Sunday, December 21, 2008

When to Ignore Good Advice

Advice for writers is everywhere. Rules for writing. Rules for querying. Rules for submitting. Like most writers, I also actively solicit advice from beta readers, successful novelists, and others in the publishing business. There have been times when I followed what seemed like good advice and ended up regretting it. Other times, I ignored perfectly good advice and was glad I did. How do you know up front when to ignore sound advice? Listen to your own instincts.

Long ago, an agent advised me to write a YA novel because she knew an editor who was looking for YA manuscripts that dealt with troubled teen scenarios and she thought I would be perfect for the series. My instinct said it wasn’t right for me, but I thought this agent had a solid connection that would get me published. Total waste of time! I am not a YA writer. (I’m not sure I was every really young. My mother swears I was born 40.)

One very successful agent who I was once signed with kept advising me to write a cozy mystery series because that’s what all the publishers wanted. I don’t read cozy mysteries, and I didn’t think I could pull it off. So I never tried. That was smart. See above. So my rule for myself is: Never write a novel I wouldn’t read. (Unless someone gives me a boatload of money upfront and and all the time in world to complete it.)

A beta reader once advised me to not make the murder victim’s mother a drug addict who had died of drug-related complications. She thought it was distracting and unnecessary. But it was the basis for the character’s personality! It was why she ended up in the situation she was in at the time of the murder. Wrong advice! Easy to ignore.

Everyone in the business says to never query an agent before you finish writing the story. I have routinely ignored this advice (when sending snail mail) and have never had an agent respond to a query before the manuscript was ready. Agents are notoriously slow (I once got a response three years and three months later), so why not eliminate that waiting gap with productive writing time? Sending queries early also motivates me to get it done.

A successful mystery writer and dear friend once advised me not approach an editor at a major publishing house directly. She felt strongly that I should get an agent—that the editor would never consider a manuscript submitted without one and that it might seem unprofessional. But this editor had read The Sex Club as a manuscript and loved it. She knew my name and my writing. I felt there was no harm in asking if she’d like to see the next installment in the Jackson series. So I queried her directly anyway (via e-mail). Then a few weeks later, I ran into her at Bouchercon and pitched the novel again. A month later, she e-mailed me and asked to see the manuscript. I’m still waiting to see how this turns out. But even if she passes on the series, I’m still glad I ignored that well-intended advice and made that direct connection.

I've learned to write only the stories I feel passionate about, regardless of what’s currently trendy; to trust my own instincts about what works best for those stories; and to never let fear get in the way of making connections.

Do you ignore standard industry advice? Does it usually work out for you?

8 comments:

Karen Olson said...

Standard advice is that you should write what you know. So my first four books? I wrote what I knew. What I was comfortable with.

My new series? There is very very little about it that I "know." I'm writing about a tattoo artist (I don't even have a tattoo much less create them) who lives and works in Las Vegas (I've been there twice, the first time for two days, the second for four). But despite this, I've had more fun with it than I thought I would and now say that if you want to write about something you don't know, no biggie.

Libby Hellmann said...

I'm in a writing group, and they are always full of good advice, which I take over 50 per cent of the time. However, one thing they have said more than once is that my protagonist just wouldnt DO what I have her doing -- that she'd call the police and turn it over to them. But if she did that, I wouldn't have a story. So I don't follow that advice.

Jeff Cohen said...

I ignored good advice--and it ended up costing me. I spent 20 years writing and pitching screenplays (some of which were actually GOOD, Hollywood!), and my "peer review" consisted of my parents and, eventually, my wife. My father read one and said, "you should write this as a novel." I rolled my eyes. A NOVEL? I don't know how to write a NOVEL! There's too many WORDS in a NOVEL! Don't be so silly, Dad! I sincerely regret that he didn't live long enough to see my first published novel, which came from a screenplay idea that wouldn't cooperate.

Edward G. Talbot said...

There are two broad categories here (admittedly with some overlap). One includes things like the standard advice don't query an agent for a novel until you've finished the manuscript. The other includes specific suggestions about a specific situation you may be in or for your characters/plot.

For the first situation, you need to understand WHY the standard advice is standard. I don't think you should use your "gut" to reject this kind of advice, you should use your brain. If you are confident that the pros of not having the time delay outweighs the risk of being asked for a manuscript when you don't have it, then absolutely ignore the advice. I couldn't do that - I once had a manuscript requested four days after sending a snail mail unsolicited query. Alas, it was ultimately rejected. The point is that there are decent reasons behind most of the standard advice, so you should make sure you are aware of them and have rejected them for equally good reasons.

The second category is at once tougher and easier. It's easier to reject specific advice because it is after all specific to you. But it's also harder because you can't be flippant and say that the person is just speaking in generalities. My rule of thumb for this kind of advice is that if I'm not sure, then I want to hear it from more than one person before I take it. My co-author and I got all sorts of feedback from our beta-readers and from a dozen contests we submitted our novel to. When 2 or 3 people told us the same thing, we figured that we needed to make changes. On the other hand, our prologue got rave reviews from about half the readers and was hated by about half the readers. So we kept it. A friend of mine who read the manuscript gave me pages and pages of detailed analysis. Much of what he suggested we did. But I can remember one general comment he made about how our characters were not using their "max capacity", making mistakes and not doing more extraordinary things. The book is a conspiracy thriller, and as soon as I read the critique, my thought was that he was absolutely right that most protagonists and "good guys" in thrillers seem to pull of amazing things. But as we thought about it more, we realized that we had made the characters the way they were for a reason. They were flawed like any human being. And not struggling with some trite past wound or lost love, as you see so often, but just regular flaws like being a bit hot-headed or a bit cautious. My friend was not exactly wrong, it just didn't seem like it would improve the book to change it.

I know you asked specifically about career advice and I can't speak as much to that. I will say that it is once again important to know WHY you are or aren't doing things. Make decisions with your eyes wide open. And examine whether your feelings about your book and your writing are influencing the decision. If so, make sure that is appropriate for the particular decision. Deciding to reject advice to write in a specific "hot" genre seems appropriate. Deciding that there must be a market for your genre-bending magnum opus is quite possibly not.

Charlotte Phillips, Co-Author of The Eva Baum Detective Series said...

Solid advice as always Lj. Thanks for reminding us to trust ourselves.

Marvin D. Wilson said...

"my rule for myself is: Never write a novel I wouldn’t read."

True dat. Agree with totals.

Shane Gericke said...

The best advice I ever ignored was my own.

When I submitted my first book, BLOWN AWAY, to publishers, a top New York editor told my agent she loved the first half, but that the second half went way off track and so she would pass. My agent deeply regretted that, because this editor was so respected in the book world. I agreed, and told myself that's the way it is in New York publishing and all I can do is keep going.

But after a few weeks of stewing, I decided to violate my decision to accept things as they were. I asked my agent for a second bite at the apple--if I rewrote the second half to match the first, without a contract or any guarantee on the publisher's part, would the editor agree to read it one more time?

To our surprise, the editor said yes.

She loved the rewrite, and the book turned out to be a national bestseller, with translations into four languages and being named debut mystery of the year by a major book club.

I'm really glad I ignored my own advice.

Shane Gericke

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

The advice I see novice writers ignoring time and time again is the standard advice NOT to try to send a book directly to an editor or publishing house, but to get an agent first, and to put serious time into doing your homework on agents.

Novice writers don't seem to want to believe that a great agent can make the difference between your making a living as an author or writing in your spare time, as a hobby. The right agent is almost always the first step in being published at all.

Why risk it, out of impatience or fear?

And the other standard piece of advice that novice writers ignore over and over again is - don't self-publish if you want a professional career. Self-publishing almost always does a writer more harm than good.

Again, why risk it?