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Navigating Your Way Through Conflicting Writing Advice, by Lia Weston

When I got a dog, one of the worst decisions I ever made was to go online and read everything I could about canine training. ‘Positive reinforcement is the only way to get a dog that behaves,’ said several sites. ‘Positive reinforcement will only result in a disobedient dog,’ said several more. ‘Do X, Y or Z and you will scar your dog for life,’ said others, with every tip contradicting another one. By the end of the day, I had a minor nervous breakdown and was convinced that my pet ownership was doomed before it had even begun.

It can be the same way with writing. When one decides to embark upon an ambitious project, such as a novel, it’s tempting to start binge reading. There are thousands and thousands of blogs, courses, Twitter feeds, and (of course) books that will claim to teach you how to write. In addition, there are agent blogs, publisher blogs, reviewer blogs, reader blogs and more. (I’m also aware of the irony of writing this on a ‘How To Write’ website, but there’s a point coming, trust me.)

Although having this mass of information at your fingertips is a boon, it’s not always advantageous. The problem is two-fold. Firstly, it’s incredibly common to discover – as I did with the whole dog thing – that everything you’re reading is contradicting everything else you’re reading. These are a few recent examples I’ve come across:

  • Always use an outline.
  • Outlines are death to the creative process.
  • Stop writing mid-flow so you’ll have a point to come back to.
  • If you stop mid-flow, you may not be able to regain momentum.
  • Write every single day – no excuses.
  • Writing every single day will make it feel like drudgery; it’s OK to sometimes take a day off.
  • Write what you know.
  • Only idiots write what they know.

See what I mean?

Some articles are also excellent at putting the fear of God – otherwise known as ‘the fear of never getting published’ – into people. You will recognise these because they use phrases such as, “If you use a serif font in your cover letter, the agent will promptly SET FIRE to your letter without reading it. They will also not return the ashes, even if you enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.” Take these notes with a grain of salt, always. (Unless the tip is: “Read the submissions guidelines.” ALWAYS read the submissions guidelines.)

Secondly, the plain fact of the matter is that the more time you’re spending sifting through notes, exercises and posts, the less time you’re spending actually writing. I understand the fear, though, that you need to learn how to do everything perfectly before you even begin typing because, if you don’t, well, what happens if you’re doing it all wrong? (Quick quiz: How many writers who procrastinate are actually just terrified of producing something less than perfect? Many of us, I suspect.)

So what’s a writer to do? The answer is surprisingly simple: Be selective.

Be selective in the books that you take on. Look for recommendations from authors you admire. Work out what area you’re least confident in (e.g. structure, grammar, dialogue) and search for well-respected books that deal in these areas in depth. Seek to master your weak points.

Be selective in the blogs you read and the emails you subscribe to. Nothing says, “let’s procrastinate!” like an Inbox full of ’10 Tips To Ensure A Best-Seller’ or ‘How To Take The Perfect Author Photo’. Keep these to a minimum. Do you really need to know about trends in the YA scene if you don’t write YA? Doesn’t that link always lead to advice you think you’ve read before? Unsubscribe all but the most essential and useful ones. Even then, try to check them only once a day, and shut down your email while you write. Guess who doesn’t need a ‘Hot New Releases!’ pop-up? You.

Finally, be selective with your time. One of the best things you can do for your progress and sanity is work out a weekly split schedule. Look at your calendar. Block out the times that you are irreversibly committed (e.g. work, sleep, friends, taekwondo) and see what’s left. Let’s say you find a spare five hours in your week. Dedicate one of those hours to learning, and the other four to the actual practice of writing. This will a) keep you learning, which is an important and on-going part of being a writer, and b) keep you producing work, which is the actual point of being a writer.

Overall, the best way to learn how to write well is to just write. Churning out words, discovering your voice, working out how you operate best, and then refining your techniques will speed up your progress faster than slogging through any How-To book. There is always room for learning more about writing – and don’t ever believe that you can’t discover new and helpful information – but make sure not to do it at the expense of what you actually need to be doing: writing.

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Lia Weston’s author website: www.liaweston.com

Lia Weston’s bio page

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The Fortunes of Ruby WhiteThe Fortunes of Ruby White     Burning LiesThe Indigo SkyThe Fragment of DreamsSavage Tide

Writing Novels in Australia
www.writingnovelsinaustralia.com

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Good post, Lia. You have to be selective these days about everything as there is so much ‘thing’ out there.

    I have a couple of books I bought when I started out and I still go back and re-read chapters when I’m stuck, and occasionally I’ll go to a blog or website that I’ve found to be consistently useful with tips and strategies. Every new manuscript presents new challenges, new hurdles and learning curves.

    You never stop learning, as you say, and I agree that the best thing to do is to actually write, because then you have text in front of you where you can actually identify all the mistakes and problems you’re reading about. Otherwise it’s just so much babble

    October 17, 2013
    • Thanks so much, Phillipa. (Your comments are always so interesting, by the way – I’m very grateful for them!) You’re absolutely right, too, in that each new project brings its own challenges.

      October 22, 2013
  2. An excellent post, Lia. I’ve been devouring information about writing craft ever since I started writing seriously more than four decades ago. However, there is so much more information now than there was in my early days as a writer and it’s so easy to access. It’s a major distraction and takes up valuable writing time. We do need to be selective. And you made the most important point…the best way to learn to write well is to write. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experience.

    October 17, 2013
    • Thank you! It’s incredibly easy to be sucked into the rabbit hole of How To Be A Writer information. I think we need t-shirts or a support group. Resist the rabbit hole!

      October 22, 2013
  3. Ian Summerfield #

    Cool article. Thank you. There are so many writing advice websites etc nowadays it seems an industry in itself – like the whole “Cult of the Query Letter” nightmare where one writes a whole novel but then has to spend seemingly more time and effort on a one-page query letter which is the make-or-break thing above the novel – like one needs to not only be a competent writer but a better salesperson in terms of trying to get attention from Lit Agents and publishers.
    So my concern and question is about this end phase of writing a novel in that Does a wannabe novelist who is a “nobody” in that they are not part of or known within the professional writing industry in Australia just rely on his/her quality of writing alone to get published or do they need to be already employed in the industry and/or known to those who are or associated with it or even within a personal relationship (friends, boyfriends, girlfriend)s etc with a Lit Agent, an editor or someone working at a publishers? I ask this because I am often dismayed by newly published writers often turning out to be of the above mention categories in that their already personally known insiders favoured by industry professionals. — So how does an unknown writer overcome these issues? It is a matter that worries and depresses me. – Ian.
    PS. Is age a factror in getting genuine Lit Agent and publisher attention to one’s manuscript submissions? Also, is gender an issue too? – I have been adviced by an industry professional to use a female nom-de-plume nowadays as it will increase my chances because the industry’s gatekeepers are increasingly female in majority.

    October 17, 2013
    • Hi Ian,

      Ultimately, agents and publishers are people. So any advice about how to get the attention of major agents and publishers, in a general sense rather than talking about a specific agent or publisher, will be a simplification.

      Agents and publishers will tend to factor in considerations like:
      – their confidence that the book will sell as well as or better than other options available to them
      – whether the book fits in with their larger business (for example, if a publisher has built up their business around family-friendly books, with an emphasis on schools and family-friendly retailers, a novel about a foul-mouthed homicide detective is not going to interest them, regardless of how well it is written)
      – whether the book appeals to them personally and/or they are convinced that the book will be important to readers more generally (agents and publishers generally want to be working on and promoting books that excite them and which they are happy to personally recommend to others)

      An important consideration here is that books don’t just sell themselves. Agents and publishers will typically tend to choose books that they are confident they can promote successfully through their distribution channels, their professional networks, and the marketing and publicity capacity of stakeholders in a particular project (author, publisher (both the person responsible for the book at a publishing company and the publishing company itself), editor, agent, etc). People connected into existing networks tend to be an easier option for agents and publishers, which in turn tends to reinforce the ‘industry insider’ effect and the selection of books which fit within an agent or publisher’s existing networks.

      In Australia, in my experience and as you allude to, a vast majority of the people in major agent and publisher positions in relation to fiction books are female (and this does not mean that their decisions are going to female-oriented decisions). However, there are also a range of ‘female only’ writer and publishing industry organisations, things like challenges to read only books by female writers for a year (and people have expressed their concerns to me that this has a similar effect to challenging people to boycott books by men for a year), and whole sections of the publishing industry built around genres specifically for women. These are supplemented further by women’s magazines, ‘mummy blogs’, feminist groups, women’s studies subjects and majors at universities, women’s TV shows (and, internationally, women’s TV networks), ‘female only’ book prizes, etc. When it comes to talking at libraries, schools, universities, literary festivals and writers’ centres, these also have more women than men in the key roles relevant to speaking engagements for novelists.

      All indications I have seen also suggest that the vast majority of adult readers of Australian novels (or at least the novels of living Australian authors) are women. In my experience, most Australian men seem much more likely to read novels by overseas authors (perhaps due to a largely female-oriented local industry for novels).

      In recent years, I have come across numerous cases in Australia and internationally where men have published under a female pseudonym. However, it would be more difficult to do book store events, library visits, conferences, literary festivals, media appearances, face-to-face meetings of professional networks and industry organisations, etc. as a man in the guise of a woman. When it becomes public that a man has used a female pseudonym, they also tend to be the subject of criticism that they have committed an affront to women.

      This all adds up to make it difficult for Australian male novelists. Australian male novelists (and female novelists, but more so for males) tend to struggle in Australia unless they also get published in other countries. Australian male novelists who write for adult readers tend to primarily be channelled toward the few spots scheduled for release before Father’s Day each year (think genres such as action-adventure, military thriller, crime/detective) – and many of the slots for Father’s Day titles go to tried-and-tested novels from other countries).

      The age of an author can be a significant factor. Agents and publishers will consider how long and how actively an author will be an effective publicity asset for their books. A novelists who is likely to continue actively generating book sales and building their profile as an author for the next 30 or 50 years, will tend to be more attractive to agents and publishers than taking on a new 70 or 80 year old author. However, if agents and publishers think a book will sell as well as or better than other available options, age does not have to be a significant factor.

      With all that said, we are now at a point where it is easier than at any other point in the history of humanity for new publishers to set up on a tiny budget and have access to mass distribution and sales outlets through which they can reach many millions of potential purchasers. If agents and publishers do not provide what particular authors and readers want, the door is open for people to publish their own work, and for people to set up new publishing companies then seek out authors/agents to find manuscripts which fit with that publisher.

      October 17, 2013
  4. Publishing (and writing) is not a high paying profession, unless you are at the top like a CEO or MD or head of finance or the like. And these positions at the top are usually filled by men. It’s the ranks below the highest paid that are filled by women. Armies of casual or contract editors and illustrators, authors and publishing staff. It’s no wonder Australian publishing is dominated by women as it is not a highly paid area. Men, on the whole, are more likely to go to better paid professions.

    In my experience women’s fiction is, within the publishing/writing industry, a low status area simply because it IS associated with women. It’s the teaching/nursing/caring effect. Literary fiction, on the other hand, could be said to be healthily represented by male writers and certainly taken more seriously, despite similar skill sets, by all reviewing forums.

    I don’t want to get into an argument about this but I’d say that the overriding feature of a successful novel is a good story, told well, no matter who or what you are. I know many, many, many male writers, through online writing meeting places as well as through networks here, and I’ve never heard any of them say they felt discriminated against except by editors who wanted boy wizards/dragons/zombies or whatever. I’ve heard them have a good laugh at the expense of ‘chick lit’ and so on but never heard them express fear at the competition.

    I don’t read books by women because they are by women. I read because the book interests or intrigues me. And I don’t know any woman who confines her reading to women only penned books. So Ian, welcome to the writing world, and you are welcome, believe me. It doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman or a zombie, 105 or 15, because we all love the same thing – good stories and good writing.

    October 18, 2013
    • You’ve taken the words out of my brain and put them beautifully on the page (screen?) — thank you! 🙂

      October 21, 2013

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