The world is full of writing advice. Manuals on plot and character, workshops on saving cats, and podcasts about the hidden brain science behind successful stories (curiously never taught by actual scientists): these guides and gurus compete for our attention, offering to unlock the writer within and make all our books bestsellers.
It’s enough to make you wonder how Dickens and Austen and all those who came before were able to create great works of fiction when there was no one around to promise them the secret to making their books “unputdownable”.
Why Writers Seek Advice
The impulse to seek out new knowledge to improve our craft is a natural one. I meet dozens of new writers every year in my travels – it’s both a pleasure and an unavoidable consequence of making my living as a novelist. Often they ask to chat, seeking guidance on how to write a series or get their books published.
I’m always happy to share my experiences, and they always seem grateful to hear them. However, it’s hard for me to imagine that I’m telling them anything new. Most seem to have already invested in loads of books on the craft and signed up for course after course at substantial expense.
Why are these writers still asking for advice – especially advice that’s almost certainly a repetition of something they already know? The answer, I think, is that we’re all so inundated with writing advice these days that the problem isn’t finding it but filtering it – searching for that needle in the haystack that doesn’t just sound logical but sends us scurrying back to our keyboards, writing with renewed confidence.
So how do we identify what knowledge we need? The first step requires a difficult admission for all of us.
Seeking Advice Can Be Procrastination
Are you seeking out writing advice because there’s a genuine gap in your knowledge, or simply as a way of avoiding the more difficult work of putting your own story on the page? While I’m personally grateful that you’re taking the time to read this article, ask yourself this question: would you be better served at this very moment by writing your book?
Let’s be honest: the answer is probably yes.
Procrastination isn’t a crime (despite my mother’s best efforts to make it one). However, those of us who want to write fiction for a living can’t afford to lie to ourselves. This is true whether we’re dealing with publishing contracts, the quality of our books, or yes, with what you and I are doing at this very moment. Instead of working on my next novel, I’m pontificating about writing advice. Instead of working on yours, you’re reading this article.
But you know what? That’s okay. Sometimes we need to give ourselves a break and acknowledge that right now, whether because of exhaustion or anxiety or just plain laziness, the thought of sitting down to write is overwhelming.
Instead of watching a movie or playing video games – both perfectly acceptable ways to pass the time – you’ve chosen to read about writing. Sometimes learning is a form of relaxation and entertainment. But when you’ve reached the point where you realize you’re just delaying the hard work of writing, you need to sift through all that material down to the exact guidance you need, and that means understanding what’s going on inside your writer’s brain.
The Writing Advice I Needed
Way back in the late 1990s, I desperately wanted to write a novel. Maybe what I really wanted was to see my name on the spine of a book carefully shelved at my local store, but in the early days it’s always hard to tell those two things apart. Nonetheless, I did the things people do. I read books – lots of them – and sought out advice wherever I could. I did this over and over and somehow managed never to write a word until I found the advice I really needed inside a magic box.
The magic box in question awaited me on a shelf at the Vancouver Public Library. Somewhere on the sixth floor, nestled amongst various books on the craft of writing, was a plain cardboard box about twelve inches square labeled “Let’s Write a Mystery”. Inside were a collection of twelve cassette tapes recorded by a fellow named Ralph McInerny. Now, I’d never heard of him before so I looked him up and discovered he was a prolific writer of mystery novels. A quick glance at these made it obvious he knew how to write and was reasonably successful in his career, so I took the box of tapes to the checkout counter and brought them home.
Sticking that first cassette tape inside the tape recorder in my apartment felt preposterously out of date even then, and listening to a guy who sounded like a 1960s science professor for hours on end seemed absurd. But there was something special in that slow, patient way he spoke, and the way he described the process of writing without any grand promises of fame and fortune, of changing the world, of anything other than the satisfaction that came with finishing one’s novel.
Over the next several weeks, urged on by Ralph McInerny’s gentle words, I accomplished something I’d never done before and honestly thought I wasn’t capable of doing: I wrote a novel. It wasn’t great, of course. Most first novels aren’t. But the magic of finishing your first novel is that it changes you forever, transforming you into someone who can write a second, and a third, and many more after that.
What made “Let’s Write a Mystery” so special? Nothing, really. You can’t even find it anymore. It just turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time: a patient voice telling me it was going to be okay, that I didn’t have to worry about whether what I was writing was good or not, that all I had to do was get the next page done. Inside that cardboard box at my local library I had found exactly the advice I needed at the time.
Of course, like all the most powerful magic spells, it only worked once. It wasn’t until years later that I decided to write another book. This time what I needed was the annual Three-Day Novel Writing Contest, which promised me the chance to fail quickly enough that I wouldn’t have wasted much time. Strangely, that perverse deadline drove me to write 44,000 words in three days, and that became the first rough draft of Traitor’s Blade, the book that got me my first four-book publishing deal and launched me into this bizarre and wonderful career.
Writer, Know Thyself
So how do you find the right advice for you? How do you locate the magic cardboard box that just happens to have the answers you need? The key lies in what will become an ongoing task in your writing journey: investigating what’s going on inside your own head.
I was on a panel a few years ago called “The Best Writing Advice I Ever Got”. It was a perfectly pleasant discussion, mostly consisting of authors describing their writing routines or some particular approach to structuring stories. There were references to various kinds of tea and particular hours of the day best suited to writing. By the end of the panel, though, I felt as if we’d missed something integral, and so I ended by asking the audience to do exactly what I’d like you to do right now. Close your eyes (not quite yet—once you’ve read the question!) and ask yourself “What is the advice I most need to hear right now?”
Simple, right? Don’t hesitate, prevaricate, or equivocate. Whatever answer your inner voice just told you is probably correct. Now, while I don’t know your particular situation, my experience has been that most people’s answer falls into one of three categories. Unfortunately, most of us frame the answer in a negative light—one that makes us the problem. So let’s look at each one and reframe it just a bit.
"I Just Need to Sit Down and Write"
This is by far the most common and, alas, the most dispiriting answer. Yes, we all need to write more. There’s no better way to improve than to keep writing. But here’s the thing: just beating yourself up probably isn’t helping.
Remember when I said above that fiction writers can’t afford to lie to themselves? Well, calling yourself lazy or undisciplined is often a way of hiding from what’s really holding you back. The real challenge is to face those feelings of unease that are keeping you from the keyboard and ask, “what would make me feel calm and focused enough to sit down and write?” Sometimes the answer is blocking out time, making your favorite tea, and telling yourself “I’m just here to have fun and not worry about whether it’s good or not.”
Other times, though – and here’s where you need to be honest with yourself – the anxiety or fear is deeper than that and perhaps you need real help. I’ve met loads of writers who’ve had times in their life when they needed to see a therapist or psychiatrist because the “writer’s block” was actually a symptom of something deeper. If it feels like that’s you, then seek out that help, because I promise that beating yourself up isn’t going to work.
"There’s Something Wrong With My Book"
Not all problems are in our heads. Sometimes it really is a problem with the story.
I’ve had the benefit of working with some truly world-class editors in my relatively short career, and the simple truth is that no one can fix your story for you. But sometimes those with real experience, a keen eye, and – most importantly – a genuine belief in you as a writer, can point out where the story’s not working and help you brainstorm solutions until one of them feels right to you. So if your writer’s instincts (as opposed to your anxieties) are telling you there’s a real problem with your story, seek out someone you can trust to help.
The challenge here is that the business right now is absolutely full of would-be gurus happy to take your money in exchange for their opinion. This means when you’re listening to advice you need to consider the source. You need to ask yourself why you’re listening to this person.
In fact, why not start right now? Have you read so much as a paragraph of one of my books? It’s easy to do – most eBook sites let you read at least a chapter for free. Have you looked to see if my novels have been successful or garnered award nominations or made any kind of dent in the publishing world? If not, should you really trust my opinion?
When finding an editor or story coach, take the time to make sure they’ve either written something you think is good or edited an author whose work you admire – and check with that author that this person actually worked with them. (As a side note, please don’t try to hire me. I’m a novelist, not an editor or story coach.)
This principle goes double when buying books on the craft, by the way. Ignore the title and the promises and instead make sure there’s some reason why you should believe this person’s advice over your own instincts.
"I’m Making Bad Business Decisions"
I try never to think about business when I’m writing because it pollutes my creativity and makes me hesitate when I should push forward. However, if your goal is to be published and your books keep coming back with rejections, sometimes the problem isn’t with your writing but with what you’re choosing to write.
If agents or editors keep saying your science fiction sagas feel like romance novels but you don’t want to categorize them that way because you look down at the romance genre then you’re letting your own biases stand in the way of your success. If you keep signing book deals with publishers that offer ridiculously low advances and then don’t market your books, you’re letting your need to be validated by the industry override your own common sense.
There are two good places to get advice on business issues. The first are writers’ organizations such as the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (also known as SFWA) and the Society of Authors in the UK. The second source of advice on business issues is other authors. Contact the ones whose work you admire or whose careers make sense to you (whether self-published or traditional) through their website and ask if it would be okay to send a business question about whatever you’re dealing with. Avoid asking about how much money they make or how much they received as an advance. Often contracts forbid sharing such information and some people are just uncomfortable talking about money. However, if you explain your situation, many authors will take a few minutes to share their experience with you. Get a few answers from different authors and use their responses to help you make the right decision for you.
The Hardest Part of Getting the Right Advice
Epiphanies are wonderful sensations – that sudden bolt of lightning that tells us we’ve landed on an amazing truth. Alas, the best advice never seems to work that way. Instead, it’s usually something you already know. What are most of us doing as we search for ever more books, courses, and gurus? We’re just looking for someone to repeat those same simple truths back to us, only in a more confident and authoritative voice than our own.
Could it be that the advice all us writers really need to learn is simply to trust our own best instincts?