by Savannah J. Foley
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 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.
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.
What are some examples of advice you DID and DIDN’T take?