Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Free Advice

by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

I'm going to veer from the current monthly topic of Process here at GBC to talk about something else that's been on my mind tonight.

On a writing forum I participate in, a relatively new member posted today about some of the writing/publishing advice she'd been receiving from nonwriting friends. The writer was upset because she felt the advice was misinformed and misguided. "Why don't you just self-publish your manuscript as an ebook?" people kept telling her. "That's where all the money is these days!" I'm not going to weigh in on that, on the self-published ebook v traditional publishing debate - at least not in this post! - but I will weigh in about the advisability of getting upset about stuff like this.

Cliff Notes version of my advice? Don't do it!

Longer version: There are so many things a writer can and sometimes should get upset about, it's wise to eliminate as many as possible and this is one of them. Having people in your life who are interested enough in what you do to offer advice - even if that advice is misguided! - is a grace. So many writers, over the years, have told me that their significant others, children or friends are dismissive of what they do. For some reason, I've never had that problem. From the beginning, even total strangers grew interested once they found out that I'm a writer. One time, I was on the table having a procedure to determine if I had breast cancer when the doctor, having been told what I do for a living by the nurse, began pumping me for information. I was sorely tempted to say, "Thank you for your interest, but can we wait to have this conversation until after you've removed that hollow tube thingy from the side of my breast???" For the record, I didn't have cancer.

And back to my topic.

For most things in life, there's more than one right answer. But when anyone offers you writing advice, the only right response is gratitude. It's not rage. It's not the stance of being offended. It's not hurt. It's not defensiveness. It is gratitude. Even if you think what you're being told is the most riduculous thing you've ever heard, even if the person offering the advice is the biggest asshat you've ever met, the only thing you need to say is, "Thank you. You've given me something to think about."

For those of you reading this who are in earlier stages of your writing life than my GBC sisters, internalizing this now will serve you well when you later are a published author and you receive a revision letter from your editor.

Believe me, when I first started writing seriously 17 years ago, I wanted what all writers want in the beginning: I wanted people to love my writing unreservedly. But over time, I learned that my best readers are not those who feel that way; my best readers are those who can say, "I love what you're doing here but this is what I think you can do to make it even better." Those kinds of readers are, again, a grace. And you don't get those kinds of readers if you're constantly being defensive and arguing with people who try to help you. I'm not saying you should heed every bit of advice you ever receive - far from it! You need to learn how to turn on your own inner editor so you can filter the useful advice from its opposite. But I am saying that writers need to learn how to take advice so that people will keep offering it. The truth is, if someone asks me for advice and then they make the whole experience unpleasant, I soon learn to stop helping. The thing is, the person can think all they want to that I'm all wet, but what they should be saying is, "Thank you."

One last thing to think about: The person whose advice you spurn today could turn out to be the person who could help you tomorrow...if only you hadn't turned them off.

Thank you for listening. I hope I've given you something to think about because you give me something to think about every day.


  1. Yay! Great advice! You go, girl. :-)

  2. Since I'm one of those newbie writers, I am going to incorporate this in my subconscious. Thanks for the great advice, Lauren!!

  3. Great advice as always, Lauren. I think it just takes time getting used to the folks who usually mean well -- but have no idea what they're talking about. ;-)

  4. Lauren, you're right on the money. The key point to focus on is not the accuracy or relevance of the advice, but the fact that they cared enough about you to offer any advice.

    You nailed it when you said "the only right response is gratitude."

  5. Great advice, Lauren! (Ha!) I love this attitude and way of thinking.

    But I'm impressed that when you tell people you're a writer, you get advice. When I tell people I'm a writer, they tell me that they have a great idea, and that I should ghostwrite their book-- for free, of course, since it will undoubtedly make gobs and gobs of money. When I explain that I usually get offered quite a lot of money to ghostwrite, they get really angry at me and then again articulate how amazing their idea is.

    Has that ever happened to you?!

  6. Wendy, thank you!

    Jill, you appear to have mastered the art of the enthusiastic exclamation point so...I'd say you're on your way!

    Amy, you're absolutely right about it taking time - everything to do with the writing life is definitely a learning curve.

    Keith, thanks. I know you've always been very generous in terms of helping others with query letters etc and I'm sure you're much more likely to offer a second round of help if the person asking doesn't react in an unpleasant way to the first round.

    Brenda, I've had it all! Pumping for info, being offered advice, you name it. One of the most surprising, for sheer length, was when I was flying out to L.A. in 2003 for my first BEA. On the Chicago-to-L.A. leg of the flight, soon-to-be-bestselling-novelist Carolyn Parkhurst was two seats away from me. Between us was an elderly gentleman on the way to visit his grandchildren who was thrilled to be seated between two "lady novelists." For the entire flight he regaled us with the plotline of the novel he thought one of us should write because he'd never write it. Well, he had an enjoyable flight anyway. As revenge, I wrote that anecdote into the novel How Nancy Drew Saved My Life.

  7. Great post, Lauren. I'm one of those people who is always guilty of jumping in with advice. Must be the teacher in me.Many times though people ask for advice when what they really want you to do is validate what they already believe to be true.

  8. Thanks for the comments. :) It is frustrating to hear some advice, and you do smile and nod and be polite and say, "Thanks for sharing!" I think on a writing forum, like the work water cooler, it's just easy to vent when you hear too many people not in the business giving strange tips (or asking you to write about them, or sharing their ideas with you on a book you should be writing).

    I'm not so sure I love every bit of advice, but being polite is great. I grew up in the south, so being kind and generous is just ingrained by now. Venting is reserved only for folks that understand and know not to take it seriously.

    I really think hearing the advice just comes with the job. ;)

  9. Lauren, oh, gosh, so true! Everyone has something to say, and no one seems afraid to hold back. Like you, I've heard some true pearls of wisdom; the rest went in one ear and out the other. You just have to learn how to weed out the good. Also--and I can't resist-your mention of the doctor who asked you questions during a biopsy reminded me of a radiologist who *always* used to want to come talk to me about writing when I had my mammogram or ultrasound post-lumpectomy. And it would freak me out, because it's a scary 10-15 minutes when the tech says, "Wait here while I show the radiologist your pictures." If the doctor came back with her, I'd figure something was bad. But in this case, no, the doc just wanted to ask about my books and tell me about the manuscript he wrote in med school. He did that for the few first years of my follow-ups until he went somewhere else. People are funny. :-)

  10. Great post, Lauren, and so very true!! I too have had the ghostwriting offer. When I sold my book, a business aquaintance gushed on for a solid half hour--all about the book I was now qualified to ghostwrite for her! She still sends me emails wondering when we can get started!