On The Worst Advice They’ve Received About Publishing and Writing


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Since I often ask similar questions of people I interview, I wanted to collect some of their responses here, under the umbrella of that particular topic. That way, if you’re looking for quick advice or inspiration on a particular subject, you can browse these posts to see what a variety of very talented writers and other professionals say.

Here, I’ve collected together responses to the question: What’s the worst advice you’ve received about publishing or writing?

I’ve linked to each full blog post below–and if you click the link, you can also scroll down to find the ways you can follow or connect with these authors.

 

“When I was a teenager I emailed one of my favourite authors to say how much I’d enjoyed reading their books and that I’d like to be a writer myself one day. In their reply they advised me not to start writing until I was at least 40 as you needed to wait until you had stuff to say. Obviously I totally ignored this and wrote my first published book, The Ninth Circle, when I was 19. I think teenagers have just as much to say as anyone else and there is no point waiting to start.”

Alex Bell

 

“The worst advice was all, ‘Ooooooo…. you’re gonna have to work so hard. Oooooooo….it’s so hard. Ooooooo…you have to be a rocket scientist.’ All that negative energy. It may be true that for every 10,000 manuscripts that enter New York, one will be bound. However, I love to break that figure down: Eliminate the thousand people who don’t know how to follow directions and present manuscripts in fancy typefaces, single spaced. Eliminate another thousand who splice three commas on the first page. Eliminate the thousand who can’t use a search engine and don’t know how to find the right sort of agent. Eliminate the thousand who don’t know how to write a covering letter that hasn’t made them and their work sound like the center of the universe. Eliminate those who blow the story in the final third (that’s all the newbees who want to ‘wait to see if it sells’ before trying another). Eliminate all those people who think they have been abducted by aliens (not that maybe they haven’t, but the American psyche isn’t open to certain things, and you have to have a feel for what they are). Eliminate all those who haven’t read in their own market, so they don’t know where their work fits in. Eliminate all those who write a book and THEN ask “what market does this fit?” (Fiction writers are servants; we serve markets. The markets only serve us if we understand them and serve them first). After eliminating all those who are not serious or who are given to massive brain farts, your chances are about one in 200. That’s not bad! Do it five times, and you’re in.”

Carol Plum-Ucci

 

I don’t think I ever gotten actively terrible advice. “Know your audience” has always been a bit confusing to me, though. I get emails from grown-ups in the UK, kids in Bangladesh, a school class in Brazil. I’m so grateful they found something in my books that they liked, but I don’t *know* them. To me, it’s more about knowing yourself, what you want to achieve with your story, and after that I just hope it finds the people who want and need it. I think your main audience should be you. That sounds weirdly selfish, but for me it’s always felt scary and counterproductive to try to know what other people want from me.

Stefan Bachmann

 

“Before I was published, I once attended a writing group where I presented the beginning pages of a novel. Up until that time, I had been devoted to writing poetry and approached novel writing with trepidation. I’ve forgotten the piece I brought, but I’m sure those first pages weren’t very strong. The writer hosting the group took me aside afterward to advise me that unless I wanted to write and publish a novel more than any single thing on earth, I really should not to continue. The pursuit of publication would only break my heart. I was wary enough of attempting a novel already, so I listened and kept flogging away, writing poetry that attracted some interest here and there but was always ultimately rejected. I had become tired, bitter and more than a little hopeless. That’s when I broke through and realized, “Hey, my heart is already broken. Can’t get much worse. Why not try a novel after all?” So I wrote one, sent it off to Dial Books for Young Readers and sold it. The moral to that story is: Don’t mind the scary voices; do something scary instead.”

Kathleen O’Dell

 

“‘It’s nearly impossible to get published and you won’t be able to make a living at it.’ I think it’s important to follow your dreams, but you have to be prepared for a lot of rejection.”

Louis Sachar

 

“Write every day. It’s not bad advice, per se, but it took a long time for me to realize that writing every day doesn’t work for me. Sometimes when I force myself to write even if I’m stuck or uninspired, I get discouraged very easily. I learned that everyone’s process is different, and if I don’t write every day that’s fine.”

Kara Thomas

 

“Because I also work in the publishing industry, people often ask how I think about sales and marketing as I’m writing. The answer is: I don’t. I think it’s so important when you’re writing to focus solely on craft, and on the story you’re trying to tell. If the story is compelling and important, it will be inherently marketable.”

Danya Kukafka

 

“I received a lot of conflicting rejections. Some would like the characters, but not the plot. Some would like the setting, but not the characters. Some loved the dialog, some did not. So that wasn’t helpful! But when a pattern emerged–like several rejects said the same basic thing–I learned to listen. As hard as it is to hear, if several people tell you the same thing, there’s almost certainly truth (as opposed to simply opinion) in what they’re saying.”

Wendelin van Draanen

 

“‘Write and sent something as quickly as possible. That’s what professionals do.’ That was terrible advice. The last thing any editor wants to see is a flood of half-baked first drafts, which the writer might think are ready, after coming off the intensity of writing. Of course all processes are different, but I discovered it’s best to let a draft sit for a while, then read it with fresh eyes, and if possible get someone who is NOT a family member/best friend/lover to read it. Preferably someone who knows something about writing, but even a person who knows nothing about writing can offer feedback like, ‘Chapter two confused me,’ and ‘I didn’t really get excited until chapter ten.’ Another piece of terrible advice that I got early on was to write a long query letter all about myself and the book. ‘Be personal!’ The last thing any editor wants to read is pages dully describing the plot of your book (which will inevitably sound like other books out there), or your long history of writing when you were a kid, how many things you sent out, blah blah. Learning to write a short, tight query letter in the voice of the book, and include only interesting personal details (I am also a jet fighter pilot: to write about my travel story, I walked the Great Wall of China when I was nineteen: that kind of thing), and never, ever tell them how many drafts you wrote.”

Sherwood Smith

 

“I’ve realized that the best, most satisfying stories are the flukes. On the one hand, it’s good advice to suggest that a writer be conscious of the market for their work. On the other hand, if you pay too much attention to what’s selling and what isn’t, your creative imagination will suffer a slow, suffocating death from within. Over two decades, almost all of my best work has come when I’ve had an idea I loved enough to pursue it without thinking too much about whether it was commercial.”

Geoff Rodkey

 

“‘Go with the biggest, most prestigious agent and publisher you can get.’ Much better to go with the agent and publisher who fit you best and who feel most passionate about your work. You need these people to be your champions. That is less likely if you are just one of a crowd of clients. An agent’s prestige only helps if she is willing to spend it on you.”

William Landay

 

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