The Advice I Didn’t Take

14 Jun

by Savannah J. Foley

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Over a month ago I posted an entry to my personal blog called ‘Knowing What Your Dreams Are In the First Place.’ It recounts my story of growing up as a writer and not knowing any other novelists, and shares some of the bad advice I received.

Today I thought I’d share this bad advice, some even from other writers (though not novelists), and why I’m glad I didn’t listen. Then I’ll share the advice that I did take, that really helped me.

 People Whose Advice I Didn’t Take

Non-Writers.

Non-Writers who love you are all around you. They’re your parents, your teachers, and your friends. They want what’s best for you, and often they think they know what that is, even if they aren’t writers themselves.

Non-Writers have told me to do a lot of stupid things in regards to my writing career, but only because they didn’t know any better. Here is some of the advice they gave me:

  • Be a journalist
  • Be a judge
  • Don’t write until you’re older
  • Don’t write until you get a degree
  • Don’t write until you get an MFA
  • Be a teacher
  • Don’t write fantasy
  • Write about dreams
  • Stop reading so much
  • Don’t post your work online
  • Don’t start a blog
  • Get published in some literary magazines first
  • Submit directly to publishers
  • Don’t be a writer at all

Obviously I didn’t take any of this advice, and I’m very glad. It’s easy to listen to the concerns and fears of others, but oftentimes they don’t know what they’re talking about. My parents were convinced if I posted my work online people would steal it from me, publish it under their own name, and make millions off my ideas (yeah right). If I started a blog it meant I’d get stalked and killed. If I didn’t study academically I wouldn’t be able to write well. If I didn’t focus on another career I’d starve to death.

None of that was true, and somehow I knew not to trust anything a non-writer said about writing. I trusted my passion for writing, even when it felt like I’d never be good enough, never be prepared enough to be a writer. And eventually I discovered this wonderful community we’re a part of, where we make writing work and it’s fun, and we all have day jobs but write at night anyway, and your capability to write a good story has nothing to do with your age or education level.

The other day (as I’ve already told you in this article about ‘coming out’ as a writer) I was offering some anonymous critiquing to a writer who had posted a short story online and asked for suggestions. At the end of my review I said that I’d been a writer for 7 years, and had an agent for 2, if he wanted to know my credentials. Another user added a comment asking me just in what capacity I had ‘been a writer for 7 years’, because all the writers HE knew had been copywriters for years before moving into fiction.

I didn’t exactly see red, but I saw shades of pink. Though I didn’t respond to his comment, internally I thought, ‘I know people who have been writing for a single year and produced work so amazing it made my jaw drop.’ I’ve been focusing on and learning about writing for seven years, regardless of my publication credits or how much experience as a copywriter I had (none). I know good writing when I see it, period, and I’m knowledgeable enough to pinpoint exactly what works and what doesn’t work when asked for my opinion.

So, you know. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re too young or too uneducated or too inexperienced. Remember, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We do. And you’re okay 🙂

Writers Whose Advice I Didn’t Take

As I’ve learned from first-hand experience, writers can misadvise you and let you down as well, usually because you work in different mediums. A writer who only works in poetry isn’t going to be able to give you the best advice on your novel. Neither is someone who specializes in short stories, or in fashion articles. Here’s some of the advice they gave me that I’m glad I didn’t take:

  • Be a journalist (I’m so sick of that one)
  • You have to go to workshops or you’ll never be a good writer
  • You have to have an MFA or you’ll never be a good writer
  • Self-publish; it’s the only way to make money and traditional Publishing is full of thieves and sharks
  • Don’t get an agent; they’re all scammers
  • Write short stories first, only short stories
  • You have to be published in literary magazines before anyone will take you seriously
  • Write every day, otherwise you’re not a real writer

Perhaps it was ego or arrogance, but whenever someone said something that didn’t ring true in me, I ignored it. Here’s the thing: If someone’s not doing what you want to be doing, they might not be capable of giving the best advice.

I remember being SO thrilled to finally meet some ‘real writers’ when I went to a critique group at a local Barnes & Noble, but when I got there I discovered they’d been in the same group for 12 years – and none of them had published anything yet.

Or the time Kat Zhang and I went to a book fair in Nashville and met an obviously very self-possessed illustrator who insisted we could only make money through self-publishing. He’d never been traditionally published, nor was he, actually, a writer.

Or when I showed an edited version of Nameless to a friend of mine who dabbled in writing on the side, only for her to tell me I was ruining the story by making some essential changes both my agent and I felt were healthy for the manuscript, as well as making it more marketable.

You know that feeling when someone suggests a plot point and you just know that’s not going to work? That’s the feeling I get when someone gives me advice that’s not going to work for me. I think ‘yeah that could work, but I’d be forcing it and it wouldn’t make me happy.’

Writers Whose Advice I DID Take

 I will never forget the moment I realized I was not alone.

I grew up never meeting a novelist, never knowing anything about the publishing industry, or the community of writers out there. None of my friends or teachers felt what I did, this wonderful resonance with writing and creating stories. Even the friends who did actually write didn’t ‘get it’ – they wrote terrible, and failed to recognize how to improve.

Then I read Fahrenheit 451. It was a great book, but it was the author’s note in the back that really changed my life. Ray Bradbury mentioned feeling as if he was just following his character around with a notebook and jotting down what they do. What he said about writing rang so true in me that my eyes teared up a bit.

That day marked a turning point for me in my writing career. I started seeking out writer autobiographies, and reading instruction books. Stephen King’s ON WRITING came a little too late to be truly formative for me, but it’s also on my list of highly-recommends for aspiring writers.

Another turning point came from joining Let The Words Flow. I’d had my agent for nearly a year but was still lacking in real writer friends or sense of community. LTWF gave me that and showed me all the other people out there I’d been missing so desperately as a teen. I can chat with novelists like me on a daily basis, Twitter provides me with an endless supply of interesting links and ideas, and the contributors here have been an invaluable resource for encouragement, advice, and knowledge.

Disclaimer

Finding and trusting ‘experts’ is really important. Someone may be a NYT best-selling novelist but their advice still won’t ring true for you, or you may meet a lone blogger online with no agent or publishing creds who gives you a greater insight than you’d ever expected to receive. It’s important to be able to identify who’s an expert and who is just blowing their own horn, as evidenced by this article.

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What are some examples of advice you DID and DIDN’T take?

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28 Responses to “The Advice I Didn’t Take”

  1. Carol June 14, 2011 at 9:23 AM #

    “Advice I didn’t take” is fabulous!! I’m just starting out (a late bloomer::), as yet have nothing published or even finished for that matter, but know and trust what is within. I run in the opposite direction especially when nonwriters start giving ‘advice’! I’ve read Fahrenheit 451, fab book and Ray Bradbury knows a thing or two about writing. His book “Zen in the Art of Writing” is well worth a read (or two or three;) and Stephen King’s book is also an excellent source…it’s on my list to re-read.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 9:31 AM #

      I haven’t read Zen in the Art of Writing yet, sounds like I need to pick it up!

  2. Erin Bowman June 14, 2011 at 9:31 AM #

    “Write every day, otherwise you’re not a real writer”

    ^ This is the biggest lie, and a piece of advice I, too, have not followed. Write every day if you feel inspired and motivated. Take a day off when you need to recharge your batteries. Creativity is not a bottomless well and sometimes forcing yourself to write just for the sake of putting words on paper can be counterproductive.

    I think the best advice is to do what works for you. Writing is a personal process. What works for one might not work for all and that is absolutely, 100% OK. Great post!

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 9:33 AM #

      I have a love/hate relationship with that tidbit of advice. I will never forget I saw an Oprah show once where a writer on there said, “A writer is someone who writes every day. A writer is someone who writes every day.” Yes she said it twice! It made me so mad and it also made me feel so inadequate… I’ve been struggling ever since. Certainly I see the value in doing /something/ every day, but I also don’t condone feeling like a loser if you don’t for a day. Right now I’m on ‘break’ until I get in some books I need for research for my next story, and I think it’s been really healthy to just read and go to the gym and veg out while waiting to dive into the next project.

  3. Stacy S. Jensen June 14, 2011 at 9:34 AM #

    “Butt in Chair” Still struggle with that somedays. Still laughing about the journalist remark. Lots of out of work journalists turning to writing these days (I’m a former one). I like the idea of having a different job. When I wrote for a living, I couldn’t write when I was off the job.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 9:37 AM #

      I struggle with BICHOK (Thanks Sooz!) on days when I’m /supposed/ to be writing, but not on days where I give myself permission to be on break.

      I just couldn’t get into journalism. I have a lot of respect for people who can do it, it just very obviously wasn’t for me.

  4. Liz Fabulous June 14, 2011 at 9:40 AM #

    My tenth grade English teacher, who was a horrible person who insulted students at every turn, told me that my writing skills were atrocious, that I would never be able to get a job that involved writing, and that advanced placement classes in writing would be too difficult for me. I told her I didn’t care what she thought (her expression was priceless), enrolled in several AP and writing classes simultaneously, and graduated two years later with great grades and a wall full of writing awards. Don’t take advice from people who refuse to see your capabilities.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 9:42 AM #

      What an inspiring story! I guess you really are Liz ‘Fabulous’ 😛

      Seriously though, I cannot believe a teacher would behave this way, especially an English teacher. She must have really not liked you.

  5. Mac_V June 14, 2011 at 10:38 AM #

    Writing is such a personal thing, it’s so hard to give or get advice that will completely and totally ring true. Some of the things you wrote under advice you didn’t take are some things other people might swear by. (Not me. I too am SICK of people telling me to be a journalist. It is SO DIFFERENT and why do people not understand that??) I love this post. You really bring up so many great points and I think your main point is so true– you have to listen to your gut feeling and take the advice that feels right to you. I know in my gut that self-publishing is not the way I want to go, but I know that it works for some people and works well. I just wish other people understood that not everyone will heed and bow down to the advice they give– they need to understand, too, that everyone writes differently, everyone has a different idea of what it means to be published, and everyone has a different idea of what it means to be a writer. If you write and you’re serious about it, you have every right to call yourself a writer. This is why I LOVE Let the Words Flow. You all give us such fantastic advice and it comes from so many different people with different styles of writing. We have so many ideas to help us along. I hope you all realize how much you help us and inspire us! GREAT post, Sav. 🙂

    Mer

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 10:47 AM #

      Aww, thank you so much, Mer! I think you make excellent points about how different things work for different people, and we have to find our own way through the industry.

  6. Ellen June 14, 2011 at 11:55 AM #

    Love the “You can’t be a writer unless you get an MFA.” I go to a college where most of the “serious” writers in my program are either certain they’re going to be looking into an MFA, or know they’re going to get one.

    I stand out because I’m one of the few people I know in that program who doesn’t plan on it. For awhile I was all gung-ho about going to grad school, but now I realize that I can improve my writing on my own, with help from my critique partner and other people around me. Not to mention, I don’t have thousands to shell out for grad school.

    In regards to the “Be a journalist” thing, let’s just say I’m related to one and whenever I mention that someone I know wants to go into journalism, he says, “Don’t do it! Run away!” (Note: This person loves their job, or at least the writing aspect of it, but that’s a really hard business to break into too.)

    Just some food for thought.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 12:03 PM #

      If I was still in school with a bunch of writers considering getting their MFA’s I would probably be considering it too. However, ultimately I think I would decide not to… first of all there’s the money thing, but secondly I’m not entirely convinced that an MFA program can really teach you how to be successful as a novelist, particularly a novelist for children and teens, which is what I’m trying to be.

  7. Ashley June 14, 2011 at 1:26 PM #

    These types of articles are why I am a faithful viewer of this blog. I started writing seriously when I was 15, and of course heard the usual tid-bits of “advice” from non-writers, aka mortals. ;P. Its always nice and comforting to know there are others who share your experiences and passion. 🙂

    Great post Savannah!

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 1:31 PM #

      Aww, I appreciate that Ashley ❤

      I started writing seriously at 15, too! That's precisely what this article was about; all the things I was told from that point onward that just did NOT work for me.

  8. linda June 14, 2011 at 1:49 PM #

    Thanks for the great post! I’m just starting out myself and still trying to figure out what advice will work for me and what won’t.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 4:33 PM #

      I’m glad you liked it! Just remember that what worked for others won’t always work for you, and that’s okay!

  9. lostinbelieving June 14, 2011 at 4:30 PM #

    I’m 15, a sophomore in high school, and I love to write and would love to have a novel published one day. It’s always interesting when I tell people that because they always tell me ‘advice’ like the statements you posted here. Thank you for writing this post!

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 4:35 PM #

      I think it’s so awesome that you’re writing now and thinking about a future in publishing. I loved writing in high school because it was so much fun… I finished most of my early novels during spring breaks or summer breaks. Good times.

      So glad to be of help!

  10. PS June 14, 2011 at 4:58 PM #

    People keep telling me to be a teacher and then be a writer when i retire. Me: BUT I DON’T WANT TO!!! :/ How about I write, and then teach if I retire.

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 5:01 PM #

      In all honesty, you’ll probably have to do both. Unless supported by significant others, practically every writer I know has a day job.

      • PS June 14, 2011 at 6:47 PM #

        I know. I have nothing against day jobs and totally plan on getting one (assuming…someone hires me..) but, MUST I be a teacher? I don’t have the patience to deal with other people, let alone their children >_< (lol that sounds meaner than I actually am)

        • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 7:07 PM #

          I always thought I’d be a teacher too… not because I loved it, but because what else was I going to do with an English degree? I knew that teaching is difficult and only those who LOVE it and feel called to be a teacher should do it, but I just didn’t really know about my other options… when they make you take career classes in high school, they never really tell you about all the /possibilities/ there are. People always research things like lawyer, or doctor, or policeman, etc. But there is SO much out there… for example, I ended up an HR Manager and I love it! Working with numbers and details, solving problems, researching problems, etc. As long as you’re smart, good with computers, and aren’t incredibly annoying, you can pretty much do anything.

  11. Sally Apokedak June 14, 2011 at 8:19 PM #

    Great post.

    Advice I did take: Read, read, read, read. And then if you want write, go ahead. You have as much right to speak as anyone.

    Advice I didn’t take: This isn’t about the writing life, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind–cut all words ending in ING from your manuscript. heh heh What silliness. It seems in every crit group there is someone with a pet rule they love to employ.

    OK wait, here’s some advice on life I haven’t taken: My brother is bound and determined that I should go back to school (at the age of 50) to get a degree in nursing. Because nurses are actually paid for their work and writers…not so much.

    I just clicked over to your blog and website and read the first chapter you have up. Wow! Really compelling stuff. I’d like to steal it. Your parents may have been right on that one. 🙂 Have you sold it? And if so when will it be out?

    • savannahjfoley June 14, 2011 at 8:51 PM #

      Ooh, yes, reading is the number one thing I can’t recommend enough. READ MOAR!

      And ick, pet rules! I can never use the word ‘suddenly’ because of an encounter witha writing group when I was young.

      Oh, and thanks for checking up on Nameless! It’s not sold yet, I’m still working on revisions for it. I do have another book I just finished that I personally feel will sell first… it’s a sleeping beauty retelling and the excerpt is here if you were interested 😉 http://savannahjfoley.livejournal.com/30216.html

  12. Diyana Wan June 14, 2011 at 11:41 PM #

    Hey Sav!

    Excellent post!

    In my case, unfortunately it took me some time to weed out bad advice from the good. One of the “bad” advice I did follow was to do a teaching degree, because so many people told me that teaching would be the best way I could spare some time for writing — because, you know, all teachers work half-day! (Completely untrue, btw). Sadly, I haven’t found my calling into the teaching profession, and while I have the utmost respect for teachers, I recognise that I am not the best person for it.

    …So, I learnt from this not to take other people’s advice unless I thought it was best for me.

    Recent advice that I’ve kept ignoring (you won’t believe how many people say this to me!): “Write non-fiction / contemporary fiction. It sells better.”

    My response: BUT I LIKE FLYING PONIES!

    • savannahjfoley June 15, 2011 at 8:08 AM #

      Non-Fiction is WAY different from Fiction, and Contemp is way different from Fantasy! Write what you love!

      (I’m horrified that people would give you that advice!)

  13. Sally Apokedak June 15, 2011 at 12:06 AM #

    Very nice. I’ll be looking for your books when they come out, for sure.

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  1. Savannah J. Foley » Blog Archive » The Advice I Didn’t Take - July 16, 2011

    […] I posted the following article over at Let The Words Flow. My question to you guys is… do you keep up with LTWF, or should I start cross-posting all my […]

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