Friday, November 13, 2015

Good Advice? or Not?

When I was peddling my first novel I acquired a wonderful agent, Claire Smith, of Harold Ober Associates. She was known throughout the industry for her wisdom. The few times I needed to call her, I was absolutely terrified of sounding really, really dumb (which I really, really was) or presumptuous for calling in the first place.

But one very memorable day I called her in a state of absolute fury. I had gotten feedback from a "book doctor" an editor had contacted on my behalf. The advice was so bad I was incensed. Mainly because this man did not know a thing about the historical background. But also because he knew so little about the intent of the book and wanted to redo mine into a romance.

I told her I didn't want to be one of those temperamental prima donnas who wouldn't listen to criticism.

What was really going on of course, was that I very young and vulnerable and this manuscript had become overly important in my own mind.

I'll never forget what Claire said. She began with "Congratulations. You're starting to acquire the first hard shell that is required to become a writer. It's the first of many, if you are going to survive."

Then she gave me this advice on advice. "You don't trust nobody, kid. You don't trust your enemies and you certainly don't trust your friends. And you don't change anything just because you think they are smart. It's only when something resonates in your gut—when you know they are right that you change your work."

Her words were very freeing. I've gone by them ever since. Nailing what's wrong with a manuscript is part of the process. Advice doesn't have to come to us directly. Some times when I'm struggling and hear a talk by another author or read someone's blog, the light flashes. I know instantly what is holding up the work. It's a terrific feeling.

By this time, I've become a  lot more objective. I'm usually capable of recognizing good advice but also acutely aware of how subjective the book business is. Even if a mystery is regarded as brilliant by the critics and the buying public, it might not be my cup of tea.

I'm very cautious about "helping" newbies with their writing. I may be dead wrong. Most worrisome is not being familiar with a genre. I don't want to ruin someone. It's hard to believe that anyone would take my advice that seriously, but they might. And I might be spectacularly wrong.

It's nothing short of a miracle to stumble onto the right editor at the right house. Even more miraculous for a book to click, create buzz and go on to be a best seller.


Jean Steffens said...

I enjoyed your post on giving advise.

Eileen Goudge said...

So true, Charlotte! And thanks for reminding us. I learned that lesson years ago, which is why editorial letters are for review and reflection these days, not marching orders. I think it's important to recognize when something in my manuscript isn't working for the reader, though I may not agree with their recommended "fix." Usually I come up with my own (better!) solution. Just finished revising my new mystery, due out next summer, guided by a 15 page, single-spaced editorial letter. My heart sank when I first saw the letter, but it proved to be good advice and made for a stronger book.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thanks Jean. For all the reasons mentioned in my blog writing groups make me nervous. I was a guest at one once that was so malicious that I was surprised the writer receiving the "helpful advice" survived. Plus I thought they were totally wrong.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Eileen, yes! The whole point is the reader. Sometimes the surest critic is the plain ordinary reader who is not a trained critic. When a reader says something like "I got bogged down in the middle and somehow never picked it up again," pay attention!

Donis Casey said...

Boy, that's the way I am about giving advice. I can feel confident about my grammar and spelling and otherwise line editing advice, but when it comes to content--I'm very aware that I only know what appeals to me. I like that "I got bogged down in the middle" comment, though. When more than one reader tells you something is wrong, it behooves you to pay attention.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Donis--we're on the same page. Ironically I find the very best comments come from people with absolutely no editorial training. They are only interested in finding a good book to read. And say things like "I just couldn't get into it," or "I didn't understand the ending," or "what became of so and so."