Bad advice from best-selling authors

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

A few months ago I was at an authorial event and overheard this exchange:

Newbie writer: “I had a book published ten years ago, and it did pretty poorly so I don’t know how I’ll ever get a toehold back in the industry.”

Best-selling author: “Are you kidding? Ten years ago won’t mean anything today. You’re, like, starting over. It’s like it never happened!”

I decided not to do an intervention, but how would best-selling author know that? His first book came out of the gate and galloped right to the winner’s circle. The blue ribbons have kept on coming. His knowledge about low sales came from…?

The truth  is that the newbie writer is right. Sales figures are like toilet paper stuck to your shoe. They trail along behind you FOREVER. That doesn’t mean they can’t be overcome or explained, but they should never be ignored. There are no do-overs in publishing.

Here’s the thing: Established authors generally convey incorrect information to others. It’s not because published authors are dense or don’t get how the industry works or choose to give bad advice. It’s that one author knows one thing: How his or her career has unfolded. So they speak from personal experience.

They might be able to throw in a saga about a writing friend here and there, but even that info is suspect. Did the author remember the details correctly? Did the friend convey the information correctly? Did the friend even understand what had happened to her, or did she paper her circumstances with her own interpretation?

My point: Agents have the broadest scope of experience in the publishing industry. We see hundreds of careers grow or collapse, and we know the details of that career intimately because we see the royalty statements, we see how the author is being supported–or not–by the publishing houses and we see not just how one house worked with the author but how every house that released books from the writer helped or hindered the careerr. In-house editors also have a bird’s eye view of an author’s career, but they seldom work on every project that writer creates through a lifetime of writing.

My second point: Don’t believe everything you hear or read. Just because an author is successful doesn’t mean that person has a practiced eye at understanding how the industry works and what is important and what isn’t. It’s easy to believe that one individual’s successful route to publishing could be everyone’s, but when you think about it, that’s just plain silly. Every author and every book by that author enters into the publishing arena at a unique time, never to be duplicated again. Left Behind could only release on the dawn of a new millennium once. Another author’s first book can release on 9/11/01 once.

Now, just in case you wondered what sort of advice famous authors have offhandedly offered, here’s a selection:

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” –Saul Bellow

“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” –Ray Bradbury

And my favorite:

“Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.” –Kurt Vonnegut

What affect do you think social media has had on offering/receiving writing advise?

How do you  discern which voices are the ones you want to listen to?

Care to share some bad advice you’ve received? Why was it bad for you?

68 Responses

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  1. The worst piece of “advice” I ever received was from a prominent Christian business man from whom I had the misfortune of renting some living space. Everyone thought he was FABulous. I knew him to be a domineering jerk and an overbearing father. He once addressed me very loudly from across the family room.
    “You will never amount to anything, NEVER be ANYTHING, unless you have a university degree.”

    And you, sir, are an idiot.

    • Larry says:

      Wow, Jennifer. As a fellow writer, I think that guy got off pretty lightly with you only calling him an “idiot.”

      Considering all the delicious, delicious adjectives you could have probably used instead. 🙂

      • Ohhhhhhhh, yes. A veritable cookbook of descriptors.
        He was a jerk and trotted himself around as a man of influence. I do believe the word for that is “hypocrite”.
        Suffice it to say, we do not share Christmas cards.

    • Lyn says:

      Well, I’d hate to think what he’d say to me 🙂 Because I never got past junior high school. Hmm, I don’t believe Jesus had a university degree, nor did Peter, James, John, Matthew, Job, Isaiah, Samuel…

      I thought you were remarkably restrained in the “idiot” comment.

      • It’s hard not to be restrained when one’s jaw in on the ground and the ability to speak has been shocked beyond repair.

        A good friend of mine has a PhD in “freakishly difficult math”. *I* fixed his sink. Letters after one’s name do not indicate one’s intelligence.

        Of course, I MIGHT invite him to a book store and play that Toby Keith song “How do you like me now?” as he waited in the line that went on ALL DAY. 😉

    • Jennifer, you always make me smile! I, too, have met fine ‘upstanding’ Christians that had your guy’s traits, yet so many people thought they were FAB, too. I love the way you summed him up. Occasionally we have to take some advice/comments with a grain of salt.

      • Thank you!

        I could have dumped a half tonne of bricks from the Uyuni salt flats on that guy. Not that I would.
        But had a dump truck full of salt been left running and unlocked…who’s to say what could have happened?

  2. Larry says:

    I agree, Janet: most writers really could learn how to be a little more business savvy. I know a lot of writers either feel intimidated by the buisness side of writing, or (rightfully or wrongly) feel that should be left up to their agent and publisher.

    That is not to say that there aren’t writers who don’t approach the industry with a broader focus, and I feel that more and more writers, especially those who are starting out in this digital era, are embracing that approach.

    But even when writers aren’t giving bad advice (or if not necessarily “bad”, but “uninformed” advice) about the business side of writing, they can give some pretty awful advice on the writing side of writing! 🙂

    Exactly like the Ray Bradbury quote. 1000 monkeys typing away at 1000 typewriters for 1000 years probably wouldn’t produce Shakespeare-quality work, after all!

    (Though I do find the Saul Bellow quote to mostly ring true).

  3. Social media? Everyone has an opinion and now they can make sure the whole world knows it. It’s harder than ever to identify what’s good advice and what isn’t.

  4. Kathy says:

    I think social media may have a positive impact on your second question. If I get conflicting advise from two sources, I can see what else those people are saying, writing, and selling online. That information should help me discern whose counsel to take.

  5. Stephanie McCarthy says:

    I hear a lot of conflicting advice about social media (i.e., you have to tweet vs. tweeting is worthless; you have to blog vs. blogging is useless, facebook, pinterest, etc.). The only thing everyone seems to agree on is write what you love and write it well. I guess some things never change 🙂

  6. Elaine Faber says:

    The worst advice I got was a published writer who told me my book was ready to publish when it wasn’t. (thus multiple rejections from publishers followed) Over the past several years I’ve learned a multitude of things, hopefully grown as a writer and still “don’t know what I don’t know.” Still trying to find my way and God willing, one day will have my series in print. Your column and writers advice in this blog is of great help to a new writer. Thanks.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elaine, almost every day I’m surprised by something in the publishing industry, and I’ve been involved for several decades. I guess that keeps us humble and eager to learn.

  7. Following two Christian author blogs, and two Christian agency blogs has been a huge help to me as I work on my pre-published novel. I could follow 20+ blogs on this topic, but then my story would never get written, would it? The four blogs I follow are informative, realistic, and trustworthy. And then there’s the dog-eared, highlighter flecked stack of books on my bookshelf on the craft of writing…

    Judicious and teachable I must remain.

  8. Jan Thompson says:

    “It’s easy to believe that one individual’s successful route to publishing could be everyone’s, but when you think about it, that’s just plain silly.”

    Good advice, Janet! I agree with that not only regarding publishing advice, but also writing advice. For example, one author is repulsed by outlining, another author extols it, and another doesn’t know where the wind blows. All three are top 10 NYT bestselling authors. To each his/her own.

    I think that just makes it all the more important to find the right literary agent who is part “writer whisperer” and part “she really knows.” That way, a writer can just focus on producing quality work.

  9. Peter DeHaan says:

    There seems to be an abundance of people who take their personal experience, assume it is normative and replicable, and then teach others their technique.

    It’s taken awhile, but I’ve learned to be discerning before I blindly follow their recommendations.

    To help guide me, I ask two questions:

    1) Do I following their methods is right for me?

    2) Will doing so invigorate me or suck the life out?

    Then it becomes obvious if I should proceed.

  10. Without naming names, one writer I follow tells me that to be successful, I must write her way. Another blogger I follow tells me that if I want to be effective, I must blog the same way she does. I feel I can learn something about social media from these authors/bloggers, so I continue to follow them. However, when I look at their writing and blogging, it does not resonate with me. It’s not my authentic style. Writing/blogging their way would damage my unique voice and make my work incongruent with my true person. I continue to listen, but only adopt advice that’s been filtered through my own discernment. Thank you, Janet, for giving me permission to question advice from those more established. It’s something that has been on my mind lately.

  11. Edie Melson says:

    I think the worst advice I’ve ever seen is something I’m seeing more and more often. It’s the advice being given to writers to convert their personal profile to a professional page and then open another personal profile under a different email address. There’s nothing wrong with the first part of the advice, BUT, the second part is a direct violation of Facebook Terms of Service to have multiple accounts with multiple (more than one) emails. This type of behavior can get an author permanently banned from Facebook. I love visiting this site, you all always have great information on the industry!

  12. Great point by Susi, above. We could follow hundreds of blogging published authors, and each one would give differing advice on how to “make it.” Yes, some things are true across the board (you have to KEEP WRITING to break in, even in the face of rejection! You have to keep honing your craft!).

    But just like some of us are pantsers, some are plotters, and some are loose plotter/pantsers (I think I am), we’re all SO different. It’s why I’m thankful for different agents and publishers in the CBA. Every one is looking for different criteria to be met. It’s also why I get nervous when lots of publishing houses merge. Authors have fewer options of where to submit, and fewer opportunities to get noticed.

    But great point, Janet. We can get lots of advice on this journey, but WE as authors choose which advice resonates with our story and our writing style.

    Worst advice? To change my POV/tense in my novel. I had written it in first person, present tense. I tried to change it to third/past and it just did not work FOR ME. I was ready to chuck my book, when my story got noticed by an agent. An agent who LOVED the first person and recognized it as my “voice.” I’m thankful I didn’t take advice that was well-meant, but not the right advice for me.

    And the best advice I ever got was that the writers who don’t give up are the ones who wind up getting published. I’m still HOPING that is true!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Heather, it’s easy to give advice on POV and tense based on what editors tell us is out of style. But it’s the author who remains true to her voice who could create a new trend. That’s part of what makes giving/receiving advice tricky.

    • Heather, if I was told I had to change my first person POV to be published, I think I would faint. 🙂

      I love third person, but I am not compelled to write in it and like you, I feel first person is the natural fit for my story and my voice.

      Thanks for sharing!

  13. Sarah Thomas says:

    I’ve heard several writers say the only way to get an agent is to pitch in person at a conference. Glad I didn’t listen!

  14. Susan Husk says:

    A seasoned editor offered a critique of the first few pages to five students in a class he taught on how to be published. We had to pay for the session, but the five of us did not hand off that opportunity to someone else. Eagerly, we listened to him read the first few pages and give his comments and suggestions to each of us.

    His suggestion to me was to begin my book another way. He claimed that my idea would not draw the reader in, much less an agent, and that I needed to focus more on a certain character.

    I rewrote the first 10-15 pages and gave them to a few people whose opinion I value because of their experience. Each of them read the original and continued to encourage me to keep submitting the manuscript. After reading the rewrite, they each said they would not have read on if that were the way the book began the first time they read it.

    I’m still querying and submitting for an agent, but if I listened to the seasoned editor for whose opinion I paid, I would be submitting uninteresting reading.

    Listen to the reader. People who read know what they want to read and they know what bores them. Go with your gut (within reason) and believe in your work.

  15. I listen to authors about their expertise: how to write. What they have to say about the publishing world is as informative as a surfer on how to make a wave. They’re merely riders.

    What’s most interesting is information from a writer who’s also an pub. exec, agent or professional editor. When Gilroy, Gardner and Grant speak, I’m all ears.

  16. I tend to listen to the ones who are toughest on me. I grumble, but I listen. Those who say “this is good, but is it the best you’ve got?” get more out of me than those who are so sweet, they wouldn’t tell you that Spam was bad.

    I read a quote from the late Tony Hillerman who said, roughly, “they said it was good, but it would be better if I took all the Indian stuff out”.
    Good thing he listened to his heart, and not to them.

  17. Janet – I hear you completely.

    Last year – I met the winner of the Westminster Dog Show. (Hound Division).
    She told me about a new “kibble” that was outstanding. I tried it. It was so horrible, I wouldn’t feed it to my rat friends, who live down the block.

    Turns out – Ms. Champion Hound was getting paid lots of “doggie dollars” to push this brand.

    My new motto: Buyer Beware!
    Doodle out.

  18. Jenny Tavernier says:

    huh!- lol

    “What affect do you think social media has had on offering/receiving writing advise?”
    A: I am grateful for it, however, see # 2, because one can start drowning in over-exposure, and contradictory opinion/truths. It can breed confusion that one might not catch at first, and cause a slow down that you don’t catch, as you are unknowingly comparing or questioning yourself. It WILL show up in your writing, or desire.

    “How do you discern which voices are the ones you want to listen to?”
    A: This is important. Having read through pages and pages, and signed up to follow everything for awhile, I found myself rather in a growing general malaise most of the time, the more I read. (Afraid to miss something that might shine light; (= my own insecurity). I had already had the epiphany moment of exactly what I needed to be doing writing-wise, for the time being, so I was heading into overload and baggage collecting, reading things beyond or unnecessary to precisely what I needed to be PRODUCING. (Death by theory overload? Chasing scattered gumballs all over the universe?) lol!
    1st – Do you read and leave the page energized and smiling? Does it apply? Still can’t wait to write?
    2nd – Is it causing a scattering of focus as to what you are doing now, or shortly? (Or is it something somewhere, (not close), off in the future, that you feel the need to cart a worry suitcase around for? (So that you too can also “sound” like a writer, if caught in company?) There is safety in knowing and understanding somewhat, how writers bitch! …However, it doesn’t get YOUR writing done. But, it will give one a handle into a group, to speak or know something of the same language, if that is your chosen reality point in gearing up for writing. lol

    I have been cutting way back on the load of followings, etc. I was starting to get leady, gassy and bloated, but felt I must dutifully show support (out of fear), by checking into it all. Until I realized anew, that I wanted to write, and the writing itself would take me to the next step I needed, and then I could read up on THAT. Sequential. The few followings that I cut back too, make me want to write, and are enjoyable. My interest doesn’t suffer. As low as keeping an even keel, at the very least. This doesn’t mean the others are bad at all – just not hitting/matching my current wavelength, and close future needs. They were sucking up a little too much time, and the direct result? – Eroding the energy reach.

    “Care to share some bad advice you’ve received? Why was it bad for you?”
    A:I am lucky in that respect. I don’t talk about what I am working on, to anyone, until I have a honed draft, or a fairly finished product. I know better than to ask advice from those not directly involved in the furtherance of, or the next step, specifically.
    I do much better if I am *First* at home in my head, not having a wild shoal-of-fish opinion party going on, where everything gets muddled and diluted.

  19. Reading the right blogs has been an education in itself. I’m especially grateful for the generous spirits of agents at Books & Such, Steve Laube Agency, and MacGregor Literary for the time y’all have taken to give us information that will help us on our way.

    • Janet Grant says:

      I personally find writing blog posts and interacting with you all to be a stimulating and enjoyable experience. Of course, I’m seldom lacking in opinions, which helps a lot. 🙂

  20. Tari Faris says:

    I had an author tell me that agents were useless and I was wasting my time and money perusing that. Then later in the conversation. He was complaining about how his publisher didn’t work with Amazon and how apparently it was something in the contract. Hmmm. He still didn’t make the connection. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Ah, he gave you more insight into his career than he meant to.
      Sometimes well-known authors decide they know enough about the publishing industry to go without an agent. The general way that scenario plays out is they negotiate their own contract, find themselves with serious issues with the publisher, and then decide to locate a new agent. Agents are reluctant to take on said author because the decisions he/she made have done serious harm to the career trajectory. We agents wonder if we can save the career or if it’s too late.

  21. Lisa Bartelt says:

    I had this experience recently at a book talk by a local author. He prefaced his talk by saying this was his experience and not anyone else’s, but then when he described his journey to publication (and his frustration with how much time it would take a traditional publisher to read and reject or accept his work), he made it sound like everyone would have that experience. He self-published but he didn’t do any marketing and didn’t know a thing about whether he’d sold any books on Amazon. It was definitely just his experience and I felt it painted a poor picture of the industry. Thanks for the reminder that not every word spoken is gospel!

    • Janet Grant says:

      It’s easy for people hearing one author’s experience to think that’s just the way publishing is. Apparently the author was aware that isn’t necessarily the case, but still, I bet most individuals in the audience forgot the part about “this is my experience” in his talk.

  22. Jeanne T says:

    Janet, I’m very late to the party, but this post was very informative. For me, I tend to be careful who I seek out for advice. I try to find those who have gone before me on this writing journey, are knowledgeable and who I respect. When it comes to specific advice about my story, I take what they share and see how it resonates with the heart of my story. Then I decide if/how to apply it.

    For social media, there’s so much out there. I am selective about where I go to learn more about the craft of writing and the industry. I read things in other places, but I listen and filter as seems appropriate.

  23. Judith Robl says:

    I’m late to this party, too, Jeanne. But this has been an enlightening and interesting discussion.

    My word for the year is SIMPLIFY, which means I’m cutting down on all the things I read. (This blog, however, is definitely on the KEEP list.)

    My takeaway is that at some point you need to trust your own instincts. Listen to the advice that resonates and consider that which stings. But when all is said and done, you need to be true to yourself.

    “To thine own self be true…” W.S.

  24. Jill Kemerer says:

    I can think of so many responses to this post!

    The first published author who ever gave me advice was the late (and great) Judi McCoy. It was my first RWA meeting ever, and I had accidentally walked into the men’s bathroom I was so nervous. Anyhow, Judi was the speaker and she tapped me on the shoulder after a mini-group session and told me that I “thought like a writer.”

    I almost cried. It meant a lot to a girl who had big dreams, no connections, and a lack of writing skills. We e-mailed a few times and she just encouraged me–which is the best advice anyone can get!

    The least valuable advice? All of those books that claim practice makes you a great writer. For me, practice meant making the same mistakes over and over. Practice without studying and continuing to grow does NOT turn you into a great writer. 🙂

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jill, thanks for reminding all of us well-meaning know-it-alls that the best gift we can offer is to encourage budding writers.
      That’s also a great insight about practice NOT making perfect. Studying and practicing and being critiqued lead to “perfection.”

  25. Can we say unhealthy suggestions are known by the unrest they insight, while the right advice resonates and invigorates?

  26. Linda Adams says:

    The two worst pieces of advice came from best selling writers, published when then industry was quite different. One said to an audience of writers at Thriller Fest to not follow what the agents instructions on what they were asking them for and instead send 50 pages (he was published before computers really came in). The other writer wrote a query letter to an agent saying that agent so and so had referred him, though it was not true (before email and social media). He did get the agent, and then told him about the lie (still has the same agent).

    My then-cowriter despised the idea of lowering himself down to submit queries, so he kept snuffling around, looking for shortcuts he could use. He seriously thought about lying to the agents to get a foot in the door and turned a blind eye. We are no longer cowriters.

    Know the industry for your current time, not what happened in the past.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Linda Adams » That’s great advice, Linda, and sobering stories. Agents often check with “referring” agents to find out why that agent passed up representing the writer. That could be a real oh-oh moment for the writer.

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