Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Worst Writing Advice

The other day, I wrote about the best writing advice. Today, I'm going to the dark side and writing about the worst advice. The funny thing, is that I get this advice all the time, and so do you. I even enjoy getting this advice now, but I have seen it mess up a lot of stories over the years.

What is this bad advice? First, let me tell you a seemingly unrelated story.

The other day my daughter complained about her ear hurting, so I took her to the doctor's. After filling out paperwork--Seriously? More paperwork?--and waiting--I got half a chapter edited--we finally got in. The doctor performed several checks then stated her diagnosis: My daughter had swimmers ear. Ouch! The doctor went on to prescribe drops for her ears and antibiotic pills. We thanked the doctor, followed her directions, and now my daughter feels much better.

So, what does this have to do with writing advice? Let me tell you another story; this one more obviously related.

Back when I started writing I decided to take my story to a workshop. I've always had a bit of a thick skin, so I volunteered my writing as an example. My pages were read, then each of the instructors gave me feedback in front of the whole group--about 45 people. You can guess what happened? My writing had many holes in it, but there was one big glaring problem that each and every instructor talked about: the mother character didn't work for them because she needed to care more about her children. A few of the instructors explained many things I could do to have the mother show and feel concern.

It was great advice, and it was wrong.

Let me break it down. Each of the instructors saw a flaw in the story. (so far so good) They shared their diagnosis with me--the mother character wasn't believable because she should be more concerned about her children. (so far so good) Then they prescribed several ways I could fix the character. (Nooooo!)

And that brings me to the topic of this post: Prescriptive Advice.

When someone else notices problems in your writing that's great, but as soon as they begin to tell you how to fix it, you need to be careful. Often, people will even skip the diagnosis and jump straight to the prescription: "The MC should think of her father here, it will add tension.", "Drop Greg from this scene.", or "The conversation in the car wasn't working for me, maybe it would be better at the fire station." All of these are prescriptions, they don't tell me what is wrong. Your friends, family, or even other professionals don't know how to fix your story.

These days, any time I hear prescriptive advice I have two strategies:

1) I ask the person why they think the story should change. If they don't know that's fine just let it slide and go on to the next strategy.

2) Think about the advice and try to tease out why. Was there not enough tension? Was the scene too confusing? Was there too much external action detracting from the conversation? After you have the why you can then discover your own how. Maybe you decide to take their advice exactly. Maybe not. Just remember, it's your story.

As for my non-empathetic mother, the solution to that scene was to make her even more harsh. I think I also added an addiction to pain-killers. After all, she was supposed to be an awful, selfish person who has to be shocked to see the real world. Once I wrote my own prescription the scene worked much better.

Question: What's the worst advice you've been given?

* Pills photo taken by Erix! can be found on Flickr.

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