Six impossible things

Random bad advice

One of the many things nobody warned me about when I was getting started was all the self-proclaimed “experts” who would show up and start giving me advice about my writing career, whether I wanted it from them or not.

By and large, these are not people who have any actual connection to the actual book-publishing industry; the closest any of the ones I’ve met came was having edited their PTA newsletter. They fall into three basic categories:

First, there are the ones who are in love with the sound of their own voice. They’ll claim to have contacts of some sort – they know editors or agents, or they do a lot of work “in the industry” for their job. They can sound really plausible, partly because they are so very, very sure of themselves.

Every once in a while, one of these has some sort of credential that makes him (all the ones I’ve met have been hims) sound even more plausible. He’s a professor of English Literature, for instance, or he met Mr. Famous Author at a party once. The thing that lets you know that you can safely ignore pretty much anything he says is this: he doesn’t actually want to hear about your book, much less read it to see what sorts of problems you might actually have. No, he wants to get straight to the giving-advice part. Fortunately, this sort usually doesn’t much care whether or not you follow all his advice, as long as you’re willing to spend hours listening to him give it.

The second variety is a sort of status-leech. These people are not capable of writing to a publishable standard, and they know it, but they desperately long to be associated with writers and writing. So they try to horn in on everyone else’s career, so that if somebody is, eventually, successful, they can say “I helped” or “I knew her when” or even “He couldn’t have made it without me.” They do listen when you describe the story, but their advice is either so basic or so obvious that it’s not much help. And if they do happen to know some editors or agents, it’s a safe bet that the editors/agents find them deeply annoying, and will not look kindly on any of their recommendations.

The third variety didn’t start showing up until I was five or six years into my published career, and they are much less obvious, at least initially. They don’t offer unwanted advice or try to horn in; they behave very politely for a while; and then, when I’m convinced that they’re nice, normal, socially-ept people, they ask in the most unexceptionable fashion if I will give them some advice about their writing. If I agree, they then spend three hours telling me all about their great ideas and fabulous plans, without ever allowing me to get a word in edgewise. What they want is a captive audience, and perhaps, once they have dazzled me with their unique ideas, an offer of collaboration (or at the very least, an introduction to my editor and agent).

The real trouble with folks like this is that they prey on the not-yet-published. The easy way to avoid them, at least at first, is simply not to tell anyone you don’t already know and trust that you are writing anyone, but this is a lot easier said than done, especially if one is looking for first-readers or a crit group, or if one just happens to be the sort of person who likes to talk about one’s writing. And there is always the (very slim) chance that whoever-it-is really does know what he/she is talking about – just because the unwanted-advice-givers I’ve met were all talking through their hats, it doesn’t mean everyone like that is.

This is the part that really sends beginners into a tailspin. Here is this person, sounding authoritative, maybe even with some credentials to back up her opinions…but she’s obnoxious and the advice she’s giving is not at all what you want to do with your story. But what if she’s right? She’s so sure of herself…

At this point, what you do is ask yourself 1) If you follow her advice, and it works, will you have the sort of success you want? If you’re working on a sweet children’s bedtime storybook, and she’s telling you to write a gritty R-rated screenplay about vampires and zombies, will you be happy if you switch and that gets bought? If he can guarantee that his editor friend will buy a niche mystery about fly-fishing, will you be happy publishing that instead of your far-future space opera? In other words, are you in this to tell your stories, or are you in this to get a publication credit for something, anything, doesn’t matter what?

Assuming that the answer to #1 is yes, you would have no regrets whatever about abandoning your current work forever, so long as it gets you published, the second question is 2) Can you stand knowing, for the rest of your life, that you are indebted to this obnoxious person for your instant success? If the answer to this is also yes, then there’s not much downside to taking the advice.

If, however, the answer to one or both questions is no, then you have determined that you don’t want to take this person’s advice. You then have three possible courses of action: 1) listen until they run down, thank them, and dismiss them from your mind as you walk away, 2) bluntly explain that you’re not interested in their advice, or 3) turn the situation around on them.

#1 is for people who are well-intentioned or whom you don’t want to alienate. #2 sometimes becomes necessary to get rid of repeat offenders (some folks simply will not quit pestering you until you say bluntly “I do not want your advice; I will not talk about my writing with you; I don’t want to hear any more of your stupid ideas. Bug off.”).

#3 works best on people who really do have some experience with real live authors, but who are clearly not giving you any useful advice, and who are not-giving it at tedious length. What you do is, you role-play a wannabe. When Mr. Know-It-All offers to show your work to an editor (after you’ve revised it to his specifications, of course), you wave your hands vaguely and say “Oh, the book really isn’t ready to show anyone yet. Actually, I only have an outline and the first scene written…or maybe it should be a Prologue, I haven’t decided. But I’d love to talk more when it’s a bit further along.” Then you never bring it up again. Should he ask how it’s coming, you say “Oh, I’ve been so busy lately…” and look guilty. If this doesn’t make him drop the question like the proverbial hot potato, I guarantee that he has zero experience in actual publishing, and you can safely ignore his advice ever after.

  1. You would think that people would have more … decency? than to do stuff like this, but unfortunately, I’ve seen it all too often first hand. Strange that people would prey on the pre-published when they wouldn’t have anything really to show for it.

  2. or are you in this to get a publication credit for something, anything, doesn’t matter what?

    I seem to running into this sort, or reformed used-to-be-this-sort, a lot lately. It baffles me; given how hard it is to get something you love ready for publication, why (and how?) would anyone do that to themselves for something they didn’t love? And yet, there they are.

    Sometimes being a curmudgeon has its rewards.

  3. Somewhere I have a sign I use when giving modelling demonstrations.
    “Free Advice. Worth every penny.”

  4. Maybe they’re living vicariously? They don’t have time to sit down and write their own book, but they have a theory how it should be done, so they want you to do it for them?

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