Recently, I was asked what was the worst writing advice I’ve ever received. To be sure, there’s no shortage of advice out there—good and bad. That said, I think a lot of bad advice is doled out with good intentions. Sometimes, it’s simply outdated advice. Other times, it’s cloaked in absolutes, like ‘always’ and ‘never’. Many times, people use it to deter others from making the same mistakes they’ve made.
Occasionally, it’s weary advice, the “I’m really tired of seeing this done poorly, so please just don’t even try” advice. And while it’s sometimes understandable, I’d venture to say this last one isn’t good advice. We should all be able to at least try. And who knows? We might be the ones to succeed.
You see, writing is a subjective business. The book I love may not be someone else’s cup of tea, and vice versa. By the way, don’t use cliches like ‘cup of tea’ when you write. Just don’t. Unless it’s a book about cliches. Or unless your main character is in a coffee shop and orders a cup of tea.
And don’t even get me started on ‘just’. Superfluous words! Strike them all. JUST DO IT.
Oh…wait. That line sounds vaguely (and famously) familiar.
See what I mean?
There is no ‘one size fits all’ here. Some of the best-selling books (and slogans) currently in the market go against the ‘professional’ advice. Does that mean it’s bad?
This is a subjective business, which means sometimes ‘good’ advice is contradictory.
When I was shopping When A Dragon Moves In around, I received two professional critiques from top tier editors in the publishing world. It’s a story about a little boy who builds the perfect sandcastle, only no one believes him, causing the dragon to act out and the boy to be blamed. I wanted it to be up to the readers to decide whether Dragon was real or simply a figment of the boy’s imagination.
The first editor said, “No, you have to make sure the readers know the dragon is imaginary.
The second editor said, “No, you have to make sure the readers know the dragon is real.”
Needless to say, I was confused and a bit depressed after the critiques. I had already sent the manuscript out to several publishing houses and agents. I’d received four rejections. Only one sub remained unanswered.
A month later, Flashlight Press editor Shari Dash Greenspan followed up my submission query with a question: “Is the dragon real or not?”
My stomach knotted. But before I could change my mind, I typed: “I want the readers to decide” and hit send. I waited for the rejection.
But lo and behold—she embraced the concept! To be fair, she mentioned the challenge of drawing a character that may or may not be there. We researched other books for a year to see if this was possible. With each email, I wondered if she’d change her mind. But she didn’t. Then she brought the brilliant illustrator Howard McWilliam on board and the two of them took my vision to heights I’d never dreamed.
In the ten years since Dragon was released into the world, it’s won awards, has been read by celebrity online storytellers and just this past December, named a Teacher’s Pick by Amazon.
Does this mean the other editors’ advice was bad? No. It means it was ‘just’ advice. (There’s that pesky word again. Remind me to edit it out before I post this.)
Here’s the thing. It’s your project. If the advice resonates, take it. If not. Leave it. You can always change your mind if the counsel doesn’t work out.
That’s just my two cents.