Why All the Advice I'm Going to Give You Is Probably Wrong
And other truisms of publishing
Daring article title for the start of an advice column, no?
But truly, writing and publishing have so many places where if anyone tells you there’s one true way, they’re probably wrong. A whole lot of writing and publishing advice I see out there is wrong at least some of the time. For example:
Writing process is so very individual. Some writers work best writing every day. Some do better in long spurts. Some writers write novels by giving themselves permission to “write crap” on the first draft; others can’t novel well unless they edit as they go. And more.
If you feel like your process isn’t working, advice is great for figuring out new things to try, and I love suggesting new methods to people who want help — but some of it is always going to be wrong for you.
Here’s another place where “what works for you” is going to be so important. Some writers need to schedule their writing time in set chunks. Some use the Pomodoro method. Some write with other people, some have no set method at all.
It took me a very long time and a lot of tries to figure out the lifehacks that help me, and I will happily tell them to anyone who asks, but I’d never claim they’ll work for everyone! And hey, I’ll tell you the failed ones, too, because they didn’t work for me, but they might or might not work for you.
The answer to so very many craft questions is, “If you can pull it off, there are no rules.”
Craft advice can be frustrating but fascinating, because there’s also such varied taste in readers. So a lot of tricky craft questions will boil down to, at some point in the process, finding someone with tastes that align with your book to critique it, and seeing what they think.
I’m never going to tell anyone “never use adverbs” or “avoid any dialogue tags other than ‘said.’” The better plan, in my opinion, is to discuss techniques — for being more critical of one’s own work, or using beta readers, or picking out what you feel are weaknesses and then exploring ways to push your writing to level up in those areas.
And still, you and I might read the same passage and vastly disagree on the prose. That’s okay! The more important part is recognizing the direction you want your writing to go, and figuring out how to push it in that direction.
If you’ve ever seen social media blowups about whether traditional publishing or self-publishing was “better”, you know how vastly people can disagree on publishing business decisions. (And as someone who’s done both: Neither is better in general, but one might definitely be better for a particular person/book, and it’s not going to be the same one every time.)
I also can’t count the number of times someone has asked me a question and the answer was, “Definitely ask your agent/editor/publicist!” Not because I didn’t know, but because I knew my agent might have a different philosophy than theirs, or that this was something a line of communication needed to be opened on. People in publishing often do approach things differently, and a lot of times, the answer is going to be knowing when and what to ask.
But this is another reason I think it’s so important for authors to share their individual experiences with each other. I’m hoping this column will be a part of that, that by sharing my own context and experience, it’ll help yours make more sense, too, even if we figure that your experience is going a different way and some paths I took aren’t going to be applicable to you.
Hoo boy. Diversity questions. One of the most basic things to understand about writing a demographic not your own is that no demographic is a monolith — and no one person can give you the stamp of approval for anything. I can give you the best general advice in the world on writing queer or nonwhite characters, and somewhere, the exact opposite of what I said is exactly what a queer person of color wants to read. Heck, that person might even be me, because these things are complicated and the world is pretty messed up.
Some of the most difficult but helpful discussions we have in intra-group spaces, in fact, is how sometimes what we need to write of our own experiences might hurt people in our same demographics. That what one person needs is exactly what will hurt someone else.
But this is NOT an excuse not to do the research or not to put in the work in writing diversely! I’m not saying “anything goes, because someone somewhere will always hate it anyway.” Rather, I would encourage everyone to work to empathize with that complexity to try to write sensitively into those spaces. That’s the place writing other demographics can really shine, where even if what you wrote doesn’t work for everyone, it’s still clearly written with well-researched knowledge, empathy, and grace toward your fellow humans. But a big part of that is understanding that no demographic is monolithic, that we’re as varied as humans everywhere, and that almost any advice you get on writing diverse characters is going to have dimensions and complexities that haven’t been delved into. Including everything I say here.
And yeah, that makes it hard. These questions can be hard. This is one place you can ask them, though, and it’s a place I’m hoping we will be able to noodle into some of that complexity, even though there will always probably be more to the discussion. (I’m actually very hopeful that the subscriber-lock will provide a place we can discuss some of the more complicated questions in nuanced ways that are less charged than somewhere like Twitter, or the stuff that we nonwhite and queer people often don’t want to get into online because of the trolls. This is also a space where any well-intentioned questions are welcome, no matter how basic — so feel free to send in diversity questions you’ve been hesitant to ask, and wherever I feel qualified, we’ll dig into it.)
Okay, so “Wrong” Was a Little Strong, but It’s Pithier Than “A Lot of the Advice I’m Going to Give You Will Probably Have Some Nuance or Complexity to It and Also Depend on Your Goals and Sometimes Suggestions Might or Might Not Work for You and Your Process and That’s Okay Too”
What I don’t have is one true answer. What I can tell you are the general norms of the industry, and when an editor, publisher, or agent is acting far enough outside them that there’s a clear problem. I can give you generalized ideas of what to expect at different stages of a beginning writing career, and help you with useful questions to ask that you might not have thought of. I can help you see pros and cons of different ways to try to advance your writing to find the path that’s going to work for you, or about all the techniques or hacks that I’ve tried and either discarded or decided they worked for me and kept. And, of course, I can give you my own experiences for perspective and contrast, and even usually tell you where what I’ve seen in my own career is pretty standard or not compared to others I’ve talked to.
Maybe most helpfully, I can give you lots of suggestions to think about and try, borne out of my experiences. And I can tell you that just like anyone else, some of what I suggest is going to be wrong for you some of the time — because no matter who’s giving the writing advice, it’s an important thing to remember.