Bad Advice

26 Sep

Well, incomplete advice, perhaps.

There is, after all, a modicum of truth in it.

A member of my writing group recently attended a weekend conference headlined by a bestselling author, and asked about this piece of advice she heard:

“You don’t write for yourself, you write to be published.”

“What does that mean?” she asked me at our most recent meeting, and I asked the context in which it was given. She couldn’t recall. We both puzzled over it.

True: There comes a point when you clean up the typos and the grammar errors and the incoherent sentences, and make the story readable to others. Is that what the speaker meant?

True: There comes a time when you revise the story, rein in the rambling, cut out the extraneous, and ramp up the action, tension, emotion, or suspense. Sometimes, a story must be revised to fit a venue (magazine, anthology, etc.). Is that what the speaker meant?

True: If one wishes to gain an audience, one must tell a story others want to read, with intriguing premise, skillful execution, interesting characters, cohesive plot. Is that what the speaker meant?

What about the author’s part in the process? Is he or she merely a drone to serve the audience? What kind of control does the author have?

All of it.

None of it.

It’s the author’s story — the author’s time, talent, energy, ideas — but once it leaves the author’s hands and goes out into the world, it becomes the readers’ story, and they each bring their own ideas, experiences, understanding, beliefs.

But back to that advice:

“You don’t write for yourself, you write to be published.”

False: The story is, first and foremost, the author’s. He must love it first, and more than anyone else does, because he must create it, mold it, wield the pencil-shaped scalpel that cuts away the unnecessary even if it’s what he loves best.

If the author doesn’t love the work, no one else will. His disdain or boredom will bleed through every page.

False: Even if an author writes to specific guidelines for a contest, an anthology, a periodical, etc., the end result is hers. It may not win, it may not be selected or published, but perhaps there’s another venue better suited to the material. If she wants the story published, she may have to endure several rejections before it finds a home. That’s why she must love what she writes.

False: Just because a publisher is looking for a particular kind of story, or because a particular kind of story is a hot seller at the moment, does not mean that’s what must be written. There are seasons in publishing, cycles of interest among readers, but there’s always a group of cutting-edge writers. They point the way to the next big thing, whatever it may be.

Why and how do they become the cutting edge? Some are drummed up by marketing and critics and industry insiders who “just know”, but most simply write stories that interest them. Stories that are honest. Stories that speak to the mythic or the curious or the heroic. Stories that are strong on their own, without regard to someone else’s agenda or rules. Stories that are intriguing without bowing to expectations, whether those expectations be “give us something new, and discard the genre tropes” or “give us the tropes exactly as we want them”; whether those expectations be for a safe story or for a real story, safety be damned.

(There are discussions elsewhere about “safe” stories. Click here for a list of related articles at Speculative Faith. Look especially for the articles by Rebecca Luella Miller.)

The thinking that we must write only to publish is akin to saying that art is useless for its own sake. There is much I’ve written that will never be published, nor do I intend it to be. There are paintings and drawings that will never be seen, because they’re for the artist, not the world. Sculptures have been molded or chiseled then given away or destroyed, because they were not for the world to see.

The advice in question — that we don’t write for ourselves, but to be published — smacks of prostitution. What amazing things could we be doing if we weren’t selling ourselves short out on the boulevard?

My advice, such as it is:

Examine all advice.

Turn it over, wool it around, look at its origins and intent, test its truth and efficacy, and determine for yourself its worth.

Sometimes, it’s wise and we should follow it. Sometimes, it sounds wise but stifles creativity, growth, and momentum. Sometimes, there’s wisdom in the advice of many counselors. Sometimes, we stand alone.

tree on a rocky promontory in eastern Oregon (c2013, KB)

tree on a rocky promontory in eastern Oregon (c2013, KB)


Posted by on September 26, 2014 in Books, Characters, Creativity, Editing, Journeys, Life, Stories, Writing


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 responses to “Bad Advice

  1. therealrene

    September 26, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Follow my Blog? I do reviews on Rock n Roll Autobiographies and True Crime Books

    • Keanan

      September 26, 2014 at 3:10 pm

      Follow mine, and then we’ll talk.

      Courtesy, folks. Courtesy.

      • therealrene

        September 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

        I thought i did

      • therealrene

        September 26, 2014 at 3:12 pm

        Actually i did, so you can take ur courtesy back, check before you speak

  2. Keanan

    September 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    Apologies, Irene. Your blog isn’t showing up in my “follow” stats. Feel free to un-follow.

    I am approached often to follow other folks’ blogs, so much so that your comment actually landed in my spam folder.

  3. Candia

    September 27, 2014 at 2:30 am

    Thank you for following my posts. I appreciate other writers giving time to my outpourings!

  4. Loriendil

    September 29, 2014 at 8:30 pm

    I had a flashback to something that perhaps has some analogy.
    I coach gymnastics, and once had a parent who flat out said he didn’t see a purpose in his daughter doing gymnastics if she wasn’t going to be on the competitive team and “go for the Gold.”
    This isn’t spot on the comment that was made, but runs along side it, I think.
    Do we have our kids learn gymnastics only if we know they will win medals, or get a scholarship, or “go for the Gold”? Do we write only for publication? Do we learn piano only if we will one day play at Carnegie Hall? Do we golf only if we can one day be the next Tiger Woods? Do we act in theatre only if we think it will get us on Broadway?
    I write for me. Stories that run through my brain and pump through my heart then out my fingers and onto the keyboard. Some I publish, some I don’t. Some I never will. I write for *me*. If it’s a story I want to share, then I’ll polish it and look for markets.
    I joke about writing to get Rich and Famous™ but it’s that’s not what it’s about.
    Now excuse me, but I have some characters to torture. 🙂


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