Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

I Have No Good Advice For You


Since I’ve joined the rest of the tweet-world on Twitter and started following writing- and publishing-related tweets, I’ve noticed that for writers who blog about writing, there’s one sure way to attract people and get lots of hits on your blog, and this is it: Give advice about writing.  How to Create Great Characters; Six Things Never to Do on Page One; Writing the Query Letter That Will Knock an Agent’s Socks Off … you name it.  If you can put together a blog post that gives writers some good handy advice, writers will flock to read it. 

I think it may be because we all want to know The Secret.  Writers run around like crazy people searching for the one magical key that will open up new realms of success, so any blog post that promises to offer advice is bound to draw writers like a magnet.

So here’s some bad news for my blog, and a dirty little secret.

The bad news: I will probably never have any good advice for writers on my blog.

The dirty secret: When people give advice; I judge them.

Those two things are connected, of course.  I don’t like to give advice, because I assume people will judge me the same way I judge the advice-givers.

Don’t think I’m proud of my dirty little secret. I’d love to have this wonderful, open-palmed approach to the universe, where I simply wander through the garden of thoughts, gathering whatever is good and lovely without caring about the sources, keeping what I can use and lovingly dropping the rest to the breeze. I’d love to be that person, but I’m not.

As soon as I read a blog post by a writer about “How to get an agent to pull your query from the slush pile and fall in love with it,” I immediately click to the blogger’s bio. What has she written? What has she sold? Who is her agent? Who is her publisher? And the judgey voice in my head starts to say, “She hasn’t even published yet!” or “How good can her agent be when her book’s been placed with a publisher no-one’s ever heard of?” In other words, “Who is she to be giving me advice about writing a great query, when I can’t even confirm that her query led to a great agent who’s representing her books really well?”

That’s just one example, but my bad attitude is pervasive. Why tell me about creating great characters if none of your stories has even been published yet? Sure you have insights garnered from your experience, but have they been tested by publishers and by readers? And it extends beyond writing.  Don’t give me your parenting advice if your kids are out terrorizing the neighbourhood. Don’t tell me tips on a happy marriage if you’re on your third (unless your advice is specifically geared to “How to have a happy THIRD marriage.”) Don’t give me … oh, I could go on and on, but eventually I’d end up offending Dr. Phil and then someone would come in the middle of the night, put a bag over my head, spirit me out of the house and dump my body in the woods, so I’ll stop now. 

Bottom line: When I hear advice, I judge the source. And if I’m not impressed by the level of success you’ve achieved in your chosen advice-giving field, I’m going to be skeptical.

Yes, I know struggle and failure can teach us as much as success, and people have learned valuable lessons along the way. I know that’s true. But I still judge.

The corollary of this, of course, is that I don’t give much advice myself.  Writing advice? Probably not.  My eighteenth book  has just come out, but I’ve never in my life successfully sold a book based solely on a query letter or a synopsis, so I’m not about to go out giving advice on how to attract agents and editors.  I could give advice about aspects of writing I feel I have somewhat of a good grip on — I have taught workshops on how to get started as a writer, and on creating effective dialogue — but I never do anything like that without thinking that someone could pick up my books, leaf through them, and say, “I think she’s a terrible writer — why should I listen to her?” If there’s a level of success you have to achieve to be worthy of advice giving, I don’t think I’m there yet.

And as with my judgement of others’ advice, my reluctance to give advice extends beyond my writing life too.  Parenting advice? Sorry, my kids are ten and twelve. Talk to me when they’re twenty-eight and thirty and then we’ll see if I have any advice to offer.  Marriage advice? Fifteen years in, I’m still not prepared to set myself up as an authority in that area, because you never know, do you? Advice about teaching? I think if I tried, someone would pop up (probably from the well-populated Crazy Place in My Brain, but still, they’d pop up) and say, “She was the worst teacher I ever have — who’s she to be giving advice?” So, other than advising social studies teachers to use a large bag of potato chips when explaining communism and capitalism, I keep my mouth shut on that too.

I know I’m too critical, although to be honest the flip side of that is that I think others are often way too uncritical. As far as writing goes, I think the writers who have proven themselves worthy of giving advice are usually too busy and/or too humble to bother doing so.  I bought a copy of Stephen King’s On Writing because, even though I don’t like his particular genre, I can respect that the man has achieved enough of a level of success that he may have a thing or two worth saying.  I cherish my copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird because I think she’s a genius and anything she has to say about writing, I want to hear.  Short of that, if you’re just another struggling writer like me, I’ll probably listen to your insights and experiences if you package them as “Here’s what I’ve learned along the way,” but if they’re promoted as “Ten Top Tips” or “Things You Must Avoid in Your Manuscript!” my creepy inner voice will speak up and say “Why should I listen to you?” Maybe that’s a failing of openness and teachability on my parent — in fact I’m sure it is — but on the flip side, a critical spirit keeps you from taking a lot of bad advice seriously.

And, perhaps more importantly, it keeps me from giving a lot of bad advice. So, along with all the ramblings on parenting, faith, the weather, and Patrick Stewart, yes, you will find reflections on writing here on my blog from time to time. But advice? Probably not.

If that stops me from becoming an A-list or even a B-list blogger … I think I’m OK with that.


8 thoughts on “I Have No Good Advice For You

  1. Well, some people think you are pretty cool. Check out this picture. It cracksme up because I am in the picture in some imaginary way…

  2. I think you’re pretty cool myself.

    But I have to wonder now whether you’ve read my posts on Happy Endings and felt smug and judgmental. You and I both know you’re far more qualified to write those kinds of blogs than I am!

  3. I never feel smug and judgemental if it’s you, Katrina, because it’s YOU and I know you’re a good writer! And, more relevant to what I’m saying in this post, I think you are one of the writers (there are others) who can present advice in a “this is what I’ve learned along the way” kind of tone rather than a “this is what you must do to succeed!” kind of way. I’ve never read your posts on HE and thought that you were trying to give others tips on achieving a level of success you hadn’t yet achieved yourself — just sharing some things that you yourself had found helpful.

    I realize I could do the same, but I do have that self-doubting voice that imagines other people critically examining my credentials, and it’s hard to shut that down (for me) because I know how critical I can be myself.

    There was a specific blog post (from an unpublished author, about query letters) that prompted me to write this, but I won’t be so unkind as to link to it. I know what I’m saying doesn’t apply to everyone who blogs about writing!!

    Sharon, I can’t open that link for some reason — Facebook tells me I don’t have permission.

  4. Trudy, I must be a lot more arrogant than you are because it never occurred to me that I didn’t have the chops to write about writing! Though I know I do not have “credentials.” You, on the other hand, definitely do have them.

    It’s certainly true, though, that I would never use words like “must.” The one thing I’ve learned, above all others, is that there isn’t just one way to be successful. I know of writers — with bestselling credentials — who swear by methods that are diametrically opposed (i.e. pantsing vs. plotzing).

    • There was an annoying guy who used to post on the blog of a friend of mine with the mantra “Write every day.” Which is good if you’re saying “I find that writing every day works for me,” but his approach was, “If you don’t write every day, you can’t call yourself a writer! You MUST write every day, no matter what’s happening in your life!!!” Which was kind of … irritating, and he definitely didn’t have the credentials to back it up. (Not that I’d listen, even if he did).

  5. Great post. (But then again, who am I to say?) I will watch any advice I give you from now on and will ask myself if I’m qualified or not before diving in. I’ll probably do it anyway, even if I’m not qualified, but I’ll know what you’re thinking when I do.

    • Personal advice given to friends at their request is also an exception, Tina. If I give you a manuscript to critique I obviously want and value your input. It’s the process of setting oneself up as an “expert” in the public realm when the credentials don’t match the expert label, that bothers me.

  6. Sounds like wisdom to me, critiquing the credibility of the advice-giver. Far too many people swallow all “advice” hook, line, and sinker and forsake critical thinking…well, to say forsake is too kind, for it implies that they had the ability to think critically to begin with…

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