Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Bad Writer's Advice On Writer's Advice

So you want to be a writer. That's great! Here, take this advice. No, not that advice. THIS advice. Do what we tell you and become the next superstar! We have the ear of the publishing industry, so how could we put you wrong?

Advice for writers. There's a lot of it out there. From the humble article (written for x cents per word) written by someone who has Made It (and whose experience may bear absolutely no relevance to another individuals needs), to entire blogs, books and careers dedicated to fitting budding wordsmiths into saleable moulds, there is a veritable torrent of advice.

One can barely move on the internet without being inundated with offers of 'advice' and services. You blog about writing, you'll get spam in your in box or comments. You Twitter about writing, your numbers will suddenly jump with innocuous seeming Followers, but a quick check of their tweets or websites show up something they have to sell you (Hi to all of you whom I have Blocked! *wave*). Your Facebook, favourite websites and blogs can creep with adverts and 'advice' for self publishing, books and workshops. Thank goodness for SFWA's Writer Alert!

Scams aside, there's a lot of advice out there available for free. A lot of publishers, agents and writers blog, and often they will answer questions about Making It. Some of these blogs are even dedicated full time to advice for potential and/or mid-range authors. Most of the time what they have to say can be helpful: the nuts and bolts of putting together a manuscript, querying publishers and agents, or submitting; industry trends and changes; market watches (like Ralan's and Duotrope, the two I use); grammatical advice; How To write outside your comfort zone (getting to know the Other); How To negotiate with agents and publishers, and your legal rights; and advice on the best conventions and workshops relevant to your style.

Then we start getting into murkier territory: inspirational pushes (which, as I've said in the past, don't always have relevance to an individuals needs or experiences); How To Market Yourself ie: how to 'behave' on your social media and in public at industry events; How To Write What The Industry Wants (and remove any contentious differences that might not make you so marketable, like, say, gay characters). Basically, remove all the interesting bits of your life and work in an effort to normalize into the mainstream, to make those elusive big bucks.

I have discovered that part of becoming a writer is deciding what kind of writer you want to be. If you want to make the big money off easy reading summer pulp, go hard out, become the next Dan Brown or Nora Roberts. Hooray for money!

I have decided on a different path, probably something more difficult and less financially rewarding, but I know I will be able to sleep at night. It's obvious by now I write about social justice issues and strong female characters feature predominantly. I am not timid on my opinions.

This doesn't always mean I'm strong or sure of what I'm doing. There are some advice articles I read that make me pause and realize I'm doing things the hard way, that I may run up against brick walls along the way. Recently I read an article from an agent (no names, I'm not like that) that advised against everything that I do in my social blogging and media - don't have a contentious opinion, don't get into political bun fights on twitter, write and blog about 'safe' subjects, be 'nice'.

I was stunned for a moment, thinking 'I'm screwed', and then a moment later it set my teeth on edge. The exhortation to 'be nice' is highly gendered advice. Women are socialized to be nice, not rock the boat, sit quietly, your opinion is only important if called upon (and even then...). While the article did not specifically point out gender, I can imagine that as more and more women find their feet in publishing and they are seen as an ever expanding market to be tapped, old socialized prejudices come in to play. Want to be seen as an approachable female writer? Play nice.

Screw it. Joanna Russ didn't play nice, and she's one of my heroes. It's really a no win situation - you can be Joanne Rowling with amazing contributions back to literature and philanthropy, but you'll still be judged on your looks, whether you're married, how many kids you have, your sexuality, and even if you have slight political opinions.

I'm not saying become some cantankerous, nasty piece of work oblivious to the diversity and humanity of the world (like some I could name). Just be true to yourself. I know this is difficult for some, whether by personality or from their diversity, or both, and I understand that. We all have to navigate our own road blocks. But I look at some of my favourite modern female writers and I like them more for the interesting and diverse subjects and opinions they talk and write about outside of their fiction. They are engaging, human.

To take the advice, or not. It's a question all writers have to ask themselves. There's a lot to filter, to sift through, and figure out what works best for you. Not all advice will be appropriate, not all advice is given with honest intent. Be prepared that the decision you make on the advice chosen may end up being wrong. Mistakes happen. But at least stay true to yourself.

...And like all writing advice, you don't have to take this one either.

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