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Friday, July 6, 2012

Seven Signs That "Good" Advice Actually Sucks

Trust me sonny, make it about fighting the commies
and it'll be a best seller!
Writers get a lot of advice.

In fact, there are only a few ways to get more advice than by being a writer.  1) Mention on Facebook that you think you're getting a cold. 2) Tell people on any social media ever that you are trying to lose weight. 3) Ask a room full of Jewish mothers what a good career choice might be.  4) Mention casually to someone with a Ron Paul sign in their yard that you don't vote because you aren't sure what it all means.  5) Ask a "nice guy" who's in love with you or your partner what you should do after a potentially relationship-ending fight.  6) Be out of work for more than seven minutes.  7) Tell anyone, ever, at any time, anywhere, even if you are at a black tie formal dinner for the women's auxiliary at the local church, that you feel a little irregular.

But other than these few situations, there is no way to get more advice than by being a writer.  People are constantly--and I do mean constantly--telling me...

What I should write.  ("You need to try a supernatural BDSM thriller set in a wizardry college.  Call it 50 Shades of Hogwarts.")
When I should write. ("You know what you should do?  You should wake up at four-thirty in the morning and give yourself an espresso colonic irrigation.  That's when Thoreau said he wrote.")
Who I should write about. ("People love those cat pix, unicorns, dry humor and wizards.  You should write about a wizard lolcat who rides a cynical unicorn everywhere!")
Where I should write. ("You should start writing at Starbucks...even though you have A.D.D. and don't drink coffee.  All the creative people totally hang out there.")
What style I should write. ("You should combine postmodern, chick lit, science-fiction comedy, high fantasy, and linguistic minimalism with a hybrid of gothic and Victorian romance, but with the whole thing in iambic pentameter.")
How I should write. ("You should outline your plot.  That way your characters can be railroaded even when they want to do something else.")
How to succeed. ("You know what you should do?  You should make one of those viral youtube videos where you have your belly button singing the name of your book!")
What to do next. ("You should get a PhD in literature and teach college.  Teachers have lots of discretionary time.  They just sit around all day.")
What the publishing industry "really" wants. ("I bet if you printed your cover letter in Comic Sans on a singing card, that would really get their attention.")
How to fix your writing. ("You know what you should do?  You should change the point of view. That can fix anything.  OH!  And even though it's important to the story that it's an old man looking decades back at his childhood, you should put it in present tense like The Hunger Games! ")
What your story "totally" needs. ("You should add a sidekick who only talks in cliches.  Also, the museum conversation would be better if a car suddenly drove through the wall with the minimalism paintings on it.  Isn't that meta?")
What to read (which is code for what to write like). ("Oh you should read those "Girl with the Dragon..." books. I bet if you wrote like that, you'd make a fortune.")
How long it should take you to be published. (If you were really interested in writing, you'd be published by now.  You should take the fact that you're not published as a sign that this is not your true calling, and stop wasting your time.")
Other careers. ("You know what job you'd get to write in a lot?  Lawyer.  You'd make a great lawyer!")

In fact, writers get so much bad advice, sometimes it's tough to tell what's actually good.  There's a tendency to assume that anything that doesn't involve serializing a series of novels about Nyan Cat might contain a nugget of wisdom and so writers collect advice like great smelting machines, forever trying to separate the dross.  If there's nothing in the advice about writing a clone of whatever the latest run-away bestseller is, it can be hard for us to not automatically assume it must be good.

Here are some ways to tell when you are dealing with "good advice" that actually sucks:


1- The advice is way too general to really apply to you.  
You are a creative person.  You are an artist.  You are a writer.  And you are probably some specific kind of writer like a poet or a fiction writer.  A lot of advice is great for people...who are not you.  Keep that in mind.  Great advice for someone else might suck if you implement it.

Example: People are constantly telling artists to get less sleep because that's what productive people do.  "I made a million dollars by learning to sleep four hours a week and turning my psychotic breaks into popular anti-psychotropic-drug public service announcements!" Artists know better than to listen to this kind of crap--they will work better with sleep.  They'll remember more dreams, have more neurotransmitters, be more creative and whimsical, have greater concentration to chase inspiration, and be in "survival mode" less than if they try to slowly adjust themselves to 4 hours a night or some crap like that.  Artists who DO sleep less, usually just do.  They didn't employ any form of gradual deprivation.  They just happen to be people who are able to be high functioning on less sleep.

Here's another: I always hear fiction writers being told to diligently outline their writing before they put pen to paper.  You know who doesn't suggest this?  Fiction writers.  They know that railroading plot leads to characters being forced into situations and ham-handed characterization.  They suggest a conceptual idea, a few "plot grenades," and maybe a very general thought about direction, but then letting the characters drive the story. In most expository writing, however, it is very useful to outline, and a writer who just gets going without at least a mental map is actually somewhat foolish.  So this is great advice for most writers, but for a fiction writer, it can do more harm than good.

So make sure the advice you're getting is really advice for you.


2- The source is really giving advice to themselves.
We've all seen this kind of thing happen in sitcoms.  A person starts giving advice.  Within seconds, you realize they're not really talking to the one they're giving advice to.  Because it's a sitcom it has to start with a kid asking what kind of ice cream confection he should get and end up being subtext about the advisor being more receptive to anal sex or strangely specific advice like: "before you know it you'll end up selling shoes and dreaming of your days as a high school football star," or something.  Because that's what sitcoms do.

But this actually does happen all the time.

People can't experience anything but their own lives, and so their interpretation of the world around them is like a huge Rorschach inkblot test.  Everyone looks at you, your life, your circumstances, and your situation through the filter of them.  Some people are just worse about adjusting for that filter than others.  So you get people just out of break ups telling you to "get over your pain and get back out there" or people who can't find a job telling you "to just don't give up, no matter how many times they say no."  The advice might be applicable, but these people are really talking to themselves.

Keep that in mind.


3- The source is really giving advice to someone else
If ever advice begins with some varient of: "This is like I told my daughter...." it's probably not actually advice to you.  It's advice to that person's daughter (or son, or mother, or partner, or whatever...).   As humans one of our double edged swords of higher cognitive thought is filling in the blanks when we have part of a story.  On the plus side this lets us do things like track and hunt and guess the ending of Monk episodes.  Unfortunately it also leads to stereotypes, racism, and shitty advice.

There are people out there who are burning up with the flame of their really awesome advice, and it they can't give it to the person they want to, they'll give it to someone else.  If your situation starts to resemble some other situation, a lot of people will fill in the gaps with the situation they know about.  If your situation reminds them of their daughter's, suddenly you are taking the place of their daughter in their mind.  They fill in the blanks they don't know with the situation they DO know, and before you know it, these two situations are almost identical in their head (even though they aren't really).  And so of COURSE this absolute fucking platinum encrusted emerald of advice that they want to give their daughter would be applicable to you!

I say: "I enjoy the job I'm at because it's part time enough that I get to focus on writing.  I just wish I could make a little more money per hour."  The response is: "You and my husband are a lot alike.  He can't find work either.  I just keep telling him he needs to take some of those computer classes because it's all about computers now.  You should take some of those.  It'll make your resume shine.  Couldn't hurt right?  Here are the forms!  I'm bringing them to my husband, but I have extra."


The thing to consider about 1-3 is that good advice--really good advice--will be directed at YOU.  It will take you into account.  Even the Armani suit of advice won't be that good if it doesn't fit, and even the Armani-suit-in-your-size of advice won't be THAT good if it hasn't been tailored specifically to you.


4- The advice isn't flexible
Strangely inflexible advice is usually bad advice.  Humans are a species with large genetic diversity and huge cultural diversity.  There really is no version of a one-size-fits-all advice once you get past things like "Drink enough water," "Avoid standing in fire," or "Don't text in the theater."

Not only that, but strangely inflexible advice is usually a sort of social projection.  Someone assumes because something worked for them, everyone ever should be able to get the same results.  It's why you constantly see white, heterosexual, able bodied males talking about how "anything is possible" on their motivational tapes, and a strangely conspicuous absence of paraplegic lesbians of color who say anything even remotely similar.

We're glad you overcame your A.D.D. by looking at Rothko prints.  It doesn't mean it will work for everyone.  We're glad you lost fifty pounds on Atkins, but people who use a lot of brain power need carbs in their diet.  We're glad you made a bazillion dollars selling BDSM porn disguised as barely altered Twilight fanfic to bored housewives, but it doesn't mean retooling Babe in the same way is an equally good idea.  We're glad you found a good time to write by taking a nap from noon to four everyday, going to bed at eleven and writing from three AM to seven AM, but some of us have families or day jobs that make that a little rough. (Stephen King--and I love the guy; I do--is guilty of this.  He advises writers to work for six or more hours a day if they are "serious," despite the hundreds of authors who have been fabulously successful writing in far more constrained time frames.)  We're glad it works for you, but your advice to 7 BILLION other people shouldn't be "You will have the exact same results as I did."

Good advice accounts for our diversity.  Bad advice dressed up as good advice does not.  So while you might get very good advice about how writing every day can overcome the mercurial nature of writer's block and "waiting for inspiration" that advice does not demand you write only in the morning or at night.    Or you might be told to write upon first waking, but you also get the explanation that this is a "tabula rasa time" for your voice in terms of linguistic engagement, so you can adjust the advice to fit you by writing after a long afternoon nap or just making sure you don't really talk to anyone or read anything while you have the shower and coffee you need to be able to function.


5- The advice is outdated
Publishing is an industry that is changing monthly.  Amazon or iTunes are constantly altering the game with their quests to be a bigger asshole, hog greater market share, and lock in everyone ever into a distopian nightmare of book smuggling.  Some fossil that is still thinking the Kindles won't catch on because of the "smell of books" is not going to give a new writer advice they should listen to.  If the advice seems to fit the last generation of the writing business, it's about a hundred and fifty developments behind the curve of being useful.

Seriously, these people might as well be Bible-copying monks claiming that this "newfangled Gutenberg Press isn't going to change anything."

We've watched a lot of book stores go out of business in the last couple of decades, but there are a lot left too--even little local ones.  The ones that changed with the industry are still doing fine.  Big chain stores put out their own e-readers and turned a whole wall into "The Moleskin Journal Wall."  The ones that stood in the face of the Tsunami and said "the smell of books will save us" actually only managed to get out "The smell of b--" before they were filing bankruptcy.  Little mom and pop bookstores make sure they have next day delivery for special orders, they host readings and community events, and get people into the shops in inventive ways.  They're still kicking.  It's those shops that never believed Amazon's speedy delivery, and then later e-readers, could hurt them that are dropping like flies.

Some advice is timeless.  Advice about creativity and inspiration never go out of style.  Some of the earliest artistic advice we have from the Greeks is as useful today as it ever was.  But anything about the publishing industry, monitizing writing, or market trends should be considered carefully through the lens of current relevance.


6- The source isn't reliable
When I was young, and dinosaurs ruled the Earth, GETTING information was the trick.  There were these things called encyclopedias, and not everyone had them, and if you wanted to know about something, you had to go to the library and look that bad boy up in a giant wall of filed index cards.  Don't even get me started on the process to look up a magazine article, and that weird lady with the fine moustache hair that somehow manned the periodicals room at every single library.  However, it is no wonder that a modern college education focuses heavily on how to evaluate the SOURCES of information, and how to pick reliable ones.

We can all tell that we probably shouldn't listen to advice if it begins with "I saw this thing last week on History Channel about aliens..." or "I was reading this blog a couple of years ago by a psychic healing guru about how particle physics and chaos theory explains human parthenogenesis..." but sometimes it takes a more critical eye to determine if the source of advice is reliable.  Some of the sweetest, most well intentioned advice, that comes from a genuine place of wanting to help, actually sucks because of the source.

They just don't know what they're talking about.

Who is the person you're getting this advice from?  What do they know about creativity? What do they know about art?  What do they know about writing?  What do they know about fiction?  All advice sources are not created equal.  A successful science fiction novelist probably has better advice for a sci-fi writer than the CEO of Burger King who worked his way up from the Lot and Lobby shift at the Spokane store thirty years ago and is doing a seminar to promote his new set of CD's.  Your fellow student in a writing program can probably give you better advice than Les Brown, no matter how awesome the latter makes his sound.


7- The source isn't impartial
If someone's lips are moving, they are probably not actually working against their own self interest--at least not unless they are in a romantic sub-plot of a situational comedy.  I'm not saying everything everyone ever says is only selfish, but not a lot of people will give you advice that might turn around and hurt them.

Sometimes your source isn't uninformed.  Sometimes your source is just biased.  Maybe they have a particular outcome that would really hurt them to see (like your success) or maybe they have a particular outcome they really want to see (like your failure or their success at your expense).  It's not a nice thing to think about, but it's a very naive thing to forget when you're considering where advice is coming from.

A non-impartial source isn't always malevolent. A white, upper-middle-class trust fund baby who doesn't really "need" to work and won't really "need" to either make some money writing or get a real job. and who loves literary fiction, might give the advice that an MFA program is the best move you could possibly make.  They're not trying to trick you.  It really is the best move....from their perspective.  They're just a little biased towards their own situation and maybe a little clueless about how yours is different.  Just like a single parent struggling to raise two kids under a mountain of debt might give you advice that you really should be in freelance writing or get a solid career going for a day job before you think about fiction.  This is kind of like #2 up above, but is less about them giving advice to themselves as just not realizing their situation has biased them against giving advice to others.

But there's a darker side to biased advice, and you can't afford to forget about it.  You can't EVER afford to forget about it.  Some people don't want you to succeed.  And some people very much want you not to.   They're out there.  They exist.  It sucks, but they do.  They flat out want you to fail. They may not be as obvious as advising you to do something epically stupid, but they might have an awful lot to say about how difficult your journey will be if you do suchandsuch.

Their motivation may be something as broad and nebulous as them not wanting you to succeed in chasing your dream--because they gave up on theirs.  Or it may be as specific as the fact that you will both be competing for the same fellowship next year.  Usually it's somewhere in the middle--just someone who wanted to be a writer themselves trying to convince you the path is too hard (when what they're really doing is trying to assuage themselves that it wasn't their fault that they didn't make it).  I would love to tell you that you live in a magical sugarcane world with melted chocolate rivers and gumdrop mountains and that no one ever intentionally gave someone shitty advice to sabotage them, but that's not the world we live in.  And writing is not an endeavor exempt from petty jealousy and envy and a lot of people who will sharpen their knives against you if they see you starting to make headway that maybe they didn't work hard enough to achieve.  Be careful when you consider advice from someone who might have a reason to see you fail--either an immediate and definite reason or a deep psychological itch.


If your advice passes muster in these categories and you're still reluctant to pay attention, you might be ignoring good advice. I've seen a lot of people blow off some of the best writing advice out there because they are are rationalizing their excuses or looking for justification to do whatever they wanted to in the first place.  (For example, I regularly encounter writers who don't particularly feel the need to write every single day because "then it becomes a "like a job," who then turn right around and wonder why they aren't able to make a career out of their writing.)  If your advice comes from a knowledgeable, unbiased source, it is tailored to you (or flexible enough that it could be) and isn't outdated, you should probably pay attention.  It might be the rare nugget of good advice we writers actually get.

6 comments:

  1. Damn, this describes like 99% of the advice I get.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "You should write about a wizard lolcat who rides a cynical unicorn everywhere!"

    I so what to write this now. BTW, Wordpress and Livejournal are being dumb so I have to post this as non--Nyx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Want" not "what" Wizard needs coffee, badly!

      Delete
  3. Oh, the Wizard Lolcat! Whoever thought that up should write it! The cynical unicorn would be so funny! That's my tip about the " you should write this..." advice. Nope. That's your idea, so that is YOUR book. You write it!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Advice? I've had a few...

    ReplyDelete