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When to Ignore Writing Advice

business woman with palm upI was recently asked by another writer friend what advice I’d give to new, aspiring authors.  There’s lot of cliched advice one could give. Not that it’s irrelevant or untrue, it’s just the kind of advice you’d expect — take time to learn the craft, study the market, hang around established authors, yada, yada.

One bit of writerly advice that isn’t mentioned nearly as often is this:

Learn what writing advice to ignore.

No. This isn’t necessarily good advice for a new author. Someone just learning the craft and becoming familiar with the trade should posture themselves to soak up as much advice as possible. Thing is, the longer you’re in this business, the more you should grow confident in your voice, your temperament, your idiosyncrasies, and your approach. Which will necessitate ignoring some advice. Of course, when ignoring advice you should remain gracious. Also, ignoring advice is not a license for being stubborn and close-minded. I mean, lots of us are or have probably rejected advice that could be beneficial. Nevertheless, there’s still a point at which moving forward in your career sometimes means ignoring people, advice or criticism.

I was reminded of this from a sports video that was making the rounds yesterday. It involved an exchange between two of the best players in the NBA. Steph Curry had just been announced as the MVP of the league when runner-up and former MVP LeBron James issued a slight dig. Curry’s response was short and to the point.

For the record, I am fascinated by how professionals navigate criticism and negative opinions. In fact, I believe us up-and-comers can learn lots by watching how professional folks deal with experienced, qualified critique from peers. In this case, LeBron needs no vetting. Any basketball player anywhere does well to shut up and listen when LeBron speaks. In this case, however, the now-reigning league MVP counters — “I’ve gotten really good at ignoring people.”

Writer friends, this is often great advice to follow.

Shortly before I published The Ghost Box, my first urban fantasy novel and first foray into the general market, I was seeking beta readers and received a request from a writer friend on Facebook. They just wanted the first 50 pages, which I obliged. What I wasn’t ready for was the flamethrower that would be their “advice.” Listen, I can handle sharp critique and even solicit it. Sure, I might not agree with someone’s honest opinion, but that doesn’t make it any less honest and worth considering. I may reject writing advice on the grounds that it doesn’t suit my temperament or approach. Or maybe I simply believe that particular advice doesn’t fit the story or the direction I wish to take it. Fine. However, the advice I received from this beta reader was personal. It was straight-forward and sharp, which I have no problem with. But it also bled negativity and antagonism. Not only did this critiquer call me out for possible racism and sexism, the author flatly said that I didn’t appear to understand the Urban Fantasy genre, should shelve “The Ghost Box” as a learning experience, and try another genre. It left me temporarily gutted. It seemed so off base, so antithetical to all the other advice I was getting from betas. For the life of me, this “advice” felt more like a missile aimed at my heart and intended to leave an emotional crater. This person was not objective, they had an agenda.

I was numb for a spell. And then I did what every good “professional” should do — I ignored it.

About a year later, Publishers Weekly selected The Ghost Box as one of the best indie novels of 2015.

Perhaps it was immature on my part, but I quickly remembered that critic’s advice, that I didn’t understand the genre and should give up on the novel. I didn’t feel smugly justified as much as it confirmed what I already knew — The best writing advice is to sometimes ignore writing advice.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Kerry Nietz May 14, 2016, 10:52 AM

    Yep. Some of the best advice I’ve gotten regarding reader criticism is to only listen if they all seem to agree. But outliers like the one you mention–ignore. (Having read the book, I don’t know where that came from. Fun and well-wrought.

    • Mike Duran May 15, 2016, 6:56 AM

      That’s actually a good piece of advice, Kerry, “to only listen if all [the critics] seem to agree.”

  • Johne Cook May 14, 2016, 10:58 AM

    I remember that episode, and shudder. It’s a fine line – sometimes we are better off hearing really bad feedback in order to get better. This wasn’t that.

    I don’t understand ‘negativity and antagonism’ in any scenario – it’s not only not necessary, it’s antithetical to the kinship we have as authors and Christians. This was a case where knowing your genre and trusting your instincts (as well as the feedback from other Beta readers who also know or can appreciate your general genre) served you well.

  • Kat Heckenbach May 14, 2016, 11:24 AM

    I have a friend who critiqued my first novel, and with her comments came this statement:

    “Keep the fish, and throw out the bones.”

    I think it is imperative that writers learn how to differentiate between good and bad writing advice. One thing I’ve seen far too often are writers who try to take every piece of advice they hear, try to implement every change suggested to them, take every statement made by writing advice books, blogs, whatever, as through it’s law. They forget that advice-givers are people, too, with personal preferences and opinions, even the professionals.

    So, I’ve adopted the same policy as my friend, and I always tell those I critique to take my advice with discernment, to follow what seems right to them, to ignore what they consider incorrect on my part, and I promise no hard feelings. I also carefully choose those from whom I want opinions, picking critique partners who are honest, who get my writing style, and who can deal with me ignoring them from time to time :).

    • Mike Duran May 15, 2016, 7:04 AM

      Kat, I think some of that comes from growing more confident as a writer. You know, the less secure you are about your abilities, the more prone you will be to listen to everyone. But once you develop your own voice and style, and get some published work under your belt, the more easily you can dismiss some advice without fear.

  • Travis Perry May 14, 2016, 12:07 PM

    I especially get concerned for new writers who hire editors they don’t know. Some editors will rip up perfectly good stories for trivial reasons and a new author just doesn’t know how to respond to it.

    So sage advice, Mike.

  • Lyn May 14, 2016, 3:26 PM

    Yep, good call. What often works (in the long term) is something that pushes the edges of a genre or has a unique voice or take on the tried and true. Ghost Box does this. For someone to say ‘you don’t know the genre’ reveals to me their preference for a certain generic formula which you successfully ignored. Now to ignore those online ratings and reviews!

  • JB May 14, 2016, 5:04 PM

    “Advice” should especially be ignored coming from someone who might be jealous – i.e. the sports example above and your own example. I find it strange that someone would say that “The Ghost Box” is not urban fantasy, when that is clearly what it most strongly is. (Maybe it was because they confused urban fantasy with paranormal romance?) Anyway, they obviously had an agenda.

    Even well-meaning advice can be wrong.

    The reality is that in the traditional book publishing business the deck is stacked against you. The ratio of agents seeking books to writers seeking agents is insanely unbalanced. One of the most sought-after agents got over 29,000 queries in 2015, requested only 87 fulls, and signed just 3 new clients. Others are more accepting, and I think the correct ratio is you have a 1 in a hundred chance – at best – or 1 in a thousand chance – at worst – of being chosen simply because there are so many other writers just as good as you are out there. I have just begun submitting my own story to agents and I know the chances are against me, even if I do all the right things like following the submission guidelines and making sure to spell the agent’s name correctly each time and sending them something they have specifically requested. (I have had five rejections so far, I think, plus one request for a full, probably because it was something they had specifically requested.) I think, at best, I stand a 1 percent chance of being traditionally published simply because the deck is stacked against new writers. It is just a fact.

    Luckily, today’s writers do have more opportunity, with POD and Kindle and Amazon. With some professional-looking cover art and a well-written story you have a chance to compete with the Big Five, online at least. (I’ve bought a number of books myself either on Kindle or from CreateSpace – I do prefer dead tree books – that are self-published and I like them just as much as – sometimes even more than – anything from the Big Five.)

    You should never be insecure about your writing, Mike. The Publisher’s Weekly mention was awesome! (Did sales go up after that?) I’m rooting for you (and plan to buy more of your books.)

  • Jill May 15, 2016, 11:22 PM

    You found a great voice in Reagan Moon–so glad you didn’t listen to the advice.

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