Crime author Steven Cooper on Advice for Writers: where to go (and not to go).
The Non-Advice Column
Advice and expertise are two different things. It will be easier on all of us if we just accept that. Anyone can give you advice. Ask your mother. Or your Aunt Betty. Or Cha-Cha Marie, your chihuahua. I’m guessing your chihuahua is not an expert on writing fiction, and I’m not all that sure about your mother or her sister, Betty. They’re lovely people, of course, but when you ask them to give you feedback on your manuscript, remember that unless your mom is Anne Lamott you’ll likely get a lot of opinion and not a lot of expertise.
Everyone has an opinion, and opinion often comes out in the form of friendly advice. Writers don’t have a lot of friends, so forget friendly advice. Especially from your “friends” on social media. This is where so many new writers turn for help. Every day I find all kinds of writing advice on Facebook and Twitter. The twitterati is practically gushing with all the Dos and Don’ts of writing fiction. Write what you know! Do sex scenes! Don’t do sex scenes! Adverbs are evil! Dead body on the first page! No dead body on the first page! First person! Third person! Never write in present tense! Limit yourself to 2 POV only! No, 3! No, 4! Write as many POVs as you want! Your editor won’t care.
Your editor will care. Your editor will care very much if your writing is completely informed by what you learn from entirely unvetted sources on social media. Social media can be a swirling pit of bad advice. Avoid it. That’s my non-advice advice.
My other non-advice advice is to find someone who is further along in the publication process who you feel might have some bona fide expertise to offer. This might sound like a daunting proposition, but this is where you must get off your butt and network. This is when you go to writer’s conferences and workshops and build relationships with people (real people, not twitter or FB handles). This is how it works. You listen to people on panels. You go talk to those people. You exchange business cards. Now you’re in business. You’re building a network of people whom you might be able to trust with your writing questions. Some will prove to be worthy, others not. But you don’t need an entire glossary of experts to guide you.
I know that writer’s conferences and workshops can be expensive. Do you know what aren’t? Books. You’ll find some of the best expertise on writing in books about writing. There are heaps of them. Some great, some not so great. I can’t possibly publish a list here of all the greats, but I’ll suggest a good batch to start with:
Stephen King, On Writing
Anne Lamott, bird by bird
Ursula K Le Guin, Steering the Craft
Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel
Colum McCann, Letters to a Young Writer
Strunk & White, Elements of Style*
William Zinsser, On Writing Well
*this is your Bible, treat it as such. You will need to refer back to it often. What do you mean you don’t have it?
So, now that you’re done reading the batch above, I have another suggestion: read, read, and read some more. Find a book by your favorite writer. Read it three times. That’s as good, maybe as effective, as meeting your favorite writer and asking for advice. The proof is on the paper. You want to know how it’s done? Observe how it’s done. Over and over. The more you read, the more will resonate. Every book is like a lecture on writing. Even the bad ones. The bad ones tell you what not to do. Don’t read too many bad ones, though. They will make you angry that bad books get published.
Here’s my final piece of non-advice advice: Maybe this isn’t the time for you to worry about expertise. Maybe you need some more time to improvise. Who am I to crush your spontaneity? I am nobody. Go wild. Take an adventure. Get that stuff out of your brain and onto the paper. Put your dead body on the third page and your sex scene on the first. Sprinkle adverbs liberally (Stephen King will vomit because he famously hates adverbs) then kill them just as liberally. Write in first-person present tense, or past tense, or future tense. Who the f-ck cares? The point is: just write. Worry about seeking expertise when you’re done with the first draft. Seriously. Just write that shit down. Asking for expertise or, God forbid, advice before you’ve written a first draft is just procrastination by any other name. If you’re just looking to procrastinate, go have lunch with your mother. Or take Cha-Cha Marie for a walk. Give my love to Aunt Betty.
Steven Cooper's Valley of shadows was published in 2019