Wednesday, September 16, 2020

WORST WRITING ADVICE EVER--WHAT WAS YOURS? by Cheryl Pierson

What was the worst writing advice you ever received? Is there any such animal as “bad writing advice”? Not according to novelist and screenwriter Chuck Wendig. "There's only advice that works for you and advice that doesn't."

Is that true? Sometimes it seems, as writers, we can get so caught up in “the rules” that we forget the story and how to tell it. We become frustrated, and it can be downright maddening to try to remember every piece of advice from every writing source we’ve ever come across and tried to use properly.

No. It's not an Amish Romance...

Translating our ideas into language is one way of looking at our writing process, but how do we start? I have to admit, I am truly a ‘pantser’, not a ‘plotter’—which is really out of character for me in every other aspect of my life. But somehow, orchestrating everything to an outline and strictly adhering to that brings out the rebel in me. I just can’t do it—and I’ve tried. Here’s an example of the differences from Richard Nordquist’s “About.com” publication on writing:

In his essay "Getting Started," John Irving writes, "Here is a useful rule for beginning: Know the story--as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story--before you commit yourself to the first paragraph." Irving has written far more novels than I. Clearly he knows what works for himself in a way that I don't always for myself, but this seems to me terrible advice. I'm more inclined to E.L. Doctorow's wisdom. He once wrote that writing . . . is like driving at night: You don't need to see the whole road, just the bit of illuminated blacktop before you.
(Debra Spark, "The Trigger: What Gives Rise to the Story?" Creating Fiction, edited by Julie Checkoway. Writer's Digest Books, 1999)

Yes. That’s what I do. I don’t always see the entire big picture, and I don’t need to from the very beginning. But I do see more than “just the bit of illuminated blacktop”—in other words, the immediate “coming up next” section of the story. So I guess I’m in category #3—Swiss cheese author—I know the basics of what’s going to happen, but even so, there are a LOT of little (and big!) surprise along the way.

Nope. Neither is this one...

Aside from being on one side of the “plotter/pantser” fence and being told you’re wrong by the other side, what is the worst writing advice you’ve ever had? You don’t have to say who gave it to you—but I’m curious…what was it? And do you agree with the idea that there is no bad writing advice, just “advice that works for you and advice that doesn’t”? Bring on the comments and opinions! The worst writing advice I ever received? “Try to write an Amish romance. That’s what’s 'hot' now…” (from an agent). What’s yours?

www.prairierosepublications.com

26 comments:

  1. Over my many years of crafting stories in several different genres, the "bad" advice I've received mostly came from agents and/or publishers, and rarely from publicists or other writers. I nearly always went down like the following... Them: "Don't be silly. No one buys Westerns. You need to stick with mystery/suspense." Me: "But I'm so sick of writing things I don't really like. I want to write what I like and know best." Them: "Yeah, good luck with that, because you'll never find a publisher who will accept Westerns. Now when can you finish cranking out that next book?" Needless to say, it wasn't until I finally got so angry at getting ripped off while creating the stories THEY wanted that I quit writing for publication. I continued to write, but the stories I wanted to tell, not what I was buttonholed into creating. Finally, back about a dozen or so years ago, an old friend gave me an idea about who to pitch my works to, and I'm now the happiest I've been in well over fifty years of writing - after landing on my fourth, and best, publisher of Western genre, as well as hiring the best publicist I've ever had. Dadgumit, I sure wasted a lot of years by not standing up and saying, ENOUGH! I'm going to write Westerns anyway!

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    1. Yes! When you think about it, "back in the day" everything the public read was controlled by 6 publishing companies, more or less, until digital publishing happened and opened the gates for the smaller publishers and self-publishing. My theory is that many of larger publishers don't believe that anyone outside of the big cities (mainly NYC) read anything, and if they do, they want to read about...NYC! LOL There is so much more out here in the world--otherwise, we'd all be lined up to purchase the very same book, and there'd only be ONE story that anyone would be interested in. We are all so different and we all love to read different things, so how can anyone say "no one" wants to read Westerns or romances or sci-fi or anything, really? People like to read lots of different things, and thank goodness, now they are able to! So glad you stopped by, Cherokee, and so glad you followed your heart and went ahead and wrote what you felt in your soul instead of what was delegated by someone else!

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  2. I began submitting my manuscript to editors. I mailed my first novel on Friday about lunchtime. It landed (somehow) on the desk of Hilary Sares at 8:30 am. By 10:10 I got a message on my answering machine saying she wanted to buy it. I called back and immediately accepted her contract. Naturally, I sent notices to the other publishers, saying I was withdrawing the manuscript for their consideration.

    I guess one didn’t make it to the right place, because TWO YEARS and a half years after I was published—sold out of first run, had a second and then third run, was translated into Russian, German, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French—I get a rejection letter from Harlequin. The editor shall remain nameless. She actually was very nice, saying she liked my writing, but her best advice was “to put the manuscript into the trash because there was no fixing it”. She suggested I buy about 10 Harlequin Historicals and see what people wanted to read to guide me.

    So I wrote her back, thanking for her taking time to give me guidance, but I wished she had replied sooner than 2 ½ years, because the book had been bought and printed by Kensington, two years ago and translated in 7 languages. I never got a reply…lol.

    I had to laugh at all the money I made off that book—15 years and it is STILL selling and she suggested I dump it in the trash…lol

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    1. OMG, Deborah, I'm laughing soooo hard. That just goes to show that "one man's 'trash' is another man's 'treasure'" LITERALLY. I'm so very glad you DIDN'T get a response from her in a timely way--you might have gotten discouraged and not even submitted it elsewhere. I think that happens a LOT in our world--just because someone gets up on the wrong side of the bed and deems a manuscript "not worthy" does not necessarily mean that's true. I love your stories--every one of them. So glad you followed your heart and wrote what you wanted the way you wanted. Hugs!

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    2. Deborah, I've been working in publishing since 1985 and I'm pretty sure that is the finest author story I have ever heard. Many thanks for sharing. It will not be forgotten.

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    3. Cheryl -- yes, think how much poorer I would be had her letter come in first instead of 2 1/2 years later...lol. And the world might not have any Challon novels.

      Peter, you are most welcome. It's funny how a first time writer would have been totally wounded to have their manuscript waved to the trash can. But since I got it long after the novel was out, in fact the second of the series was just coming, it only made me see how off the comments were.

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  3. I think "write what you know" is bad advice, or at least incomplete. It should be write what you can 'come to know," as in what you can learn.

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    1. I definitely agree with that. How can anyone KNOW what it's like to be an alien, if they want to write sci-fi? If Roddenberry had only written what he KNEW we'd not have ever had the fabulous worlds he created for us in Star Trek! I don't like that advice, either.

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    2. That oft quoted advice is tired old dog. Know the subject you write about (as best you can) should be the words passed down. We cannot know what it is to live on another planet. We cannot know what it is to be a brain surgeon, or even a medieval serf. You learn these things, research them until you know your topic. Sadly, a lot of advice given out is done by rote - it was told to them so they pass it on, even when the "advice" is outdated in this age of instant access research.

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  4. I'm on your side of the pantser/plotter debate, though I do use an outline. But I create it after I've finished a manuscript; it helps me identify plot holes and make sure my time-line is consistent, among other smaller things. So I guess I'm a "plantser".

    The worst piece of writing advice to me is "no adverbs" (this made popular by an author who uses them pretty consistently).

    Then there was the sheer silliness of a critique partner who told me that a semi-colon was "exotic punctuation" that readers wouldn't understand, and also that there should only be one comma per paragraph. Needless to say, she wasn't my CP long.

    I think the best piece of advice I've ever heard is "Find the word does the best job for you and use it, regardless what any of the 'rules' say."

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    1. Gifford, I do something similar, too. I start writing and when I get about halfway done, I make a timeline of what I have done so far and what has to happen in the future within a certain time frame. Then I can adjust for things I wrote in that were a surprise, even to me. LOL I hate the NO ADVERB rule, too. Truthfully, there are so many parts of speech that it has become fashionable to do away with in writing these days, but these parts of speech have a purpose and to me, they all add together to make our language so wonderful and colorful and descriptive. And a semi-colon being exotic? I never knew that! LOL Oh, brother, one comma per paragraph...I could never do it. And it would change the meaning of so many things I want to say. I'm glad you ditched her and moved on! I totally agree with you about finding the best word and using it. Also, another one I like is being able to tell the story the right way, no matter the length. Although it seems that some stories might be too detailed, there is a reason many of those stories are considered CLASSICS in literature now. I really do not like reading a story and having the end just foisted upon the reader because "it was time to end it" or someone else decided that was how it should be, other than the author. Thanks for coming by!

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    2. Gifford, sounds like you have a good handle on the process. We all differ in the panster/ plotter debate, but I have found too much outlining before hand, bleeds off the steam of excitement. You have a fire when you start a novel, and playing without lines draws away fuel. Outlining after, is very good way to get overview of your novel, and good for a future "bible" when you are doing a series. You have the information there ready for double checking.

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  5. I've always felt write about what you love rather than what you know. Research can fill in the blanks but one needs to "feel" the story and listen to the characters when they demand "their" story. Many years ago I was urged by a well-published author to change my settings to the U.S. instead of Canada. I couldn't. I felt and still feel that Canada's rich history and beautiful scenery will be appreciated...and it has, judging from the feedback I've received from readers. Thank you, Cheryl, for taking a chance on me with my trilogy. Hugs.

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    1. Elizabeth, I'm so glad you left your stories set where they are set. Yes, many people love to read stories about one certain state or Territory, or area, but if there is no other choice, how will they ever know if they like a story set elsewhere? I really enjoyed the settings and characters in your stories. We are so glad to have you with us at Prairie Rose Publications! XOXO

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  6. "Just get it out there!" was the advice. Speed is essential. As a result, I shudder at my early content. I knew better.

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    1. Oh yes... that is a bad one for sure. Especially if you have discerning readers who were hoping for a well-written story complete with correct punctuation and so on. So much better to just take a little more time and go back to it and re-read and be sure it's the way you want everyone else to see it. So glad you mentioned this one, David.

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  7. The worst advice I ever got was from an editor for a previous publisher. She told me to stop using analogies to describe anything. So, no more mountains shaped like jagged shark teeth or the fragrance of sunshine. That publishing company went on to accept only erotica submissions and I went on to a better publisher.

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    1. Sarah, so many editors have their way of doing things and they think there is no other way--which is simply not true. There are so many writing styles out there! It's what makes all authors distinctive and different. Glad you listened to your own intuition! So happy you came by today, and you know we are thrilled to have you at PRP!

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  8. Cheryl,

    The worst advice came from me. I couldn't stop writing but I did stop sending manuscripts out. I waited almost 3 decades before showing my work to someone who would make a difference. It was then I was encouraged to edit and market my work.

    I guess the best advice a person can give themselves and others, is, if compelled to write, WRITE!

    Charlie Steel

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    1. Oh, yes, Charlie! We can't let other people tell us if we are "worthy" or not. I always think about people like Nat King Cole being "discovered"--would he have had "no talent" if he hadn't been "discovered"? Of course not. So keep writing, no matter what! So glad you got back to it and are getting your stories out there. I always enjoy reading your work, my friend!

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  9. I've popped back today to read more comments because your blog is not only an interesting topic, but an important one, Cheryl. I love this sharing. I had to smile at the one comma only advice. What a joke. But along that line, I have to mention someone once told me not more than three exclamation marks can be used in an entire book. I have seen some books littered with them, which after a while becomes exhausting. There is a place for them, but use them sparingly so they have impact! And Charlie Steel, I hear you about not sending your ms out. That was me after receiving my first rejection April 6, 1983, the day after my birthday. I was so green I didn't know what tightening up meant, or why my writing was old-fashioned. So, I stopped editing, just finished a book, put it away and started another book, then did the same, letting it collect dust somewhere. I've thought of how many years I've wasted when for periods I stopped writing when life intervened, but I realize now those were the percolating years. Writing fast is fine, but a story needs some percolating time to let the grinds sink to the bottom, blend all the flavors of the story, and give the "brew" good, rich body. I think the first book of my trilogy became better because of this.

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    1. Yes, Elizabeth, that's a good way to look at it--percolating. A lot of writing time is really thinking time, and supposition about what might happen if...but what if...and then, there might be THIS that happens... We have to have that time to be able to let the story come to us as it needs to.

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  10. Cheryl,

    The only bad writing advice I can think of that I've had is not with my writing per se (as in the no adverb rule or one comma per paragraph examples). Mine was with an editor in a publishing house who was assigned to me simply because it was her turn on the editing roster to take on a new author, and not because she had a background in my subgenre of western romance. She had no experience with the Old West or horses. She insisted on changing several passages to fit her lack of knowledge. I know horses, and I know a good deal about the western part of 'western romance'. We had many 'discussions'. Another editor wasn't familiar with what I call Old Timey sayings. She insisted on changing or deleting them. That was another tussle. (Examples: barking your shins, over Hell and half of Georgia, hotter'n the hubs of Hades, that'll make your pups kick)


    My takeaway on those experiences is before you get involved with an editor, make sure they have a serious interest in the time period of your story. While it's important to know grammar/writing rules, you have to know enough about the genre and subgenre you're editing.

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    1. ALL TRUE, Kaye! I always think of the story Celia Yeary told -- and I've laughed about this so often -- when she submitted a story that had "red-eye gravy" in there as a dish to go along with dinner, and an editor didn't know what that was, so she looked it up and marked in red letters that she was sure Celia had made a mistake. There was no such thing as "late flight gravy" and it wouldn't make sense! LOL Yes, I certainly agree with you, an editor needs to know about the time period they're editing. It makes all the difference and saves a LOT of wasted time all around. So glad you stopped by today!

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  11. Thanks for all the comments and worthwhile advice. Looking at the authors above, think how many good stories we'd have missed if you hadn't "stuck to your guns."
    Thanks to all of you for leading the way.

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    1. Frank, I think everyone has their "horror" story that could have changed everything for them one way or the other. I'd love to hear yours!

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