This month signals the start of a new year, and that brings along new beginnings and reboots. Also renewed work projects that weren’t finished by the end of last year. To get into that spirit, I thought it would be fun for us to share some of the best—and worst—advice on writing we’ve gotten. I’ll start with the best.
Early in my career, when I was collecting enough rejection letters to paper a conference room, one acquisitions editor actually took the time to make some constructive suggestions. The best was that whenever I introduce a new character, no matter how minor, I should include at least a brief physical description to help the reader form a mental picture. I’ve used that ever since.
She also noted that my book (a spy thriller with a romantic subplot) seemed to lack focus. She suggested that I decide which aspect I wanted to feature and concentrate on that. Fortunately, I found a way to achieve the kind of balance I wanted, but it was still good advice that I keep in mind. Know your audience.
An editor I worked with early on really got after me about point of view. She complained that after reading parts of my story, she was dizzy from all the head-hopping I had done. She told me to put myself inside the character and write the scene as though I was looking through their eyes. More excellent advice.
Another editor suggested that I choose some of my words more carefully, because she felt I was trying to prove that I had memorized Roget’s Thesaurus. Ouch! Ever since then I’ve settled for plain everyday language whenever possible. It reminded me how much it bugs me when a writer uses a word or phrase that sends me on a Google search.
Since we’re on language, this same editor (the one I request for each new book) commented on the fact that when I use characters of different ethnic origins (Latino, Italian, etc.), I have them speak a few words or phrases in their native tongue to make the characters more realistic. I always research these carefully so I’m using the right ones. She told me I need to reference the words in a subsequent sentence to explain what they mean, since not everyone is fluent in that language.
Now that I’ve shared some of the best, it’s time to visit the flip side.
I once attended a book signing event near Chicago, where I had been invited to participate in a panel discussion for aspiring writers. One of the local authors (who shall remain anonymous because I think he’s a pretentious boor) was apparently successful with a series of private eye adventures. He had just signed with a New York publisher. I remember this because in every sentence he uttered, even when he was responding to a question, he felt compelled to insert the proclamation “And I just got a five-figure advance from a major publisher!”
Want to know what his only bit of advice was? “Whatever you do, before you submit your manuscript, be sure it’s completed.” Gee, Joe, I think we could’ve figured that out on our own! And no, I’ve never read any of his books, nor am I likely to.
Marketing is another area where what works for one person isn’t necessarily universal. I’ve had several authors rave about the benefits they got from advertising in trade magazines or on certain retail sites. I tried copying what they did, and only ended up spending a lot of money with no return. Again, I think it comes down to knowing your target audience and where to find them.
Some of the advice I’ve received had to be taken lightly. After my first spy adventure came out, a friend actually suggested (with a straight face) that I might sell more books if I changed my name to Tim Clancey. In hindsight, a change of name might have been beneficial, but I’m sure someone would have noticed the difference.
What has been the best or worst writing advice you’ve received?