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Mining for Good Advice

14 March 2013

From Dave Farland:

In life, at times we have to sift through the hype, the clutter, and the nonsense and find out what advice is worthwhile and what is not. Several times per week, people will email me with questions that start off, “I was reading a blog by (name of author), and they said (assert alleged fact). Are they right?” Sometimes the author is spot-on. Many times the author is partly right, and I have to explain things a little further. Other times the information is drivel.

Sometimes even stellar authors give bad advice. On Friday I noticed a link to a column from one of my favorite authors—a bestseller, an award-winner. I linked to it, hoping for a gem of wisdom. His eight pieces of advice could be summed up in a few words: “Don’t ask me, just get off your butt and write.”

To me, the author seemed rather contemptuous of struggling authors. This person knows a great deal about writing, and revealed none of it. If you followed his advice, you would at least get something written, but it would be no better than if you had never listened to a word that he said.

. . . .

It’s true that most of the time when we as authors give advice, it falls on deaf ears. Too often the people who ask for the advice never heed it. I know many would-be authors who have been studying for twenty years and have never finished a novel.

But some students take advice. Some people come to the craft with a fire in the belly, a hunger to learn. Several of my students have gone out, written their first novels, started their careers—and made millions. One of them has made hundreds of millions.

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David Farland, Writing Advice

20 Comments to “Mining for Good Advice”

  1. I’m remained of decades old advice found on correspondence from IASFM, (probably a rejection letter).

    How to be a writer:

    Get a typewriter, a desk, a chair, some paper.

    Put the typewriter on the desk.

    Put some paper in the typewriter.

    Put your a** in the chair.

    Start writing.

    In twenty years when you stand up from that desk you’ll be a writer.


    • Years and years ago, when I was young and aspiring, a successful writer (and I forget who he was now, wish I could remember) said to me ‘the only way to learn how to write is to write.’ At the time, I thought it was a bit harsh. Now that people are asking me for advice, I can see that he was right. It’s one thing for writers to come to you with definite questions about forms and techniques. But many people seem to want to ‘be writers’ without going to the bother of actually writing. They are looking for shortcuts. Nobody would say ‘I want to be a pianist’ without knowing that they would have to play that piano every day. Why do people seem to think that writing is any different? And even those who make it big with a first novel have probably been writing for pleasure for years: poems, diaries, stories, fan fiction, whatever. I can’t remember when I wasn’t writing, had my first story published when I was in my teens, but I’d had a lot of practice, even by that time. It was what I did for pleasure. I’m pretty sure artists and musicians are the same.

  2. If it doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. No point in faking it. You’ll end up frustrated.

    And the person giving advice needs to accept that the student won’t always listen-that’s their right. It doesn’t mean the student missed “gold”. It just means it wasn’t gold to them. Bad advice is what doesn’t work for you. It doesn’t matter if other students followed the advice and sold millions.

    The 50 million seller author clearly knows what he is talking about. He never said not to study. I took his advice as not sitting around learning and learning and learning without ever applying your knowledge by actually writing something.

    • “I took his advice as not sitting around learning and learning and learning without ever applying your knowledge by actually writing something.”

      Don’t knock the lifestyle till you’ve tried it, hun.

  3. Just the other day, I read someone (I think it was Hugh Howey) saying, study the careers of writers whose careers you’d like to have. I think that’s excellent advice. It really narrows down the path from “I want to emulate absolutely everyone who’s ever sold any sort of written material to any sort of business” to (for example), “I want to emulate the careers of these nine Rita-winning US Today paperback bestsellers,” or, “I want to emulate the career of this writer who’s won Edgars, Anthonys, and Agathas, and whose 97th book was recently released,” or, “I want to emulate the career of that NYT bestselling hardcover thriller writer,” etc.

    I know a writer who is much more prolific than I am, and I also know a writer who hasn’t completed a book in several years (due to stalling out on several MSs in a row). They’re both bestselling and award-winning writers with books under contract, but it’s obvious to me that one of them is on a career and productivity path that I want to emulate, and the other is not, so their advice is not of equal value to me.

  4. Let’s cut to the chase. Everyone’s tip-toeing around this. Who’s the writer earning hundreds of millions?

    • Probably Stephanie Meyer. The books, movies, etc.

      • Agreed.

        • I thought Meyer’s creative writing teacher was super vocal about having her as a student? Partly because of her line of denying ever putting any effort into writing. Her famous “it just kinda happened” act.

          Rowling’s a billionaire and every other $100mil+ writer (all 4-5 of them) has been at it for decades. Dunno how long Farland’s been teaching.

          And, without checking Wiki, who would the all time time top earners be? Here’s my stab at it:

          1) Rowling
          2) Patterson
          3) King
          4) N. Roberts
          5) Grisham
          6) Meyer
          7) Evanovich
          8) Cornwell
          9) R.L. Stine
          10) Puzo/A. Christie?

          • Dave Farland has quite a number of former students who support themselves with their fiction. He’s proud of them, but not a big self-promoter.

    • Sign up for Dave’s newsletter. He loves talking about Stephanie.

  5. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    James Patterson?

    Stevie King?

    Buckminster Fuller?

    Kilgore Trout?

  6. Bartholomew Thockmorton

    But then again, knowing Dave…he might mean L. Ron Hubbard…

  7. Most advice given to authors is useless anyway. Dont use ly words, dont break any of the millions of made up “rules”, unless you know the made up “rules”, in which case you can break them.

    Sit on your butt and type is the best advice I’ve heard.

  8. All of these advice people are leaving out an important step. Stephen King said it: Read. “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” If you never read and keep churning out pages, they will be pages of dreck.

    • I’d add that “live” may be in there as well. If you only read, there’s a large chance that your first stuff will have a great deal of, well, recycling. (Tolkien => Shannara, say. >_> )

      Which isn’t to say that one can’t also build on things, or, to use the artsy term, have a “conversation” in the way that fanfic starts to answer other fanfics when it incorporates and/or mutates popular fanon memes. But it does take more thought than just using the memes without thinking.

      But yeah, if you don’t read, you don’t know the tools and tropes available to put your Living and Imagination on the page.

  9. If you’re good enough, you make your own rules. If not, it doesn’t really matter. Also, luck transcends everything else.

  10. I think that pretty much everything that can be said about teaching writing or learning to write is summarized in one Zen saying:

    “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

    Which is another way of saying that it’s all out there. Everything everybody needs to know is out there, and it’s obvious and easy to find when you’re ready for it. But until you’re ready, it’s invisible to you.

    And since, with writing, most learning comes from the the student looking for info, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that the student — being just a student — is looking for the answer to the wrong question. The student may need to learn something very different — maybe something about life — before he or she is actually ready to understand the information he or she seeks.

  11. I have to say that it would really suck to have one reviewer, who didn’t understand the book, reduce sales. That’s a problem with the internet – people can be very irresponsible and do damage because of that. For a student to misunderstand and even strike out at teachers is not new – for them to have power on the internet is. I can totally understand his frustration!

    That’s the type of sucky life experience that you just have to wait out. Fortunately, the quality of his teaching will re-assert itself soon and rise to the top. But he has my sympathy!

  12. I don’t know, I think get off your butt and write is pretty good advice. But then I’ve always subscribed to the learn by doing theory. People, even experts, can explain things all day long, but you never really comprehend any of it until you get your hands dirty.

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