Friday, 15 August 2014

Writer's A to Z: A is for Advice

For the next 26 weeks I plan on putting up one post a week, focusing on one letter of the alphabet and how, in my mind, it links to part of the writer’s world. I share some ideas, some thoughts and maybe some knowledge (although given it’s me talking that’s a bit questionable).

You can find the link to the full index on the task bar at the top of the blog and easily navigate between whichever letter you want. You can also hope back and forth between the letters with the links at the bottom of the posts. Now, without further ado, let’s begin with…

I read a lot of writing advice books on a variety of subjects; how to write a better story, how to edit, how to self-publish, how to improve the rate of writing, how to improve the quality of writing, how to find an agent, how to build an online platform. You name a writing related topic and I’ve probably read something about it. This isn’t restricted to just books though; I eat up online articles and magazine articles, squirrel away podcasts on my iPod and subscribe to dozens of different email newletters all about writing (incidentally I also save them in their own little individual folders on my account). If there is something to read about writing or self publishing I will read it. Usually I’ll save it but very rarely I’ll throw it away or un-bookmark it. I’ve begun to realise that storing all of this up though leaves me with some very interesting and important questions;

1) When does it go from reading to learn to reading to procrastinate?

2) How do I know the advice is any good?

3) What do I do with this advice?

And now, after a lot of thinking, I have some answers.

1) Learning Vs Procrastination

If I’m spending more time reading advice than actually using what I read, then I’m procrastinating. If I’m spending more time making notes than I am spending actually doing the exercises then I’m procrastinating. If I’m making notes on what I’m reading and then put what I’ve figured out into practice, I’m learning. If I write a blog post on some advice I’ve read as a way for me to understand it better then I’m learning.
It’s tricky finding that balance though. Sometimes I can get so caught up in learning the advice, making notes and trying to put it all into my head that I forget why I started looking for it in the first place. And sometimes I just want to squirrel this advice away, collecting it for the sake of collecting it or because having all of this information makes me feel as though I’m a ‘proper’ writer.

It’s a crutch really. I have the advice there and I can use it but I shouldn’t use gathering the advice as an excuse not to write. I shouldn’t turn around and say ‘well I need to read so-and-so’s book first and then I can finally start that seven book epic about a dog that goes to the moon’. That’s not how it works. The advice is there to help me when I get stuck, not to stop me getting started. So I’ve started doing something new. I’ll read some advice, some bit of information about writing or marketing. If it strikes a chord in me I’ll put it to one side, if I’m violently opposed to it I’ll put it to another side but if I feel nothing, if it doesn’t get me thinking and I struggled to even get to the end then I’ll toss it away.

2) Is It Any Good? : Checking the Source

It can be hard to know whether or not the advice that you’re getting is actually any good. So many people try to make quick money by copy and pasting a bunch of information they found elsewhere and claiming it as their own. Sometimes they don’t even read through what they’ve got. Advice all comes back to the source, the person who you have gotten this advice from. And there are a surprising number of quick steps that I take sometimes to check whether or not the advice I’m getting is actually worth the money I’ve spent to get it or the time I’ve spent reading it. Sometimes, if I’m in two minds about whether or not to actually look more closely at the advice I’ll use them too.

Firstly you need to figure out if the author actually knows what they’re talking about. This one is easy, you just have to do your research. If there’s even the tiniest bit of doubt about whether or not the author knows what they’re talking about then it’s time to get stuck in. Dig around the internet and check out the number of books that they have out besides the one that you have. Read the reviews of these books; see what others have to say and whether they found it useful or not. Even a simple Google search of their names will throw up all kinds of information that will shine some light on whether or not they are reliable and credible.

Secondly check to see if they practice what they preach, whether the advice that they give you is something that they do themselves. For writing guides it might be harder to see but then again writing advice is anything but one size fits all and how a person writes can often change from book to book. If it’s marketing advice dig around and check whether the author has any of the things that they encourage you to put in place, such as a Twitter, a blog and a Facebook page. Also make sure to check how recently they were updated. If it doesn’t seem like they do then step back because the red flags are flying and the alarm bells are ringing.

Mostly though, when it comes to accepting advice from new sources, it’s all about what your gut says. It’s fairly easy to separate the books by those who care about helping people from those books written for the sake of making money. Your instincts, the same instincts that drive you to write or read or knit or do any of those hobbies that you love and make important life choices, will steer you in the right direction. All you have to do is listen to them.

3) Putting Advice Into Practice

There are a lot of different ways for a writer to put the advice that they read into practice. The best way though is to simply do it. If you read something, a technique that another author uses and it interests you then just try it. You have nothing to lose. If it doesn’t work for you then it doesn’t work for you, just put it aside and move on. Remember writing processes and techniques are not one size fits all but you never know what will work for you until you try it. There is nothing wrong with trying and failing. Thomas Edison after all said “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Trying is learning and learning takes time. It’s as simple as that. The only way to actually fail at using advice that you read is to not use it at all. Advice is there to be used, it wants to be used. So use it.

Another thing to remember (and this is something that I occasionally forget) is that you don’t have to stick to advice like glue. And this applies to all advice. The clue is in the name, it’s ADVICE, not actual rules. In the (badly quoted) words of Captain Barbosa, ‘they’re more like guidelines than actual rules’. There is not some form of writing police that will appear and take away your pen and paper if you don’t follow the advice you’ve been given to the letter. No one is looking over your shoulder, judging you for how you use the advice. That’s all behind the scenes and no one really pays too much attention to what goes on behind the scenes. If you use a piece of advice and tweak it, no one is going to judge you. Writing advice is not set in stone and one book won’t work for everyone. The best books on writing advice are those that express this and remind you again and again.

A Few Things To Remember

Advice, of any kind, is there to give you somewhere to work from. You can adapt it, alter it, change it to fit you. Sometimes advice will be something that you may never have thought of for yourself but that actually works really really well. I’ve discovered this so many times that I’ve lost count. I’ve also learnt that how I use the advice can change and develop over time. Sometimes I’ve used a method for quite a long time and then suddenly it doesn’t work for me anymore. And that’s the thing to remember. Writing advice is about learning, finding possibly new ways to hone your skills and improve your writing. And as we learn we develop and change. Who we were when we read one piece of advice is not always going to be the same person when we read the same piece of advice a few months or years later. Advice leads to learning and learning leads to growth. It’s as simple as that.

So What’s My Advice?

The most important piece of advice I can give you about advice is; “Don’t be afraid of reading writing advice but remember to use what you’ve learned” and “Just Write”.

You always need to remember that these books exist to help you but more often than not their primary objective is to make the author money. Please don’t be put off by this and refuse to read any more advice but please remember it when deciding which books to buy. Some people out there really do want to help writers develop and you can usually tell this by their writing style or whatever else they have (such as a podcast or a blog). Sometimes I get my books from blogs that I read; the author creates compilations of their posts and extends them a bit more to create whole books about writing (such as Chuck Wendig or David Gaughran). Some books I’ve gotten from writers who do podcasts on the subject and I know practice what they preach and have the number of books published to prove it (for example Johnny B Truant and Sean Platt of the Self Publishing Podcast fame).

Others you can tell aren’t in it for the money but because they love writing (I’m talking of course about Stephen King. After all, let’s face it, he’s got so many books in so many different media that he doesn’t really NEED more money.). These people have written these advice books because they want to help writers, they want to make the craft that they are a part of greater and more welcoming for everyone and they want to bring the magic back into story telling. Or they just want to help people avoid the horrible cock ups that they might have made as they were starting out.

But just in case you’re wondering about what books I would suggest, those I know are written with the intention of helping writers rather than making money (although it is a handy little bonus) here they are;

These are all the ones that I’ve read. I know that many writers have other books, full of writing and publishing advice out there, but I’m only recommending books that I have actually read. There are a lot of books out there full of writing advice and my best suggestion is to look for yourself.

Incidentally I’m also planning a series, reviewing books on writing (expected at a later date) but more on that some other time. For now I hope that you’ve enjoyed this, the first post of my Writer’s A to Z and keep an eye out for B next week.

But what about you? Do you have any advice about… advice? What’s some of the best writing advice that you’ve ever had? What has stuck with you and what has just seemed wrong? Let me know down in the comments and who knows, it might spark off another post one day.

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