Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The dangers of handing out (or accepting) writing advice

The dreaded “track changes”…
This past week, I was asked to be a manuscript evaluator once again for Bloody Words here in Toronto. I again declined. Mostly, it’s because I don’t have the time. I’m up to my eyeballs with far too many things to do. In fact, the harder I work, the farther behind I seem to be getting. I am not about to take on evaluating someone’s writing if I’m not going to give my evaluation the care and consideration the project would deserve.

But there’s also another reason: writing is so subjective, I don’t want to say things that are totally wrong or counterproductive to a budding author’s progress towards realizing their goals. Who’s to say that I’m right? Someone who doesn’t know any better, that’s who. “Hey, he’s written ten novels. He must know what he’s doing.” The truth is, I do know what I’m doing (more or less) – but only for me.

What I find really appalling is writers who don’t have enough skill or “mileage” under their belts, setting themselves up as experts because they’ve sold a short story or two, and then inflicting themselves on the defenseless as writing experts. If I were ever asked to teach creative writing, I would run away screaming. Being an effective teacher is a very particular (and rare) skill. I do know of what I speak because I taught music for nearly 25 years, and that’s something that’s a lot less subjective than teaching writing. I saw a ton of bad teaching – a lot of it my own. Would I want to be responsible for giving someone the exact wrong advice because I couldn’t see something or didn’t understand it properly?

You’re getting this from someone who assigned a promising student the drums many years ago. Scott Harrison has gone on to become a very accomplished and successful musician – on trumpet. We laugh about it whenever I see him, but inwardly I’m appalled by what I did. You see, I almost assigned him trumpet, but I needed someone with innate timing to be the percussionist in my beginning band, and Scott filled the bill. I gave him the wrong instrument for the wrong (and admittedly self-serving) reason. Thank the stars he got it right on his own.

It all boils down to this for me: who am I to be telling impressionable writers what is right and what is wrong?

In defense of my position, I hold up the multitude of tales about writers who had their work rejected a humiliating number of times by agents and editors – the “experts” – only to eventually find outrageous success when their work is finally accepted by someone who’s willing to take a chance. Those stories are true. What did those experts miss – and why?

The other thing is taking part in critiquing groups with people who know about as much as you do. I’ve seen good writers become paralyzed because of conflicting advice, or taking all the advice, their writing turns into beige pap because there is no personality left. It only makes sense to me to take advice from people who know more than I do. Just because a certain passage doesn’t work for a certain person doesn’t mean it’s wrong, for instance. Do you honestly expect everyone to love everything you write? That’s nuts. Even Shakespeare has his detractors.

Elmore Leonard said one should never use adverbs. I believe Mark Twain said never use adjectives. You cannot say never in writing, and I’m always skeptical of those who espouse hard and fast statements like those in any art form. To my mind, great writing lies in the grayness, and in breaking the rules effectively. Good art can seldom come out of black and white rules. What one should be is aware of all the “rules” and then to forge one’s own path.

I will close, though, and actually give the two pieces of advice that I feel are worth sharing:

  • if one person says something critical about your writing, they may be correct. But if several people say the same thing about your writing, they’re most certainly correct. Think about the former. Listen to the latter;
  • the only true path to success as a writer, is to never be anything but truthful with yourself. To have any hope of success, you must be able to step back and evaluate your writing truthfully and honestly.

And here’s some incredibly astute advice from Neil Gaiman: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

The best experience I had with an editor was at the hands of Pat Kennedy, of whose skills I think a great deal. She flagged various things in my edited ms as deserving of the chop. A few of them I thought were wrong-headed. She smiled, leaned back in her chair and said, “Okay. Defend yourself.” I started off, and a few minutes on, the light invariably went on in my head, and I would realize she was correct. I only stuck to my guns on one point, and guess what? Time has proven that she was right about that one, too.

When you find a really great editor, you’ll know it. Hang on to them for dear life.


A.M. Guynes/Annikka Woods said...

I've gotten so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of writing advice out there that I've ruined my manuscript. I now have to do a total rewrite on it to fix everything I thought I needed to do. I'll still keep some of the advice in mind, because it's good advice. But I'll let the rest of it go and let the story flow naturally as I should have done in the first place.

Rick Blechta said...

Sadly, yours is exactly the situation about which I was posting. One of my personal truisms about advice/criticism is this: if you hear it once, think about what is said and decide whether it's a valid point, but if you hear the same thing multiple times, you've definitely got a problem.

Best of luck on fixing your ms. Hopefully, you kept all the earlier drafts!

Eileen Goudge said...

As an author of 15 novels, sometime editor & former writing teacher, I'm frequently asked to critique the works of beginning writers. I've learned to say no, mainly because most people don't really want my advice even when they say they do. What they want is for me to send their manuscript to my agent with words of praise. When I come across someone who actually listens, it's usually a measure of the quality of their work. The more keen they are to take advice, the better the writer. That said, I agree that criticism is subjective. Informed subjectivity when coming from a seasoned author.

Rick Blechta said...

You're right. My limited experience has been pretty much the same. I "mentored" a writer several years ago, told him what I thought of the bit of his novel I'd seen, made a few suggestions (mostly about how the dialogue needed much improvement) and was completely ignored. I found out later that the author had told someone I had no idea what I was talking about. One of my French horn teachers once gave me a choice when I was getting depressed about my progress: "I'll be happy to tell you all the things you're doing right, or I could continue concentrating on telling you all the things you're doing wrong. Which do you think will help you the most?" Turned my attitude right around. Wise man...

My motto since has always been "I'd rather be good than right."

Thanks for writing in.

Vicki Delany said...

I have plenty to say on this, so stay tuned!