Writers on Writing: Bad Advice

Post From the Past: 5/22/16 (originally published on Inject Creativity blog)

This post was second in a series of author interviews related to the release of the Crystal Lake collection, Writers on Writing Volume 3. See the first post in this series for author bios. Enjoy!

What was the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? Why was it so wrong for you?

Jonathan Janz: I once had an agent (not my current agent, thankfully) who tried to talk me into becoming an erotic romance writer. This was based on two factors: one, the agent thought I’d written some effective love scenes in one of my novels (HOUSE OF SKIN). Secondly, the agent in question believed erotic romance was where the money was. To demonstrate how little I knew back then, I actually spent a few minutes brainstorming an erotic romance plot. Then I came to my senses and realized that I needed to, you know, enjoy writing a book like that. If I didn’t enjoy writing it, my readers wouldn’t enjoy reading it. I’m not slamming that genre, of course; I’m just saying I don’t want to do that thing in a feature-length novel. A writer has to write what he/she loves to read; otherwise, the fissures in the artifice will become apparent to readers.

Brian Hodge: Honestly, I can’t think of any. I never really received much advice, and never sought much, and what I got was encouraging. Mostly, I focused on doing the work and sending it out, so whatever feedback I got was specific to particular stories and novels. It wasn’t generalized.

That said, the worst wound was self-inflicted, from drawing the wrong lessons early on. It’s normal for beginners to emulate their idols, and from one of mine I learned how to overwrite. Saying the same thing three times when once would’ve been enough. And going off on needless tangents, which one early rejection letter called “jolly irrelevancies.” I had to get past that and learn to tighten things up.

Jasper Bark: The worst piece of writing advice I’ve heard, came from a comics editor. In fact most comics editors still tell it to just about every new writer, or wannabe writer they ever meet. The advice was this: “Every story can be summed up in a single sentence. Start with the sentence and work up from there.”

The reasons why this is perhaps the biggest load of bullsh*t ever dressed up as editorial advice are too numerous to go into. However, what the editor, and in fact, every editor I’ve ever heard trot out this utter turd of advice, was really talking about, was the process of pitching to them.

Editing is an increasingly stressful and time consuming job, and editors often have very little time to do the thing they’re supposedly paid to do, namely read and edit manuscripts/scripts. Many of them might have gone into publishing to find the next generation of great new writers, but in reality, they only get a couple of hours a month to look at submissions and those free hours are most likely their lunch hours.

This means by the time they get to the submission pile, it resembles a mini Mount Edna. So they only have time to read a single sentence of most of those submissions. If this sentence, usually the pitch or log-line, doesn’t grab their attention, your MS or script is going straight in the recycling. If it does grab their attention then they may read your single paragraph summary and, if they like that, they might just check out your sample chapter/sample pages.

So what you need to do is write a really good attention grabbing sentence. Don’t worry about telling your whole story in a sentence, just make sure it’s a good sentence that makes passing reference to the subject of your story. If it has Kaiju in it, mention Kaiju, if it’s a paranormal romance, mention ghosts and erotic longing, but don’t, under any circumstances try to tell your story.

If only editors would be honest and give us that advice, then hundreds and thousands of authors would be spared the millions of hours they spend trying to shoehorn a novel’s worth of story into a single, sodding sentence.

Mercedes M. Yardley: I had an agent advise me to write formulaic fiction he could sell. My work doesn’t fit well into any one category, and he felt that was holding me back. I can’t write that way. I write to express my soul, to connect, and to entertain. I wouldn’t be happy writing any other way.

Kealan Patrick Burke: The worst piece of advice came early on, when another writer suggested giving my work away for free in order to gain “exposure”. And while sometimes that can certainly pay off (say with high traffic magazines or literary journals), for me it meant publication in (mostly) low-rent magazines nobody ever saw, run by editors who weren’t qualified to edit, which meant my work didn’t gain the feedback necessary for the betterment of my craft.

This Blogger: Back during my undergrad, I took a science fiction class with a professor who wrote horror. His class was fantastic – despite the incessant name-dropping – but when I met with him to seek advice for someone wanting to pursue writing, I was sadly disappointed. He told me to “Wait until I was older and had something to write about.” Stupid me ended up following that advice – writing quietly but not bothering to try to get published. I regret the affect that advice had on me

Read next question in interview series here.

Go back to the previous question here.

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