Best and Worst

We used to play a game at my house called Best Part of the Day (I know. We’re brilliant with titles, aren’t we?). It was where everyone went around the table and shared the best part of their day. Sometimes, the kids would share the worst part of their days too. It was a way we learned a little about each other. We also learned a lot about the world around us because it usually inspired conversations that required explanation.

At a recent conference I spoke at, I was also on a panel with several other authors and one of the attendees asked, “What is the best advice you’ve ever received as an author?”

It was surprising what the responses were from each of the authors on the panel. Much like my children, the best meant something entirely different for each unique person.

For me, the best writing advice ever given in my life came from a small meeting after class with my seventh grade English teacher. The advice actually came from myself, but Mrs. Brown had fished around for it until it came out. I was entering a contest and showing her my entry. She asked me, “What will you do if you don’t win?”

It had never occurred to me that I wouldn’t win. OF COURSE I would win, because I was brilliant. But I stood there shifting from foot to foot and searching myself for the answer to that question. Finally I said, “I guess I’ll keep writing.”

She exhaled in relief and said, “Good girl. I was hoping you’d say that.”

To keep writing no matter what was my best advice. To keep writing even when I took second place. To keep writing when I didn’t place at all. To keep writing when I had nothing worthy to write about. To just keep writing.

The other authors had things like:

  • Don’t wait until you find time, because you never will.
  • Don’t get arrogant when you finally get published, because someone else will always be there, outselling you and outwriting you.
  • Stop talking about it; just sit your butt in the chair and just get it done.

The question naturally led to another question, “What is the worst advice you’ve ever been given?”

The answers were again all different. For me, the worst advice came from a speaker at a conference. The speaker had started out arrogant and obnoxious, and I partly wonder if everything he said grated on me because his attitude was so prickly, but he said something that felt untrue for me–though it might have been someone else’s best advice . . . who knows.

He said, “Forget the audience. You’re writing for yourself, and yourself alone. The audience means nothing to you.”

Um, okay, unless you’re trying to SELL to an audience. For me, his advice didn’t work. I wrote to an audience–myself being part of that audience. All the humor, all the sentimental stuff, the age range . . . I target it to the audience I’m writing for. For me that works. It might not for someone else. Like I said, my worst advice might be someone else’s best.

Other authors’ bad advice consisted of:

  • The NEVER and ALWAYS rules. They said to avoid people with absolutes in their advice.
  • Beginning writers should start out writing poetry and short stories before they dare attempt a novel length work.
  • Any advice that makes you feel bad about yourself or less worthy is bad advice.

Whenever we do anything in our lives, there are voices out in the crowd throwing in their opinions on how we should manage ourselves. Some are well meaning; others are resentful. Some are excited for our futures; others could not care less but like to have something to say anyway.

The point is to be careful who we listen to. Take the advice that works for you and let the rest go.

What’s the best and worst advice you guys have received?

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10 Responses to Best and Worst

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Julie,

    Good post. I’ll have to think about this…

  2. Moriah Jovan says:

    It took me a long time to come to terms with the way *I* write and the best advice *for me*. I don’t give writing advice. If asked directly, I’ll say, first, “You have to figure out what works for you,” and then, if pressed, I’ll say, second, “This is what *I* do. Glean from it what you will.”

    Thus, I’ve been ignoring writing advice like the plague. Sometimes it gets right in my face, usually utter contempt disguised as truisms. I don’t say anything, but it’ll bug me the rest of the day, especially how vitriolic it gets. My favorites:

    1. If you don’t outline, you’re a loser writer.

    2. If you don’t sit your butt in the chair and write x number of words every day, you’re a loser writer*.

    3. If you take a year, two, three years to write a book, you’re a loser writer.

    4. If you keep submitting, you WILL get published. (Or else you’re a loser writer.)

    5. If you’re not writing, you’re not a writer at all. Loser.

    I’ve had to talk more than a few writers down out of a tree when Hot Stuff Author du Jour (especially any born-again self-publishing one) makes these imperious pronouncements From On High.

    If the advice makes you feel bad, it may not actually be BAD advice. But if it’s DESIGNED to make you feel bad, then it’s just pure meanness and/or the hubris to assume that THEIR way is the ONLY way, and if you don’t do it that way, you’re a loser.

    *Actually, the word used was “lazy.” I would’ve linked to that post, but it’s gone, and I actually ditched that friendship because that writer wouldn’t back down from calling anyone who didn’t work exactly his/her way “lazy.”

  3. One of my favorite things to do when I am “teaching” writers is to offer all the different approaches to the question that I can think of. “Big Name Pro says thus and such, and this is what works for Best Selling Author, and I’ve heard that Joe Published likes to do this when telling that kind of story, but that when telling another kind of story,” and so on and so forth.

    There really is no One Right Way to write, and I believe that even the same author can find that what worked on the last story may not work on the current story. You have to know the possibilities and what has worked for others, and then be willing to make a few mistakes until you figure out how to get it right for you. (Hmm. Sounds a little like life, doesn’t it?)

    • Julie Wright says:

      A lot like life, Kathleen. And there can’t be any one way to write. There can’t be any one way to do anything. We’re all so different that it stands to reason that our methods would be as unique as our own individual personalities.

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Best Advice: It came many moons ago from a small press publisher, not a writer, who focused on lit fic. He said writers–especially women writers–need to write more “messy.” He meant that everything from plot points to sentences and words come one after the other, in perfect order. He advised the room to jumble up sentences in our paragraphs. I thought I didn’t have this problem. Then I went home and jumbled up sentences. I ended up w. stronger work. Go figure. Mabye, then, the best advice wasn’t so much to write “messy,” but to at least try some of the bizarre advice I get that I don’t think fits me.

    Worst Advice: Nothing matters more than your writing.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    Best advice: Writing is not the opposite of reading. Much of the experiential richness in remembered stories comes from the mind of the reader, not the pen of the writer. The author is host, not focus of attention—sometimes it’s best to get out of the way of your own story.

    Worst advice: I have managed to ignore or forget most of the bad advice (or at least advice that I recognize as bad), so I don’t a specific to offer here.

    In general, though, anyone who says something to the effect of “The only way to be a writer is to [insert pet theory here].” There’s nothing wrong with learning how someone else does it, but there is no “only way” to write or tell stories.

  6. Best for me:

    Patricia Wrede’s Hat Lecture ranks up there. It’s simplistic and cutesy, but it brought something very real to my attention–the need to differentiate between phases of writing. There’s the time to allow creative juices to flow unhindered, the time to mercilessly edit, and the time to keep sending stuff out when it gets rejected over and over again, and each “phase” needs its own distinct sort of perspective that doesn’t encroach on other stages (for me.)

    Another good piece of advice for me was a word count. I know not everyone can work with a word count, but for me, actual volume of writing has been the key to me gaining skill and awareness about my weaknesses as a writer, and that relentless “1100 words in a sitting” has gotten me past many a dangerous writers’ block moment :) Plus I have lots of little children and giving myself a count per day makes me sit down and do it, and then I’m done and can feel good about moving on… anything unresolved gets resolved in the next day’s 1100 words.

    Worst advice: Don’t try to outline a plot, then your book turns from literary to commercial. I don’t think that’s true at all (for me.) I have to outline some kind of conflict-resolution or else my stories kind of ramble and lose their focus.

    Also the whole “write short stories first” thing. I can’t. I just can’t. I don’t know why… but I love writing novels and some say I’m OK at it :) Even though I stink at writing short stories. I actually had a creative writing teacher laugh at a short story I turned in. It was mutual laughter… after he started, I joined in, a little reluctantly at first. I knew it was baaaad. And I’ve tried multiple times since, but for some reason the genre just doesn’t work too well on me. While I enjoy reading flash fiction, the idea of trying to write it is kind of nightmarish.

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