Whipsawed by Advice

Inexperienced writers hunger for sound advice on the craft of fiction writing. They don’t need to search for long. The internet is rife with fiction writing blogs, many of excellent quality. It is a gluttonous feast, not just for beginners, but for writers of all levels. But how does the novice writer evaluate the advice given? What is useful and what is not?

Academic training, knowledge and experience provide a solid basis for evaluating advice in any field. Lacking those things, the novice writer must ask: is the advice based on sound reasoning? It is supported by concrete examples? Does the person giving the advice have credibility?

What got me thinking about these questions was a blog post I came across recently. I don’t recall the author and, even if I did, I wouldn’t reveal it here. My purpose is not to call out another writer. The post centered on writing myths and the author claimed one of the biggest ones was to always begin a story “in scene.” That is, the story should always start within a scene. The main character is doing something that reveals information about her as well as story questions. The scene must grab the reader. This author claimed a writer could achieve the same objectives through a well-crafted narrative and he gave a couple of examples (one by James Joyce) that worked well. 

I can’t say starting a story with a narrative doesn’t work or can’t work. I can say it doesn’t work for me. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received came from author Dan Pope (whose second novel, Housebreaking, released recently, is very good). During a three-part workshop at our local library in 2005, Pope was discussing short stories. He said, “Always begin a short story ‘in scene.'” A lightbulb blazed in my head. Until then I’d struggled with how to begin my stories. How much narrative? Is it ever acceptable to begin with a quote? With the main character’s inner thoughts? His advice made so much sense. For me. But it may not work for everyone.

This brings me full circle to the question I posed: How does one evaluate writing advice. Let me share a few things that have worked for me:Create a solid foundation for evaluating writing advice by learning as much as possible about the cract of fiction. If an MFA is not in the cards, there are hundreds of books out there. A writer can’t go wrong by reading Stephen King’s On Writing, anything by Donald Maass (but start with Writing the Breakout Novel), James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters,  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, or Elizabeth George’s Write Away, to name just a few.

  • Research the best writers websites. Writer’s Digest annually publishes the 101 Best Websites for Writers. This is an excellent resource for all writers.
  • Read the best websites for writers on a regular basis. Some of my favorites are Writer Unboxed, Jane Friedman, Helping Writers Become Authors (KM Weiland), The Creative Penn (Joanna Penn), Nathan Bransford, and Nail Your Novel (Roz Morris). 
  • Pay attention to “consensus” advice. If every blogger offers the same advice, take it seriously.
  • Incorporate  sound advice into your writing and your writing habits.
  • Recognize there are subjects in fiction writing where there is no conensus (pantser vs. plotter) and do what works for you.

There’s a lot of advice out there. Some of it is bad, but most of it is good. It’s up to the individual writer to evaluate the advice and get the most out of it.

Your turn: how do you know when you are getting good avice about writing?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Whipsawed by Advice

  1. Aging Ophelia

    Having helmed a critique group for over three years, I have often sat quietly while someone with more publishing cred lays down some law or other for the newbie writers present. I find that in that case, the worm seems to turn back on its own; even the most tentative get fed up if told to go against their creative instincts for too long, and so do I. Ten years in writing and Lit classes left me with much still to learn, but even at the start I trusted my inner bell– and I think that is something every artist needs to learn to do. Take criticism or advice, chew and digest it, then get rid of what doesn’t work for you– but try out old or new ways frequently, because as we grow, things may apply differently than before.

    • Exactly. Advice is no good if it doesn’t work for you. For example, many writers insist that writers must prepare detailed plots and character sketches before writing, but I prefer to do minimal outlines and discover the dimensions of my story as I write. With that said, writers can learn a lot by reading about the craft of fiction. Thanks for your comments.

  2. i can’t tell if the writing advice I get is good or bad. I use what I can, what seems to work for me. (But, I could be wrong for doing this.)

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