Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Advice Is NOT Universal...

Bad Advice – Not everything works for everybody. Give us some examples of writing advice, given to you in good faith, which just didn’t work for you. Tell us why you think it didn’t work.

From Frank

Look, I'm all for writing advice. It's how we get better - listening and learning from our peers (and especially our betters). And the basic tenets of good writing are what they are.


Like the headline says, advice is not universal. Nothing applies to everyone, all the time. And feedback is just someone's opinion, something that should be weighed as to the source and the context and its application to YOU.

I'm certain my peers this week will hit on plenty of bad advice they've received, and I don't want to be the Tuesday-I'm-hogging-all-the-good-low-hanging-fruit guy. So here are just a few pieces of advice that are often given as absolutes that I think are not absolute.

Never use adverbs. Go to hell, he said dismissively. Adverbs are an effective part of speech. They serve more than one purpose. They describe. They can break up the rhythm of the writing. They are worthwhile.

I think this piece of advice came into being because newer writers overused adverbs, cluttering the narrative with them. And I will absolutely agree that a strong verb is superior to an adverb eight times out of ten. Maybe nine (he mused thoughtfully). But trying to excise every single adverb from your writing is foolish. He said confidently.

Never use passive voice. See above, although I'd change eight of ten to nine (okay, maybe even 9.5), but it's the same point. If your writing is littered with passive voice, it will be weak. But the occasional use of passive voice, especially if the style of the book or story is less formal, isn't going to cause the manuscript to burst into heretical flames. There are even a few times when forcing active voice becomes an awkward construct, although this is usually when the narrative is mirroring common speech patterns as opposed to formal writing.

Point is, should you strive for active voice? Of course. Is it almost always superior? Pretty much. But let's not get out the pitchforks when the exception comes along. I mean, I had one editorial bit of advice early in my career to eliminate passive voice in my novel. Good advice, so I went through the manuscript with a vengeance. But then the editor came back with the directive to esentially remove every 'was' from the book.

Uhh.... There was no way I was going to do that. So we parted ways.

See what I'm getting at? Good bit of advice turned extreme becomes bad advice.

You have to write to market. Oh, just shut up.

Write what you love, what you find interesting. Write it well. It will find a market.

You need an agent/traditional publisher. No, you don't. Or maybe you do. See, this one is completely up to you. What's your journey? What's your path?

That's for you to decide. Maybe an agent is best for you. Maybe a big traditional publisher is, too. Or a smaller, still traditional publisher is a better fit. Maybe the better fit is neither one but indie publishing. Who am I to tell you what is best for you?

Sure, I can point out the objective pros/cons of each path. The differences that factually exist. Pitfalls to be aware of. These kinds of things are really the best sort of advice because it isn't telling you what your decision should be but sharing some hopefully accurate data for you to consider.

So, to sum up, my advice would be: strong verbs are better than adverbs most of the time, and active voice is usually better than passive. Write what you are passionate about. Choose the writing journey that best fits you, your goals, and your needs.

Final thought. I'm not a venerable, wise coot just yet but once you hit the half-century mark, you tend to have learned a few things about human nature. Having been both a cop and a writer, I think I've paid attention a little more than the average person, too. And it seems to me that, for some reason, people who give advice are often strangely invested in you following that advice. It's as if your adherence provides some kind of validation for the decisions they themselves have made. Anyway, it's something to be wary of, because if it's the case, it means the advice isn't really being offered for your own best interests but to buttress their own ego.

Contrast that with advice Jim Ziskin gave me and a friend once at LCC Vancouver about how he does research for his historical novels. He simply shared his own experiences and let us sift through the kinds of things that might work for us. It was a generous gift of his time followed by well-wishes on the project (which will get underway in 2022) but with no ego attached to whether we ultimately followed even one whit of the advice. 

Okay, enough rambling, I suppose. I think my overall point is that advice is well worth listening to but do so critically and remain your own person. As I'm sure you'll read all this week, blindly following advice, no matter who gives it, can lead to unhappy places.


Now here's some advice you can't go wrong following: grab my Ania series while it's on special (through Thursday of this week). The prequel, Harbinger, is FREE. The rest of the series titles are 99 cents each.

Yeah, three bucks for four books. Call me bonkers but that's the deal. I want folks to read these books (and hey, review 'em when you're done, even just a one liner -- thanks!)

I wrote these hardboiled books with Jim Wilsky. All of them are told in a dual first person narrative with alternating chapters. If that makes sense to you, cool. If it doesn't, check out the books and it'll be clear... along with a lot of tension, brawls, chases, twists and turns, and a femme fatale.

The first two books are also available in audio, sil vous prefere. (Did I get that right, Susan? I didn't cheat with Google translate, so it's probably wrong).


Terry said...

Someone once told me to listen to advice, and then sleep on it for a while, and then only use the part that worked for me. It was good advice!

Susan C Shea said...

Frank, great post. It's like a good conversation at the Bouchercon bar! Which we will have. (OMG - a sentence frag!)

badge # 979 said...

Yeah, I tend to move to the next seat away from the person who is telling me what I must do and how their way to publication is the best way. Also, I understand if you know somebody who knows somebody any professional ladder is easier to climb. Loners can be excellent writers but not usually social animals. I used an adverb. Sue me.-Lynn

Brenda Chapman said...

Good post, Frank! Your advice to follow your own path is good advice :-)

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, all!

Josh Stallings said...

I make it point to not read the other writers until my piece is done, this makes me late to the party. And I love this piece of yours. “ Good bit of advice turned extreme becomes bad advice.” and to listen critically to advise are really key to learning from others in a way that won’t damage your own voice. Thanks!