Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writer's Wednesday: Not hearing the advice

Inspired by Jack Bickham's 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Michelle Styles discusses a common mistake made by aspiring series writers.

First of all I want to thank Trish Wylie and her blogs during the RWA Nationals for inspiring me to read 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes. It is a thought provoking little book and made me examine why I do certain things.

One of the common mistakes an aspiring author can make is Not Hearing the Advice from the Right Professional.

The unpublished author can read all the craft books she wants. She can attend numerous classes. She can have manuscripts critiqued by professionals in that genre. She can even have editors give her feedback but sometimes if she just does not listen to the advice, or indeed understand what they are saying and apply it to her writing, she will keep making the same error over and over again. And sometimes it is a Fatal Flaw. It keeps the story from being strong enough to be published.

There are several reasons for this problem including:

The unpublished author's ego might have gotten in the way of making sure that the story is the best it can be. She is far too in love with how things currently are to see how much better they could be, so she resist shearing the advice. In part this is caused by some people's words hardening to concrete on they are down on the computer screen, rather than being fluid.
Some of this may be fear. She worries that somehow she will lose the essence.
No one was born published and every author does have to learn how to control her talent. Thus it is important to love your story, but to love it enough to give it the best chance.

Or her knowledge of craft is not enough and so she does not really understand what they are saying or indeed why they are saying it. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt. A knowledge of craft does not limit one's creativity but expands the possibilities and allows the writer to work with her talent.

For example, I used to be very frustrated with the advice that the hero and heroine should meet as soon as possible in a category romance. It took me a long time and several rejected manuscripts to begin to understand the reasoning. Put simply the spine of the story is the growing relationship and thus the inciting incident (or start of the spine) needs to be as soon as possible. Series books do not tend to have a great deal of external conflict or bridging conflict. (An exception might be an Intrigue or SRS) and therefore the story needs to begin as soon as possible. Otherwise it is a bit like showing up early to a party and waiting for the band to start. Series books are face paced, page turning reads and the pace quickens once the story starts. But until I figured it out, the advice seemed well meaning but arbitrary.
In order to apply the advice, I needed to know the reason. Once I understood the solid reason behind the advice, I could see why it was important and more importantly why and when to apply it. You should have seen the light bulbs flash in my brain when the reasoning behind the advice dawned!

Or sometimes, she is listening to the wrong professional advice for the genre that she is writing in.

The other side to this mistake is that the aspiring author does need to make sure that the advice is up to date and from a source she can trust, a source who knows about the specific market she is targeting. So she needs to investigate the genre. Books like Kate Walker's 12 Point Guide to Writing Romance (just published in the US) are focused primarily on series writing and address its unique problems. Books like Donald Maass's Fire Into Fiction or Robert MacKee's Story are more generic, so some of the advice may not apply. By understanding the demands of the genre, the aspiring author can better hear the advice and apply it to her writing.
Going back to bridging conflict, it is a mistake to use a great of setting up and external conflict in series romance. It is not necessarily a mistake to do this in women's fiction, Guys With Gear Who Go novels or other genres. Know thy genre.
Also sometimes, you can hear and understand the advice better from one person than another. For example Vanessa Grant's book on romance left me confused. I read Kate Walker and began to understand. I then had cause to reread Vanessa Grant and realised that actually it was all there but not in a form I could use. Some authors will speak to an aspiring author more than another.

It is all about hearing the advice, understanding and exploring the why behind it and then applying it. Sometimes, the advice may not be the answer, but it could point the way to the solution.

Hopefully this helps someone.

Michelle Styles loves and adore books on writing. It is part of the tantalizing mystery of the medium. She is currently working on her 14th book for Harlequin Mills & Boon Historical. Her 11th book --The Viking's Captive Princess will be published in North America in December 09.


  1. LOL on the hero and heroine getting together right away, and how long it took to click. Sometimes you can hear something from several people and not get it. And then one person puts it in a certain way and your mind just clicks and you understand.

    The not getting it part can be REALLY frustrating though.

  2. Michelle,
    I couldn't agree more with your comment about knowing the genre you're aiming to be published in. One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me was to READ, READ, and READ SOME MORE. And it is so true.
    Stella MacLean

  3. Yes, it is the not getting it that can be so frustrating. And then when you do get it, you think - oh.

    Stella -- it is amazing how many people do not hear that advice to read, read and read some more. They listen very politely but do not understand why.

  4. Hi Michelle. Great blog. As an unpub. I recently got my critique back from the UK's New Writers' Scheme run by the Romantic Novelists' Association. The reader gave me some excellent advice and some major plot changes resulted from this I can tell you! I (hope) I would never let my ego get in the way of the readers' (obvious) expertise on this subject and hence ignore their valuable advice! Ego won't be an issue for me I promise. Well only when I'm as famous as Nora Roberts then maybe. ( I wish - lol.) Take care. Caroline x

  5. Great post, Michelle. It's true that sometimes you just don't hear the advice you're given. I think in some ways, you have to learn some things before you understand others. Hope that makes sense!

  6. I am pleased both you Caroline and you Jackie found it of interest.

    As someone once said about egos and writings -- sometimes you have to kill your darlings. It is possible to be too in love with your prose.

    And Jackie -- it makes perfect sense.

  7. I meant to comment on this earlier in the week. I loved your post, Michelle, and thought it was such great advice. Madeline Hunter gave similar advice in a talk a few years ago. I have to say that hearing it, and learning to check my stubborness at the door, was possibly the best thing I ever did for my publishing career. Who knows, if I had listened sooner, I might have sold sooner.

    Great advice, and a great post.