Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Writing Advice is Hazardous to Your Health

/dusts off her small box and climbs on top

Ahem. This rant, writers of non-repute, is for you and your incessant received writing advice.

There is a thing called too much advice. If you're on your first draft, if you haven't taken the weed whacker to the selection, or had a chance to finish the arc to see where it goes... how can you get advice that's truly valuable? Good advice about a story is precious, and requiring someone to validate your writing every chapter won't help you accomplish anything except angst, and we writers have enough of that.

I know how you feel when you have a WiP. The excitement and madness of writing down your heart's thoughts and your head's emotions. The thrill of racing along with your protagonist as you're swept into their story is beyond compare. And who can blame you? For you, the story is crystal clear.

You've written your first chapter, or perhaps the entire novel, and that little voice, the who's so proud of your work and yet desires some advice speaks up. It tells you to get out there and get people engaged in your piece. Perhaps a Hooked contest over at Authoress's blog, or a writing forum; maybe even the coveted writing group.

To see if you're you're headed in the right direction, of course.

I mean, it was written for you and others to enjoy, right? A little advice and some compliments in one go - how bad could it be?

Let me give you an example from a fellow writer I know. She's a good writer, is free with her writing advice and time for others, and has a wonderful WiP that's shaping up nicely. My friend recently relayed an incident to me where she asked for people in this writing blog group she's in to give her critiques on her WiP. She got 18 people giving feedback on the entire thing.

18 - gosh, she must feel incredible, right? So many people came and gave advice on her piece! And as it turned out, she had several people remark on the same thing, and did find something useful.

The problem, however, was that verbal flood overwhelmed her. While some of the advice was good, just as much of it wasn't. There were people who didn't know how to act like professionals, and there were so many specifics that by the end she felt like she had to please everyone. It became frustrating and depressing to read - knowing when to not listen to unprofessional people still doesn't stop you from feeling down about it.

I know many people say the advice helps them to improve their writing, and I'm not saying advice should never be sought - it should only be sought after you've put it through the wringer and your writing is ready to be viewed by the public for final tweaking. Stephen King calls those people Ideal Readers; an apt phrase.

The thing is, until you've had a chance to sit and sweat over your writing a few times, any adivce you get will be moot, as you'll end up changing the whole darn thing anyways.

Another example: a second friend of mine recently had the first part of her chapter 1 put up for critiques on a board. The dozen or so comments that followed were about as useful as an umbrella with a hole in it. Vague comments about how they didn't like or liked it, with only one person pointing out any specifics was a total wash from her. She knew her first chapter needed some work, but all she found out was that it didn't work for most people. Oh, and the place two people wanted her to start at was trite and overdone for her genre.

If you take the time to sit with your story and look it over, you can figure out yourself the extensive rewrites you'll need to get the much-valued second chapter. All the advice in the world may or may not give you ideas and help, but it'll be their ideas, not yours. Your piece is your creation for so long before people start putting their mark on it - go through it at least twice on your own before delving to the outside realms.

You yourself, and the fact that you stuck your butt in the seat every day to finish the 60k-200k monstrosity is validation. Every day you go back and chip away at the boulder of a bad scene, or use your plot hole shovel, or wield those slice and dice knives - that is validation.

If you need permission to brag, you have it. Less than half of the people who say they'll write a novel end up starting it, let alone finishing a first draft.

When that voice starts speaking up, smack it with a stick. I'm serious. Advice is always a two-edged sword, and putting a piece out somewhere that's not ready to go will give you bad jujus.

Patience, young padawan. You'll know when the time is right to pass out those copies for others to read. Find those ideal readers, the ones whose advice you can trust won't steer you off into stereotypes or change your writing style.

Your writing and you - the best duo in the world. Keep it that way.

6 comments:

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

Hi M. Good to hear from you again. Good post.

In answer to your question over on my blog, I was simply premature in submitting my WIP. Here's my story:

Two years ago, I, a novice, had finished my first WIP, a different story, I'd finished it twice. I spent five years on it. You know, blood, sweat, and tears. I spent another two years in a really good, inspiring critique group who really helped me, a lot. But it resulted in two more years gone by and I was so confused by now, even with all the great advice, I finally had to put it aside or quit writing.

I took what I'd learned and started another novel. I was on the first draft, not even done and thought I'd run it up the flag pole, you know, see how I'm doing. That's when I joined your group.

Here, again, I've spent a whole year on this WIP. You were absolutely right about waiting until the second or third draft to submit a WIP. I just didn't have the heart to go through that again. Not at this time.

I'm sorry, I should have said something to the group, but, no buts, my bad, it was rude. I'd like to try again when I think it's as good as I can get it on my own without help.

You made some good points in your blog, and I almost felt like I was your second example you gave above. That's kind of what happened to me. But it's just because I don't want to waste my time or anyone else's on a work that's such a baby. Gees, I'm actually tearing up.

Hope we can still be friends.

M. K. Clarke said...

Elizabeth,

I'm another member of M's crit group and don't recall giving you feedback on it. That group is tough, but fair; another member who was there last year, Tom Stewart, got frustrated when he'd received conflicting advice on his WIP. Eventually, he knew which advice to accept and which to toss. He passed away sadly, this pasyt July. We may never know if he had that work published posthumusly.

Good post, Marisol. It's wise to put your draft through it's own worst critic: you, before sending it through the wringer out there that's WORSE than you. Most crit groups--and the two i'm part of--are the most fantastic bunch I've come to know and respect. One member is quite brutal in his feedback, but he doesn't attack you, the author, but the WIP needing surgery. However, since we're so close to the project, it feels that way because it's our baby. Blood, sweat and tears went in every word of your work as your coffee drips ever drop from your fresh pot to your mug. But when YOU get better in editing, then you can trust your baby to those who've earned that

This isn't to say you're not a good writer; you are. You're getting better all the time. But just because someone doesn't think it's god, doesn't mean it's not good OVERALL. Think about that for a sec: If your work didn't fare for the critic who didn't dig it and didn't explain why, perhaps he couldn't put his finger on it. This doesn't mean the work itself is bad overall; based on his assessment, it was when it wasn't.

Just wanted to share. Appreciate your time, Marisol! :)

~Missye

M. Dunham said...

Missye: Yes, this is an excellent point as well. The problem with writing advice is just because someone doesn't like it doesn't mean it's bad, or even good.

There are many factors a person has to keep in mind, such as not all good writers are good critics, if the person reads your genre, whether the person wants to or can be helpful (some just aren't), if the person is into your writing or not, their own level of critiquing expertise... these and so many other factors do need to be considered before following someone's advice.

The one thing I think that many people don't remember, especially in groups like the Well, is that reading only one chapter at a time does leave for only so much critiquing. Sometimes people want you to take something out that you can't; or modify it in a way that nullifies the next chapter or two. This is probably the most important consideration for advice - you need to figure when it's something that's important to keep, and when it's not. And YOU have to make that decision, not let others do it for you.

The Screaming Guppy said...

It's a tough balance for sure. While I don't think it's a bad idea to share an early draft, I think there are certain things you should do if you share early in the process.

If you're doing first draft exchanges, this is the place, I think, to stick with close friends, established critique buddies and even family. Take care of your itch to share, there's nothing wrong with that!

BUT make sure you:

A.) Explain to your swap buddies where you are at in the process and that you aren't looking for the big detailed gutting that comes with later drafts.
B.) Don’t set your expectations too high. Don't expect people to love it like you do, not yet - unless it's your Mom. This is especially true when swapping with other writers. If another writer is in final draft mode, they're going to cut deeper than you might be ready for.
C.) Take all advice received at this point with a grain of salt, as Marisol hits on. I mean, if you aren’t even finished writing yet, how can you know if you’re going to change the order of events, or even who your characters are?

I’m not against sharing early drafts. I’m still not, even after my first section of my WIP got beat down when I shared it publicly. What I learned, however, was to expect nothing from these exchanges at such at early place in the process. It was tougher than I expected it to be, but now I have a better understanding of who I should share with at what point in my WIP’s progress.

If you have thick skin, are brave, trust your chosen swap buddies, and keep low expectations for how helpful the swap will be, proceed. If you’re unsure that you can stick with any of this, wait until a later draft to swap.

Glynis said...

Marisol, I found this posting so valuable. I wrote about too much advice as you know, this is one bit I AM going to take :))

Danyelle said...

Brilliant post, Marisol. :D I think advice can be very helpful, so long as it's used with discretion. We need to remember that not all advice is equal either. Some people won't get the story--and that's okay--but it would be unwise to follow any advice that would not stay true to the story. Thanks again for the reminder. :D