subject was there more conflicting advice than the "pitch". I know you've covered this elsewhere, so I won't go into details again about the nightmares I had reading Carole Blake's book that said the exact opposite of what many published authors said, whcih in turn said the exact opposite (yet somehow a different opposite) of what other agents said on the question of adhering to stipulated guidelines.

All I will say is that, sadly, it is those whom you rightly state to be the most worth listening to who give the advice that conflicts the most!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I love that you can learn from the most unexpected sources sometimes. I try to take it all in and keep the bits of information that gel with me and 'fit' and I let go of the pieces that, as correct as they might be, do not flow with my own vision.

It reminds me of all the books on the craft of writing, I personally like a more textbook approach with set instructions when I read print, but other people benefit more from the motivational and sentimental texts.

One of my best sources for writing is my 12yr old daughter, because that's the age I write for. She's not experienced or published, but she gives me valuable advice. :-)

SF said...

Hmm, this is the sort of thing that makes me wonder about the use of workshop groups, eg. in my professional writing course.

We read each other's work, and give feedback, but none of us is published. So how useful is this feedback?

Sorry, that might be off topic - are you talking more about conflicting advice on how to get published, not how to improve your writing?

Jo Franklin said...

Talking of conflicting advice, what happened to that little button we could press to give you suggestions for future blog posts, Nicola?

There is so much conflicting advice out there. But I do find if you read enough of it, then the common themes become ingrained in your brain. Then it's down to you to interpret it to ensure that the writing is fab and that your submission package is in the format the individual agent/publisher requires.

One thing that really gets to me is when a new author (someone like me who is working hard but hasn't made it yet) does get a break. But their book breaks all advice. ie cast of thousands, protagonist who the reader can't empaphasise with, children's book with hardly any children in it, wandering aimless plot, blah blah. It's galling!

Anna Bowles said...

And anyone from the above list who has developed either supreme arrogance, horrible negativity or an alcohol problem. Some of them may be lovely people and well-meaning, but their advice is not reliable...

That made me laugh. I'm sure I don't have an alcohol problem...

KarenG said...

Writing is an art, not an exact science: hear hear!! And publishing is a business. So it boils down to the money, and that's rule #1-- will this make money? Or do we think this will make money? And editors are people immersed in both the art of it and the business end of it, so editors probably come across as the most conflicted bunch of the entire group.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good advice :)

It's always good to know and trust your source!

Harry Markov said...

It also depends on the advice.

As a rookie & unpublished, I map out more or less my experience and generalize a few points without stating them as rules. My advice is more or less directed to people, who hope to be published and attempt their first tries.

Also conflicting advice is best and as you said depending on the book entirely. It is a neat trick to learn, where to listen to.

Mary McDonald said...

I posted something in regards to conflicting advice on my blog today too. Must be the weather. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one in the same quandry of who to listen to.

Anonymous said...

"some advice is rubbish. Generally, it’s best to avoid taking too much notice of advice from people who have done nothing to prove that they know anything relevant. For example, an unpublished writer who has never worked in any relevant bit of publishing may be very well-meaning and intelligent but is not necessarily a reliable person to give you advice about anything other than how to survive being unpublished."

Would you apply this to tutors on university Creative Writing courses? I have looked at a number of these over the last year, and a considerable number of lecturers seem to have PhDs in CW, but no track record of publishing (or anything other than the academic world). Are these really the best people to be teaching CW?

Derek said...

But what if you have supreme alcohol and and a problem arrogance? I think feedback (as opposed to advice) from other unpublished writers can still be useful if it's objective and can be backed up with examples. Anyhow, loving the blog and comments.

DanielB said...

Well, on Creative Writing MAs, far too many of them seem to give more weight to academic teaching experience than to publishing experience. They seem intent on turning out, rather than novelists, people who go on to teach on Creative Writing MAs.

Spider Griffin said...

So right that writing is an art (as well as a craft). Although there are some companies who try to make it a science, selling seminars or modules, or whatever they are called, for exorbitant prices, all over $200 each, including even "How to write the perfect pitch" (over $300 for that one, I think). Makes me very annoyed that some people succumb to this, believing that their writing can be significantly improved by the "drink this next bottle of medicine" approach. That's my opinion anyhow.

It's an American company doing this, who I thought were highly respected (they've been in the business for many years; I'm sure their magazine is fine though). Don't know if I should name them though, as it's only my opinion and others will surely make up their own minds.

Spider Griffin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sylvia Phoenix said...

I'm a newbie writer and blogger, who's been a bit daunted by the plethora of advice that's available on the internet. I'm starting to realise that this blog is helping me to sort out some of the wheat from the chaff, so thank you for your generous help.

I strongly suspect that an article about apostrophes would help many of us. I believe I know how to use them correctly but I bet you know one or two things about them that we haven't realised.

Good luck with all your house moving and other stuff. You sound very busy but I'm sure you'll meet your publishing deadlines.

Nicola Morgan said...

Please excuse typos - am dizzy with tiredness

Stroppy - I quite agree that not every unpublished author knows what they're talking about. But this all comes down to each of us having to make an intelligent judgement as to whose advice might be relevant, and weighing it against someone else's advice. ALSO, if you wanted to give advice, you certainly know a LOT about what you're talking about - but, as with all of us, you can't be an expert in all areas. That's why I seek help when I'm asked to talk about something I don't know about (eg sci-fi or steampunk).

Dan - i know how you feel, but, as I say, it does come down to understanding that this is not a science but an art, and a changing one at that. And just working out what's best for your type of writing and for you.

SF - that's an important distinction, thank you. I'm mainly talking about how to get published but I'm also talking about how to write for publication (two slightly different angles). Writing groups have their own advantages and disadvantages, and certainly their own pitfalls. I've blogged about this before somewherev - not sure I can find it now. There was a post called something like "Beware of Praise". Am in a rush just now and can't search for it. But you are right to be cautious about writing group feedback AND advice - which is NOT to say ignore it, just to view it intelligently, for the reason you suggest.

Jo - I know what you mean byt hose apparent exceptions. But a) they are often apparent - because though they may seem to have broken "all" the rules, actually they've written a fabulously readable / sellable book which has obeyed more rules than it's broken and b) breaking submission rules is a much more unreliable way of getting published than obeying them! Ignore these cases, anyway.

Nicola Morgan said...

Please continue to excuse typos - can't face checking!

Anonymous - ah. Actually, I happen to believe (intuitively rather than logically) that it is possible for an unpublished writer to be a very good teacher of writing. After all, that unpublished writing teacher may never have tried to be published and may simply love the art and to teach the art. A Creative Writing MA is about the writing, I feel, more than the commercial side, the making a living aspect. The analogy would be that a tennis coach can be a perfectly brilliant coach without having been a professional player? Also, if the MA course is then going to buy in guest lecturers to cover the business angle, this would tick all the boxes.

By coincidence, last night I was such a guest lecturer, at Nottingham Trent Uni, but in fact their course leader and teachers are published writers. (Well, certainly the ones I know about.)

I think you make a valid point and raise a legitimate doubt, but I think it depends on the stated aims of the course. I would not dismiss a course because its teachers were unpublished, but they would have to prove their writing capabilites in some other way. I would, however, absolutely dismiss the idea of someone lecturing in how to get published unless they were either well published and widely so, OR they had worked in publishing as a successful agent or senior editor.

Derek - I agree, but I'm not so much talking about feedback as advice on getting published.

Sylvia - thank you so much! (And I will do the apostrophe post quite soon)

Spider - I know, it seems very steep, but if the advice they give is good then I wouldn't have a problem. It's when companies charge to do things like send out blanket submissions or find agents for you that i get really cross - because that would actually damage your chances.

Emma Darwin said...

Re: the question of whether lecturers on MAs should be published, I think Nicola's central point is right, that MAs are not, and should not be primarily concerned with getting published: they're a Masters in an academic subject, Creative Writing, which is a practice-led discpline which studies the work in progress by a twin track of doing creative work, and studying the creative process. Who best teaches that, is up to the university to decide: and as Nicola says, book-trade expertise is visiting-lecturer stuff. A CW MA is not a training course in writing books for publication.

I have to say that my personal experience of CW MAs is that almost everyone's creative work has been published in some form, and few have PhDs because it's such a realtively new degree (I'm the first to graduate from Goldsmiths, for example, which has long led the field in practice-led research in all the other arts). But they're coming up fast, so maybe I'm out of date.

You'd be mad, in approaching any commitment as major as an MA, not to find out a little about both publishing and teaching records. And I agree with Nicola, that if someone isn't published, they'd better have acquired impressive credentials for their job by some other route.

But, equally, there's nothing about having published a book which means you can teach anything, let alone practice-led work, which isn't quite like other academic teaching. And while there's no guarantee that a star name on the roster will be a good teacher either - or even be there very much - there are lots of reasons for finding it difficult to get published, if your sole concern is with the quality of the writing, not the market for it. Which, after all, is what university study should be all about.

mindmap1 said...

Hmm. Interesting blog Nicola.

It is a minefield out there for the new writer and there is such a thing as too much information. However, I believe a great deal depends on whether the individual has an open, creative and curious mind with a healthy dose of common sense. Praise by close family and spouse should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, encouragement by published authors, editors or a group who love creativity, understand and 'know' their stuff is invaluable. But it must be honest, real and nip self delusion in the bud.

I'm not brown-nosing here Nicola, but this blog is my first port of call each day and I recommended it highly to any newbies out there.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo F - sorry, forgot to answer your question about what happened to the suggestions button. If you click on the "contact" button at the top of the page, there's an explanation of why that had to go - and also an alternative for you!

Mindmap - I'm copying a whole para of your comment because it just about sums up the whole thing:
"It is a minefield out there for the new writer and there is such a thing as too much information. However, I believe a great deal depends on whether the individual has an open, creative and curious mind with a healthy dose of common sense. Praise by close family and spouse should be taken with a pinch of salt. However, encouragement by published authors, editors or a group who love creativity, understand and 'know' their stuff is invaluable. But it must be honest, real and nip self delusion in the bud." (And thank you for your kind comments about my blog!)

Kate said...

This is such a timely post - I've been getting a lot of conflicting advice recently about my kids novel. I agree with Vanessa that the different oppinions made me sit down and have a long hard think about the subject. The problem however arose when one of the critiquers was absolutely adamant that she was right telling me to send it back to her once I'd made the changes she told me to make. Unfortunately she's the person whose 'advice' I have ended up deciding not to take and now she's in a strop with me :-)

I would never expect people to take my suggestions as gospel. They are, after all, only my opinion. :-)

Emma Darwin said...

And I'm with you on the supreme negativity, Nicoal. There's much starry-eyedness among would-be writers which needs dispelling with the chilly truth, if only to stop them racking up outrageous debts while writing their masterpiece on the assumption that if the advance alone won't pay them off, the film deal will.

But there is a kind of learned helplessness among certain kinds of author (sometimes understandably in view of their own experience, sometimes less so) which makes all effort seem futile, and all ways of trying to get published equally impossible. It's not actually true.

Zadie Smith, apparently, says that getting published is like finding a cheap apartment in New York. Everyone knows there are no cheap apartments in New York, and every day someone finds one...

Emma

Anonymous said...

Recently I received advice from an editor that said after dialogue you only need one sentence of say, body language, that there is no need for anything else. Then I'm doing a course saying, power up that emotion, with examples of at least four sentences.

It's all conflicting if you as me. :)

Linda Strachan said...

Great post. It is perfectly understandable that people are confused by all the advice out there because writing is not a 'nailed down - do it this way' kind of activity.

When I start to think about what kind of thing to include in a writing workshop I am constantly refining it down to a particular focus because there is too much to cover and never enough time. So much of it does depend on the book you are writing, the publisher/agent you are approaching but there has to be an element of common sense and consideration. Put yourself in the publisher/agent's shoes and try to see it from their perspective, they don't NEED your writing it's up to you to make it irresistible, on their terms!

The truth is that writing well is a skill that you need to hone and a craft that you need to learn (and will keep on learning throughout your career), not only from others but also by practising.

Who to listen to? You are right, Nicola, too many people listen to their friends/family or those with no publishing experience and that can be a dangerous route to follow.

Advice from professionals should be looked at and used (not blindly like using a satnav that takes you straight into the nearest river) with your thinking head on to see where it applies to you, but not necessarily used in isolation.

So many tales of overnight success give people the wrong idea. often when you look into it they have been either writing in another discipline - learning the craft - or they have become an overnight success after 20 years of trying! It makes for better media coverage that way.

I agree that MA courses are about the writing but I do wonder if that is something those embarking on them really understand that, or is it often seen as another sure way to publication, when there is no such animal?

Nicola Morgan said...

Linda - "So many tales of overnight success give people the wrong idea. often when you look into it they have been either writing in another discipline - learning the craft - or they have become an overnight success after 20 years of trying! It makes for better media coverage that way" - hear hear!!!

Jo Franklin said...

Quick update on that book that drove me mad for being published when I felt if failed on so many fronts.

I've now heard from someone who has had personal, social, outside the writing/publishing world contact with the author.

Apparently the author is a very pushy, brash, self publicist type who always manages to get their own way by not taking no for an answer.

Now I feel better. I want to get published because I have written something of merit, not because I bullied my way into print. Of course being a self publicist is a useful skill for a writer - but it's not the only one.

Nicola Morgan said...

Jo - PREcisely! Behind every story of unexpected success is a hidden reason. The whole story is rarely told, because it spoils the "story". Sometimes a self-publishing succes, for example, is engineered through enormous financial investment and / or massaging of the figures. And often brashness way oversteps the mark, achieves apparent success but heralds plumetting failure later on. Pride comes before a fall - remember that. And I salute you for your much healthier attitude - when you get success, you will deserve it. What more could we ask? Good luck and hooray for you!