Writing advice: Who should you listen to?

From Rick:

Here’s the problem: Advice on writing is easy to come by, but who should you listen to for the most reliable advice? What do you do when the advice is contradictory?

—Should you listen to the bestselling authors and successful writers?

—Should you listen to writing instructors and English teachers?

—Should you listen to agents and publishers?

—What about all the bloggers and random opinions out there—people like me, for example? Are they reliable advice-givers?

When it comes to people critiquing your work, such as people in your writers’ group, do you listen to the person who seems more interested in your grammar and punctuation and whether you’ve used the same word twice in the same sentence or paragraph than a person who seems more interested in the story itself?

And what about the person who says that your werewolves must be affected by the full moon, or your vampires can’t have reflections in mirrors, or your dragons can’t have telepathic abilities, or you can’t call your novel a romance unless it has a happy ending, or you must use quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and all the other “you can’t do that” or “you have to do it such and such a way” nonsense.

A writer friend of mine insists that, “It’s YOUR story, and you can do whatever you want.” I agree, but with that statement goes the caveat that readers do expect certain things in certain circumstances and genres. If you flout the conventions, then you need to be aware of the potential risks of doing so in terms of your readers.

I love the quote I saw recently from bestselling author Dean Koontz talking about the use of dialogue tags in published books:

“Books full of inept dialogue tags get published all the time. Not all published writers are good writers.”

That last sentence is a fairly damning one. There are a lot of bestselling novels out there with mediocre writing in them. At the same time, proficient writing doesn’t guarantee a bestselling book. For most readers, the story must come first, followed closely by engaging characters—unless you’re a literary aficionado who is more interested in idea and theme than in story.

I can’t speak with any true authority that college MFA programs stress idea and theme over story, but given some of the submissions to Fabula Argentea that come from students and holders of MFA degrees in writing, I think I’m on somewhat safe ground with that remark. However, I will argue that the best writing combines both a strong story AND a powerful theme.

For sure I have some strong opinions on certain aspects of writing, such as like POV and dialogue tags (and I have a lot of bias against agents and traditional publishing).

BUT… I have good, well-researched reasons for everything I say writing-wise. I’m not a bestselling author, nor even a moderate-selling one. That doesn’t mean what I have to say carries less weight than that of the big-name authors or major publishers. In the latter case, always remember that publishers are out to make money and will publish what they think will sell. If crappy writing makes a lot of money for them, that’s their primary consideration. They won’t risk telling one of their bestselling authors that they must show, not tell, or must not headhop or use explanatory dialogue tags (with adverbs), etc. These writers are their cash cows, so they’re not about to alienate them.

I’ll repeat one of my favorite examples: John Grisham’s Skipping Christmas. At the time Grisham’s legal thrillers were selling very well, but when he wanted to publish something different, the publisher balked. Still, because he was one of their bestsellers, they humored him and did a moderate-sized print run of the book they figured would be at best just an okay seller. It topped the NYT’s bestseller list in 2001, required a second print run, continued to sell well years later, and was made into a movie with Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis in 2004. So much for publishers’ opinions.

So, who do you listen to?

FIRST do your research regarding WHY that advice is being given. You can find ample support for every writing technique out there, the good and the bad. You need to consider the credentials of the advice-givers. Just because someone suggests it, doesn’t make it a good idea.

How do you decide who to listen to when the advice is contradictory? The first thing you want to look at is WHY you want to choose a particular side. The worst reason is that you simply agree with one viewpoint over the other. The best reason is that one way serves your story better than the other way. But the caution here is not that you think one way works better but whether it truly paints your writing in the best light.

Ultimately, it comes down to sales and reviews. If bad writing sells a lot of books for you, who am I to argue? I just won’t buy your books. But at some point, after you exhaust your less discerning readers, you’ll run into more discerning ones who will pass on your books.

—Rick

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