There is a lot of advice on the internet. All we’re doing is trying to find the answer to our problem. Instead we find so much noise, not to mention a confusing sea of contradiction. The first problem with online writing advice is that there is so much, and the second is that the majority of it is based on opinions developed from narrow and novice experience. Most certainly these advisers mean well. Their limited information and view is still useful to someone who seeks advice and also happens to be in the early stages of a writing career, but it is also quite a bit to leaf through to find what pertains and is viable.
What do I mean by that?
Advice needs to be taken in the context of the style and genre of writing. Romance parameters aren’t the same as science fiction or fantasy or even historical. There are A LOT of romance authors offering advice. It’s a popular genre. But the novice is not likely to understand how genre and style will also influence the outcome of their work. So, they end up taking a Romance author’s advice, and are confused that their mystery thriller is being labeled a romance. Or, they write what they think is a novel and it’s too short and publishers want more material, when more material would ruin the whole thing, bogging it down, chopping up the pace, and so on.
Many writers look around the internet to find information on what they can do to improve. Whether what we want to do better is the execution of the writing in the context of the many facets that entails, if we need or don’t need an editor, or what kind of editor we’d need when we’ve decided an editor is necessary regardless of how we feel about them, or being better personalities and marketers now that we have a product to sell, we all hit the internet to start the wheels grinding. Go ahead and google for anything on those topics above, and you will be met with thousands of pages of material from all kinds of sources. How do you know that the top one that Google spits back is worth reading? You don’t. Google ranks by popularity. The top one has been clicked on the most and now falls out here, or the search index best matches the words of your search. That top article is almost always there because it has managed to get in the top slot somehow long enough to get the snowball effect: most people will not look past page one of a search to find the answer to the question they’re looking for, let alone past the first link. You see this is effort and too much of a hassle for the busy researcher, despite this being about their best future in writing. So, now you have material that is sorted by arbitrary popularity. That popularity can additionally be determined by the publication that releases it (for example, Huffington Post) or putting money behind getting it attention (marketing blitzes), or managing to have a catchy enough title that people click it (utterly arbitrary). None of this guarantees the quality of the article written, or that the individual has the credentials necessary to give such advice. Yet, authors flock to it as gospel, and are surprised to find they’re yet again frustrated. I know. I have done this!
There are a lot of reasons that the entry at the top of Google’s results is #1, and it isn’t always a guarantee of quality.
So, too, I’ve found a lot of advice spilling down the walls of social media (Facebook and Tumblr. mostly). Much of this is coming from individuals struggling to be taken seriously as writers. They write about the things that they know, and they don’t always divulge the genre in which they work, or the formulas behind those genres, or anything else. They take a topic, such as characterization, and write their opinion on how best to develop characters, based on the work they are currently selling. These are sales pitches in disguise and don’t usually have a lot of meat for the writer seeking advice. The repetition of things I heard back in the 1990s in a course on getting published are ever present. The advice never goes far enough and it certainly never condones (or hardly ever) the use of one’s talent in the capacity that the user sees fit. And that is a huge problem. It cracks down on individuality, which is the single thing that is going to make you stand out in a gale of voices all chanting the same modus operandi.
The majority of advice out there for writers seeks to homogenize the execution of story telling, as if this is the answer to publishing. In some ways it is. Homogenization definitely makes things real easy on the publishing houses. However, you’ve got to be on top of what is going to be the next hot thing. Good luck with that. It’s not easy to predict, or we’d all be in Stephenie Meyer‘s shoes.
The film industry has also taken to this, because it makes it really simple to take a book and convert it to a screenplay and film it. Ever hear of the book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need? This book became so popular after it was released in 2005 that you can thank it for the seemingly endless stream of cookie cutter films that followed its advice. How many times have you wondered incredulously at the desire to do remakes? The umpteen films that copy one another? That book on writing advice is at the heart of the problem. Blake Snyder made a boodle off of writers looking for the key to break through the noise (and that is the point), and it did help some writers. It didn’t help a great majority of them. Why? Because formula writing is boring, and tends to be similar. There are only so many slots and unless it has the hot new topic included, it is not likely to get off the ground. It also helps to be connected.
That said, don’t ever use that book. The key is broken. It won’t help you. It’s a waste of your time. The industry is turning away from this book and its formula. The advice given in my how to get published class in the 90s, is also moot at this point. Sure, there is always something timeless in the mix, which you can carry forward with you into the distant future. One of those pieces of advice is: it depends. Also, not every piece of writing that gets picked up as the new glory follows any formula that is popular at the time of its publication.
Those two pieces of advice you can put in your pocket and carry with you on your journey, certain that they will always apply. They’re cold comfort in the face of rejection, but they remind you that whatever you’ve learned or are being told isn’t always applicable in every situation. What one publisher is seeking is what the next is rejecting. The execution one publisher hails as a tour de force, is tripe to the next. What one author says is their golden formula is your rat poison.
Whenever I see a Tumblr. post telling me how to get my job done, I snerk derisively and scroll past. The best place that I ever learned how to write and write better was graduate school working on non-fiction papers about fiction. Theory courses and then the final project that forced me to apply it all. I learn best independently, from feedback, from writing for someone with a deadline involved and an expectation of professionalism and results. Writing what is in you to write is another way to learn what works. Not every bad review you get is someone out to get you. They are not all trolls. Not every bad review or good review has anything you can use.
That leads me to, what doesn’t work: trying to find the magic formula for getting to the big show through another author’s advice. Ironic, considering this article is trying to give advice. But, seriously, when was the last time that you learned how to get there from any of the major names? Or a class on getting published that you took on a Saturday for $50? Or from that advice you bookmark on social media? Or the self help book you got from Amazon.com?
Is it all shit? No. There is always going to be something, usually very small, that you can take away from reading these posts. It might not be what the author of the post intended at all. It might be something very much intended.
Remember, writing is a lot like any other trade. You will apprentice and become a journeyman, and then you will find a post and then you will become a master. The amount of time between them is undetermined and specific to the individual. You’re going to put up with a lot of shit. There will be false starts. There is a sea of advice that threatens to drown you before you make it to your post. There are those who will tie rocks, intentionally and unintentionally, to your legs to help you drown. Not everyone will make it. Some masters are impostors. It’s going to take some time, so slow down and go ahead and dig deeper for the gold nuggets of advice that WILL help you improve.
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