Time Out: Offering Advice and “Write A Book With Me”

I’ve noticed a problem with folks offering writing advice in the “Write A Book With Me” threads, and I figure I’d better point out the problem before it gets bigger.

There are some folks here besides me who do this professionally. There are some folks here who have written a lot but never sold anything (some, I suspect, because they haven’t yet tried)—and there are some folks here who have not yet written anything.

And I’ve noticed that the most aggressive “you should do this” advice is coming from that latter segment.

So here’s the deal on advice.

I CANNOT answer all the posts. I read every single one, I answer questions as I get to them, I cheer you on (whether I write a comment or not).

So I welcome you folks encouraging each other as a critical, wonderful part of this game we’re playing. And frankly, some of the folks here are as qualified to offer suggestions as I am.

BUT…

First, if you’ve never written a book, don’t tell other people how they should do it. This seems like an obvious thing to me, but apparently…not so much.

I’ve written more than 30 novels, a bunch of non-fiction, a bunch of short stories, and I STILL don’t tell people how they should do it.

I don’t know how you SHOULD write a book, and neither does anyone else.

I do know how I’ve written and sold a bunch of them, so when I offer advice, I offer what has worked for me, in the hope that it may also work for you.

If you’re offering advice, phrase it as: “I had a similar problem, I took the following steps to fix it, you might find this useful.”

I also ask questions, because in my experience, one good question is worth several pages of “here’s how you can fix that.” It allows the writer facing the problem to find his own ways to solutions. If something someone has written stirs up a huge question in your mind, ASK IT.

If someone asks you a story question here, you don’t have to answer it here. But do think about how that question relates to the story you’re writing. It’ll frequently point out a hole you need to address.

Finally, from this point forward, any post offering any sort of suggestions or advice that includes ANY sort of “I’m sure Holly would say…” phrase is going to be deleted. No questions, no apologies. I’ve let a couple of these slide, but the last batch were full of such atrocious advice that from this point forward, I don’t care if you’ve written the Golden Mean of Writing—if you stick my name on it, it’s gone. I’m the only one who gets to say “what Holly would say.”

You get to say what you would say—and that is a thing of beauty all on its own.

Finally, links to questions I’ve answered elsewhere.

These are just a few of the articles and workshops on the site. If you haven’t gone over the site, you may find the answer to something that’s been causing you problems already answered.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

28 comments… add one
  • Terri Rains Jul 20, 2009 @ 10:18

    I think there’s a time and place for telling people “you should do this”, but those cases are few and far between and usually relate to technical matters and other rule/convention-based activities. Otherwise, I’m with Holly and the rest of you… Don’t try to be everyone’s (or anyone’s) writing boss. It’s not good for them and it doesn’t do much for you, either!

  • Gerhi Janse van Vuuren Jul 14, 2009 @ 3:41

    I do not know enough about writing to feel I can tell anybody how they should do it. But I have taught art for many years and in every class or workshop you will come across students who have been taught by teachers who gave them shoulds and musts. It is also possible that some students are drawn to take general statements and turn them into laws. What basically happens is that the law is removed from context.

    In art a law would sound like this “I’ve been told you should not use black for shadows.” The real context is “IF you are painting in the style and manner of Impressionist artists and want to create paintings with the same look and color resonance it might be a good idea to do what they did and NOT use black for shadows but rather blue or other complimentary colors.” Those are two very different statements.

    Now let me say it in terms of writing. “You must write a 1000 words every day.” or “If you are the type of writer who works best by taking small (or large, we are all different) steps every day in order to complete a project it might be a good idea to develop the habit of writing a minimum of 1000 words every day because it seems to work for many writers but you may also be the kind of person that works for two weeks like a blubbering lunatic doing 20 000 words a day though there does not seem to be many people advocating that method.”

    In other words. What Holly said (and I quote πŸ˜‰ )

    If you’re offering advice, phrase it as: β€œI had a similar problem, I took the following steps to fix it, you might find this useful.”

  • laurel Jul 14, 2009 @ 2:33

    I’m starting tonight with a minimum of 500 words a day.

    I keep returning to reread the lessons and feel I need to start writing now. I posted my sentence in the writing discussion board and hope I find my way into what you are all doing.

    Thank you

  • Don Jul 13, 2009 @ 20:42

    Well, moving right along, went from 11,151 to 12,159. Things are progressing nicely, soon there will be bedlam on a global scale.

  • Brian Cansler Jul 13, 2009 @ 20:04

    Holly, I always enjoy it when you lay down the law and tell people how it is. Your ability to be authoritative while diplomatic and unoffensive is so useful.

    I’ll definitely keep this in mind if/while I give advice to others. I certainly wouldn’t try to say what you would say, but I want to be sure I don’t let “should” slip.

  • Debora Jul 13, 2009 @ 19:10

    Thanks, Holly. I am only participating in this thread because you are the one hosting it. That doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for all my fellow posters. Hey, if you’re writing, and it’s working for you, I’m all for it.

    The good news is that I got 858 words today! Yeah me! Some of it was lifted from earlier rambles, but hey again, it’s progress.

    Looking forward to tomorrow!

  • Red_dot Jul 13, 2009 @ 18:58

    Wrote 629 words today, I was interrupted and derailed. I’m a beginner here and use this site for a pace. After looking back at my story, I have almost quit twice. No matter how bad I suck, I will keep writing until the end as inspiration to my son who aspires to be a writer. After showing him that I have over 9,000 words he is again getting back his interest. Me I just came up with this crazy idea because I am brain numbingly bored at work. Can I call myself a professional writer since I’m paid to write…covertly?

  • tambo Jul 13, 2009 @ 18:49

    It is incredibly easy to screw up another writers brain by touting the ‘you should do this’ rules and regulations that may or may not apply to the writer in question. You’re ABSOLUTELY right, Holly. The only advice on technique should be X works for me, here is how I did it. If it helps, great, if not, no sweat.

    I have been so brain F*#!*$D by other writers (pretty much all un published) that it’s frightening. THANK YOU for stopping it. {{hugg}}

    • Holly Lisle Jul 13, 2009 @ 23:10

      Yeah. Had some of the same experiences myself. On occasion from folks who weren’t even writers. (I wonder if plumbers get the same amount of advice from the folks looking over their shoulders as writers do.)

      • Belle Jul 14, 2009 @ 10:16

        They probably do get unsolicited advice, just like parents get parenting advice from people with no children, and business owners get told how to run their business. … heavy sigh …

      • Cathy Jul 18, 2009 @ 15:12

        I think everyone wants to think that they know best on any subject. Hence all the one-up-manship on “Having Babies,” “Raising Teenagers,” “Managing Husbands,” etc. etc. etc. there is just no end to it. I haven’t published a darned thing and have no advice for anyone on that subject, however, when I was in labor with my second child……just kidding.

  • The Pencil Neck Jul 13, 2009 @ 16:43

    I ditto Nancy’s ditto of Julia’s comments.

    I think I’ve tried to be totally up front about my almost complete lack of experience (I’ve only finished a first draft of a novel) and I don’t think I’ve been very authoritative with my advice… but I’ve kinda been in that “authority” role in some other forums and I can slip into that pedantic sort of tone really easily.

  • Nancy Jul 13, 2009 @ 14:51

    Ditto Julia’s comments. I do tend to run on a bit and while I try to preface my comments with ‘this has worked for me’, I’ll be much more vigilant in the future. Mea culpa.

  • Julia GD Jul 13, 2009 @ 14:37

    I really hope I have not said anything inappropriate like that. However much I would love to help people who struggle through the same complications, I’m definitely not qualified to say things like “you should” or “you should not”. If I ever did so, I sincerely apologize.

  • The Pencil Neck Jul 13, 2009 @ 13:06

    Can I bring up something else here? Well… heck… I guess I will. πŸ™‚

    I’m concerned about the sharing of certain techniques. Specifically, those techniques that you (Holly) have put into your books and workshops. Since this is a mixture of people who have and have not been through your books and your workshops, it seems to me that there’s a pretty big danger of people (like me) inadvertantly giving away your tricks, techniques, and tools. We’ve already had discussions about the sentence, candy bar scenes, and things that have tiptoed along the edge of the precipice of going into tutorial mode. I’ve found myself specifically not responding to certain things because I wanted to see how you’d approach it and how free you were going to be with your knowledge.

    Now, when I studied guitar with Ron Eschete (studio and jazz guitar god), he always said that he didn’t care if his students shared his techniques with other guitarists because anything that improved the level of guitar playing in general was a good thing AND none of us were really a threat to take work away from him anyway. But. I think this is a bit of a different thing. Because… you should get paid for some of this stuff.

    • Sarah Collins Jul 13, 2009 @ 13:39

      I’m going to give an outsider’s POV here. I’ve not taken the courses but with the chatter I’m seeing I just might sign up! I don’t feel like there’s enough of the cat out of the bag for me to neuter it, but I’m definitely interested in getting my eyes on the goods. The “leaks” are pretty good advertisement, in my opinion!

      For perspective, I do make my living as a writer of nonfiction (mostly web content with some copywriting thrown in). I chose to tackle fiction because I feared it. I chose to “write along” with Holly because sometimes the paying jobs, my hubby and our five kids, homeschooling, baking and decorating cakes, and household chores kept me from working on my novel. (Excuses, excuses!) But when I can tackle the courses, I probably will, and that’s thanks in part to the tidbits and teasers here. =c)

      • The Pencil Neck Jul 13, 2009 @ 14:53

        Ah, the old shareware “give them a taste to lure them in” model.

        I see now that it’s all part of Holly’s evil plan.

        Muahahahahahahahahahaahahahahaha.

        • Holly Lisle Jul 13, 2009 @ 23:07

          I’m totally into the whole ‘Evil Plan’ thing. πŸ˜€

          Seriously, though, the Think Sideways course is, not including the BIG handouts, something like … 200,000 words in length? I don’t know. I know I filled up three 4″ binders and a fourth 3″ binder printing out all the normal-length stuff. I didn’t print any of the big handouts.

          The e-books on Plot and Character and so on are not nearly as long. But they’re fluff-free. So while I’m not going to do tutorials on the things I’ve already taught in Think Sideways or the Clinics, I’m happy to offer info that will get folks headed in the right direction. The stuff I’ve put into the courses is too big for me to cover thoroughly in such a small space as this.

      • Ieva Jul 13, 2009 @ 17:57

        “I don’t feel like there’s enough of the cat out of the bag for me to neuter it”

        Now where’s “The Quote Of The Week” post? πŸ™‚ (I’m totally in love with this phrase)

        • Sarah Collins Jul 13, 2009 @ 19:39

          Aww, shucks, you just made my day! My WIP – a romance – is riddled with such statements. I have a lot of fun with my characters when they say such things!

      • Sari Jul 14, 2009 @ 3:04

        I have to agree with Sarah here.

        HtTS is something I would love to do, and eventually will (when I have recovered from the financial cripling of vet bills, root canal, insurance, getting the car fixed and other expenditures, not of which were anything good like a new pair of shoes :(…). In the meantime the small titbits of advice that are offered by Holly are getting me by until I can invest in her immense wealth of knowledge :).

        Thanks again Holly

  • Sarah Collins Jul 13, 2009 @ 12:54

    Great links! You rock, and your delivery is LOL funny. You’re after my heart (so who the heck am I, but seriously, the style speaks to me!)

  • Anambika Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:54

    Yes ma’am, And I am sorry ma’am, Point taken, I have read the rules, and will fully abide by them.

  • DasteRoad Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:25

    I really appreciate this post, Holly. I’ve been writing from more than 15 years and never published anything, so I know that any sort of advice I can give to anyone may *only* be along the lines of “this is what worked for me, see if it helps you too”, but I may have been careless in the past. I cannot remember right now given that I’m a relatively recent visitor in your blog, but I’ll check the phrasing of my previous comments and I’ll be sure to keep this post in mind for the future πŸ™‚

    • Holly Lisle Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:45

      Dude, the only sort of writing advice I can give is “This is what worked for me; see if it helps you, too.”

      NOTHING works for everyone. Nothing works for ANYONE all the time. I have to constantly push myself to find new ways into the writing process, because techniques that worked for me before won’t work on one specific story, or issue, or topic.

      My approach is, “There is always a way, if you want to do this. So find it.” And then I try new things and variations on old things until something works.

      Brains are bizarre, complex, quirky things, and when you’re writing, you’re pulling from both sides of something you are only aware of some of the time, and for which you only have about half the keys most of the time.

      You’re fine.

  • Cessena Jul 13, 2009 @ 11:07

    Thanks for the links, I am totally stuck today. I can’t just let my character make her way to her new job totally unmolested when she just escaped a miserable situation and foiled a man totally obsessed with her, can I? See, just writing this. IDEAS. Thanks!

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