I learned this within my first year of pursuing publication. At the time, I was preparing a short story for a contest put on by an editor of one of the biggest religious publishers in the business. So I submitted the story to one of my writer’s loops. The opening line read,
How in the hell do you drown in the desert?
That’s a decent opening line, don’t you think? Well, my critique partners chimed in and rather surprisingly took me to task for the profanity. Because this was a religious publishing house, they warned, the cursing would be a red flag. In fact, some suggested it would incur immediate disqualification. As a yet unpublished author, I took that to heart and sought for some ways to replace the dreaded expletive. I submitted these four alternatives:
1.) How in the heck do you drown in the desert?
2.) How in the world do you drown in the desert?
3.) How in God’s name do you drown in the desert?
4.) How do you drown in the desert?
The advice poured in. Someone offered tarnation, another How in God’s green earth. One person suggested, How in blazes do you drown in the desert and another added blue blazes. That was a little different. I began contemplating the blazes options, when someone noted that blazes and blue blazes actually meant hell and should be avoided; furthermore, How in God’s name was taking the Lord’s name in vain. At this stage, holy hangnail seemed like a viable option. I was overwhelmed with advice. Finally, my southern-fried friend Ane Mulligan settled the matter for me. She said, “Go with your gut.”
And out of all the advice I’d received, that one rang a bell. So I stayed with my original line. The story went on to become one of the finalists and was one of my first big breaks as a writer.
A good rule of thumb for aspiring authors is to ask a lot of questions and listen carefully, especially if those giving the answers are seasoned writers or industry professionals. Problem is that, even then the advice you get will differ.
Stephen Koch in his excellent Writer’s Workshop, establishes that fact in the Introduction to his book:
I have tried to present here a loose intuitive consensus on the basics of the craft. Consensus of course incorporates, and sometimes masks, dissent. Some people—you may be one—may well disagree with some of the things said here. Maybe many things. Rest assured, there is some notable figure somewhere who could be found to take vocal and irritable exception to every single insight in this book. (emphasis mine)
So how does a writer determine what advice she should take or leave? I mean, here’s a journeyman writing teacher saying that even his insights can be questioned by “some notable figure somewhere.” Which leaves the rest of us peons scratching our head. How can we apply anything with confidence if everything can be debated? Or is the publishing biz really some giant roulette wheel… with us in the cylinder?
Here’s how it shakes out for me — and it has to do with middle ground. On the one hand are those who are too eager to accept ALL advice. On the other hand are those who are unwilling to receive ANY advice. And somewhere in the middle are those who go with their gut.
The downside of having so many writing resources is a near addiction to advice. Compound this with the fact that many aspiring authors seem to be looking for a secret formula, some technique or rule that will capture lightning. They fawn after celebrity agents, check off all the hoops as they jump them, read writing blogs, write writing blogs, and memorize the latest How-to book. Problem is, this approach acts as a buffer against autonomy and potentially squelches something intrinsic to being a writer: your unique voice. If we are too busy importing bit and pieces of advice from others we might lose sight of our own writing style.
But there’s an equal danger in not taking ANY writing advice. We snub our nose at “the rules,” kick against the goads of convention, curse the commercial sellouts and, damn the torpedoes, do our own thing. However, the point at which you DON’T take writing advice could define your writing, for better or worse. How many writing careers could have been salvaged or started if only one had sought and heeded good advice?
All that to say, most successful, tenured, writers seem to follow their own unique sort of system. They have found what works for them — word count, revision, writing environment, inspiration, critique, etc. Most of their individual style is the result of a compilation of things, some advice TAKEN, some advice LEFT. Sure, their style may be quirky or conventional. It may be formless or formulaic. Nevertheless, it is their own and it avoids both the above extremes of being too eager to accept all advice, and being resistant to any advice.
Because after you attend all the conferences, read all the writing blogs, and study all the craft books, you still have to… go with your gut.
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Question: How do you think a writer should determine what advice to TAKE and what advice to LEAVE?