A Brief Word on Advice

When I was a newbie writer eager to learn about the publishing industry, I did what most newbie writers did—hit the Internet with such force that I became engulfed in a blazing whirlwind of website hopping. I was like a sponge, soaking up every tiny little bit of advice I could find, devouring it and treating it like gospel.

Except that now I realize something.

You guys, there is a lot of bad advice out there. Strike that, there is a lot of truly horrible advice out there. In the weeks and months after I signed with my agent, I can’t tell you how many panicked emails I sent him a la “I want to make this change to my manuscript, but I heard that if I do X, Y or Z, I will NEVER get published!!!!!” After a while, my agent (a very seasoned industry vet) responded with (a very polite version of) “Where the heck are you getting this crap from?”

Where the heck, indeed. I sat back, took a breath and came up with a few pointers for myself to consider for culling the good advice (of which there is a lot) from the not-so-good advice (of which there is a lot).

1. Consider the source. There are a bunch of learned agents and editors willing to give advice on their blogs or Twitter feeds, and this can be invaluable, but lately I’ve noticed there’s also a trend out there where Person A gets a gig as a literary intern and immediately starts doling out industry advice as gospel. In my mind, this is kind of like passing the Bar and the next day proclaiming yourself a qualified legal expert, when, trust me, it takes new lawyers like two years minimum before they understand what the heck they’re doing.

I don’t say this to discount anyone’s sense of accomplishment in gaining an internship, because it is a pretty big accomplishment, nor am I saying that inexperience always = shoddy advice. I’m merely pointing out that, just like I’d pick a lawyer who’s been handling trusts and estates for twenty years to draft a will over the newbie who’s never drafted a single legal document in his life, if I need query advice, I’m heading to Query Shark first. Just saying.

2. Consider the message. Life isn’t black and white, and neither is the publishing industry. I’m less inclined to follow advice that goes “NEVER do X” or “ALWAYS do Y” and more inclined to follow advice that goes “As a general rule, Y is preferable but sometimes you’ll want to break the mold, such as when …” Wiggle room, that’s what it’s all about.

3. Consider the frequency. Let’s say you’re seeking out query advice. Your current query starts with the line

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wake from a coma to be told your entire family is dead?

You scour website after website and see over and over and over again that starting with a rhetorical question is cliched. Pretty much every query site out there advises as such, so I’d say that that’s probably good advice and you can go ahead and dump the question from your query. You then change it to

Sixteen-year-old Amelia wakes from a coma to be told her entire family is dead.

You keep reading the sites. Most of them tell you it’s a good idea to lead off with the inciting incident and to throw the main character’s name and age in for good measure. Sweet! You’re doing great. But then you find one site that tells you to never lead off with the inciting incident and character’s name/age. What to do? Well, I’d say you can probably go ahead and ignore that tidbit (unless, of course, that advice comes from an agent you want to query, in which case you’d be wise to tweak the first line before you send it to her).

4. Consider your gut. In my mind, this one is the most important. How does the advice make you feel? Does it make sense? Can you see where the adviser is coming from? Or, on the flip side, does the advice leave you with a really funny taste in your mouth? Or leave you scratching your head? Don’t be afraid to question advice. You’ll never grow otherwise.

Now you tell me. How do you deal with all of the advice out there?

Posted in Industry, Writing

4 Responses

  1. Point 1 is something I’ve been thinking about recently. I’m following a handful of interns on Twitter and it does seem odd that from Day 1, they’re already handing out advice like seasoned pros. I’m so grateful to get advice wherever I can, because trust me, I need it! But I’ve been hesitant to fall over myself to note down what they say and I felt bad, thinking it was just sour grapes because they’re about 12 years younger than me 😉 I think your point is an excellent one and I feel a bit better for having read it 🙂

    • Meredith says:

      I’m absolutely grateful for all the good advice out there too, but the fact of the matter is that not all advice is created equal. And I suppose that advice has a level of subjectivity about it, so that what works for one won’t work for another, but I’m glad I could help a little bit. 🙂

  2. Great advice. I once made a change in a manuscript and a friend (who’s been a published writer for years and years) asked if a newbie agent told me to do this. I said, “Uh, yeah.” She said, “You should’ve left it alone. It was better as it was.” Then she reminded me not to take every bit of advice doled out. She told me to go with my gut.

    • Meredith says:

      Yep, going with your gut is the most important, in my book. Funny feelings are there for a reason. I can’t tell you how many manuscript changes I made early on when I was newbie writer that I just didn’t feel comfortable with. I think that’s part of a reason my first (currently shelved) book is such a mess!

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