This week we’re talking about the best and worst writing advice we’ve ever received. When it comes to the best, it’s hard to narrow it down. There’s advice I return to book after book, like “get in late; get out early” and “editors and critique partners are almost always right when they point out a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re right about how to fix it.” Then there’s advice that comes to me when I need it, that’s brilliant and world-changing for that particular time in my life or that particular book, like “it’s about the career, not about this one book”, or “when you keep a secret from a reader, make sure you have a darn good reason.” Sometimes they’re things I knew already and had somehow managed to forget (like that secret thing). Sometimes they’re things I had never heard before but I really needed to. For instance, last year, I read “if you don’t risk being garish, you risk being bland” — which opened up a whole new thought process for me. I’d just come off writing a very austere book, and I was jumping into something completely different in tone, and I needed to hear that it was okay to go hog wild and revel in the lush weirdness, rather than rein it in.
So what’s the best writing advice I’ve ever received? Whatever resonates for the situation I’m in.
As for the worst… well. I think the worst writing advice is the kind that becomes a cliche, where people don’t really think about what they’re saying before they say it. I’ve yet to read a good article about “show vs. tell” for example. I tend to think of that kind of thing as a “I know it when I see it” — when you try to distill it to examples, all you end up doing is making it look like “showing” takes longer (when in actuality, you can pull it off in no time flat if you have the right instance). Lots of good advice goes bad, so much in fact, that I wrote a whole series several years ago about the subject on my blog. If people start giving you lots of “rules” — lots of “you MUST do this, you CAN’T do that” then you can guarantee that you’re in the realm of bad advice.
(Maybe the best writing advice I’ve ever gotten is actually, “It’s all in the execution,” as that’s the antidote to any advice-gone-bad.)
Years ago, soon after I got a job working for a newspaper in my hometown of Tampa, Florida, I found myself at a cocktail party of a family friend. A few months earlier, I had moved from New York City, where I’d been working two jobs (answering phones at an insurance company, and stocking at Pottery Barn), to Florida, where I’d gotten the aforementioned newspaper job. I was twenty-three years old. Anyway, I found myself trapped in one of those random conversations with a middle-aged gentleman, who took it upon himself to inform the young thing he was talking to that if she really wanted to be a writer, she should move to New York. (He was not, it should be noted, a writer himself.)
“That would be difficult,” I said, “since my writing job is here.”
Writers live in New York, he insisted. That’s where all the opportunities are.
“When I lived in New York,” I replied, “I answered phones for a living. Here, I write for a living.”
I would never be successful unless I went to New York. Writers don’t live in Florida.
The conversation went downhill from there.
I never did move back to New York. I stayed in Florida, I traveled through Australia and New Zealand, and I wrote four books and a novella. I moved to Washington, D.C., where I wrote a book based on an idea I got while still in Florida, then sold it and became a full-time writer. I’m still in D.C., seven years and nine sold novels later. I visit New York from time to time, but I have no desire to move there. In fact, I often think I’d be better off in an even smaller town than D.C. A writer’s money is the same wherever she goes, and it would go a lot farther someplace like Oklahoma or rural Massachusetts, where some of the most successful writers I know live.
I know writers who live in New York and love it. That town is not for me, and fortunately, it doesn’t need to be. The worst writing advice is the one that says “have to.” There are many roads through this forest. I’ve yet to see a rule that hasn’t been successfully broken.
It’s all in the execution.