Bad Advice from Good Authors

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

I posted this article a few years ago but find its content just as true now as it was then. Enjoy a conversation among yourselves via the Comments section, as our office is closed until January 4.

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.woman not listening

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 career. 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. The Left Behind Series could only release on the dawn of a new millennium once. (Perfect time for an end-times series!) 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 advice?

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

Care to share some bad advice you received that didn’t serve you well?

Why experienced authors give bad advice. Click to tweet.

Warning: Published authors don’t always give good advice. Click to tweet.


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16 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, and it covers a LOT of ground. Some random comments…and please take them with a grain of salt, as I’m NOT an industry professional. I just read a lot, and write a lot.
    * Considering Vonnegut’s advice on forgetting suspense…that may play into ‘like versus love’ in fiction. There are plenty of suspenseful books I read once, and many more that telegraphed their endings that I have re-read often. On a second reading (unless I’ve been badly concussed and can’t remember) there IS no suspense, and the reason I’m there is because I simply love the characters and the setting. It might be better for Vonnegut to have said that suspense is nowhere near as important as the creation of characters with whom you want to spend time…even if you know what’s going to happen to them.
    * Further to that, if one reads history and memoir, one generally knows a priori the ending. It’s the details…and the people…that count.
    * I never much liked Ray Bradbury, but DID read every book the equally prolific Arthur C. Clarke wrote. Clarke wasn’t the best of writers…sometimes he was pretty awful…but he could create an engaging SF world, and his occasional disasters (like “Imperial Earth”) didn’t keep me from buying his next book. The level of writing was ‘good enough’, and he was a decent storyteller with a knack for setting. If he’d made his breakout novel “Childhood’s End” a literary masterpiece, and then waited half a lifetime before he felt his next book was good enough…I would have missed a lot of fun. I’m glad he chose quantity.
    * As for Saul Bellow…I was assigned “Henderson The Rain King” as a school reading assignment, and for his pains the guilty teacher got a water balloon to the face at the end of term. When the Head demanded an explanation, I gave it to him straight, and having read HTRK himself, he disciplined the teacher. Enough said.
    * I try to forget bad advice, and remember the good…and the best advice came from a dead dude, Robert E. Lee…”Never take counsel of your fears”. I think that’s very apt for a writer, because there are a lot of people out there who delight in giving advice…and a lot of it is negative and plays on a writer’s fears, because it’s a lot easier to authoritatively misuse statistics to make success seem impossible. Good and thoughtful negative advice certainly exists, but unless a writer has sufficient confidence in the source’s knowledge base, veracity, and possible personal ‘agenda’, it’s perhaps better not to cling to the words of doom.
    * I hope this doesn’t sound Pollyannish, but the thing is, the publishing landscape does seem to be a collection of individual tales of success and failure, and the only constant I can see is that a standout story counts for the most. I mean, how many readers are going to wade through Proust for the elegant language and profound introspection? Wouldn’t you rather read Beverley Lewis? I would.
    * So for me, it’s like this – I will write the best stories I can, and if I ever have an agent I will make every requested change, because at that point it’s become a team effort, and teamwork’s vital. But all I can do is tell the stories I’ve been given by the Almighty, and write about characters for whom I care, and commend my best efforts to God’s guiding Hand.
    * There has been lousy advice in other areas, though. I’ve been told that I should accept a narrowing world, and Depends, and the inability, coming soon, to do any more that watch old movies in a half-drugged stupour…and that I SHOULD resent, say, the physical challenges of the past 48 hours.
    * Life’s too short for resentment, and way to short to curl up and die because that fits the image of how other people think terminal illness should be.

  2. A wise woman once told me that most Christians want to recreate their come-to-Jesus moment for the next generation, but God creates a unique path for each individual. Similarly, I suppose, an accomplished author may present his/her experience as the preferred pathway to being published. But as always, God’s plan for each of us is uniquely ours.

  3. I recall this post from last year, but it is good to read it again. I suppose I have the advantage of being taught from a young age that all advice must be weighed and cross-referenced, but sometimes when it is a piece of advice that you WANT to hear, it is more difficult to remember that. 🙂

    There are so many conflicting ideas and opinions out there, but blogs like this one help me to sort things out. Following agents and other industry professionals can balance out what is portrayed by other authors.

    Thanks for continuing to give us all such helpful posts. Happy New Year!

  4. Sarah Sundin says:

    The worst advice I received from a multi-published author was that the ONLY way to get published (fiction or non-fiction) was to first establish yourself through writing articles. Lots of articles. As a novelist, I didn’t have one article in me. I was heartbroken.

    Thank the Lord I met Lauraine Snelling at the next writers conference I attended. She set me straight and told me to focus on my novels. I did. Sometimes multi-published authors give really good advice too 🙂

    • I received similar advice, Sarah. They said an author would have a better chance at getting an agent or being published if they had been published before, either with short stories or articles. Knowing what I know now, I would have been better off to be patient and focus on writing my books, like you did.

      • Sarah Sundin says:

        “A better chance” – I can see that. “The ONLY way!!” (which is what I was told) – simply not true for novelists. I think that if you have articles in you, getting a good track record does establish you as a professional, someone who knows how to write well and meet deadlines. But to insist that all novelists set aside the stories in their hearts to write articles…well, not-so-good advice 🙂

    • I can see a few instances where publishing articles might be helpful – for someone writing Civil War-era novels, well-researched and readable historical or archaeological pieces might provide some good bona fides for a publisher.

      • Sarah Sundin says:

        As a WWII author, I found blog posts & articles to be helpful in the publicity process, but they weren’t necessary to get my first contract. Whether a history of having published WWII articles would have helped me get a contract sooner…I don’t know.

    • I’ve had over 100 articles published, but those haven’t helped the sale of my children’s books. The books are with a small publisher, written for children, and have nothing to do with the article topics.

  5. I haven’t had much in the way of bad advice from good authors, but I’ve heard plenty of down-right stupid advice from people who know NOTHING about writing, and yet they feel qualified to tell me exactly how I should write stories about a culture and time they’ve never heard of. Ever.
    #1-“You should write about Canadian history” Umm, okay….”people came, they froze, they stayed, then they invented hockey and won everything”. See? All done.
    #2-“Use me in a book!” Well then…”and then she got hit in the nose with a shovel and forever looked like Marcia Brady, but she was annoying, so we named her Jayne.”
    #3 “Write what you know!” Excellent…”so there was this middle aged woman in Canada with a bad back? Foot? Hip?…hmmm…let’s go with…’her earlobes were in great shape for a woman of her years’…who preffered books to television unless Last of the Mohicans was on then it was all about the…culturally appropriate and yet quite swoony…buckskins. Oh, and who also knows the laundry is piling up.
    Yeah, that last one just screams MOVIE DEAL.
    As for social media?
    Well, Mark Zuckerberg is giving away Facebook stock. It must be true, it’s on Facebook!

    • I wonder if ‘write what you know’ can be better stated as ‘write that of which you can legitimately claim an authentic understanding’?
      * One are in which I see this violated – a lot – is in the description of combat, and the personalities and behaviour of fighters. There’s a real disconnect that comes with the experience of combat, a disconnect from the broader societal paradigms by which such things are described by and for a lay audience.
      * An example that is probably familiar is the Casting Crowns song “Voice of Truth”, in which David is described as being ‘surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors, shaking in their armour, and wishing they’d had the strength to stand’.
      * Fighting men – and especially professionals – simply don’t think that way. Many would be sardonically wishing they ‘had the sense to stay home’, and others would rationalize the decision not to engage Goliath. But ‘wishing they’d had the strength to stand’ is not part of the culture. (Rationalizing may be regarded as self-deception, but on the other hand…Goliath was one man, albeit a big one, and while he could provide inspiration to the Philistines he certainly could not win a battle single-handed, and getting killed to prove a single-combat honour point was stupid, even then.)
      * Sure, it’s only a song (and one that’s well-loved), but it turns away from actually delivering ‘the voice of truth’ in this case…and worse, it sets up a false picture of what fighting men really are, and that leads to misunderstandings to this day.
      * No veteran feels himself a hero. The heroes came home in boxes.

      • And, for what it’s worth, no one comes home in body bags. Those are used to get remains from a casualty collection point to a higher-level care and processing facility, for transfer to an aluminum casket (though the remains may stay bagged for the trip home).

  6. Oh, yikes. Thanks for this. It always boils down to the same thing: write the best you can, be disciplined, and have a teachable spirit. Oh, yeah and–keep going.

  7. Sharyn Kopf says:

    It seems to me that discerning the difference between good advice & bad — regardless of who it’s from — is just another part of our job as authors.