by Joseph Lallo
Writing is solitary. That’s certainly the way we’ve come to view it, at least. It is a common trope in fiction to present an author as desperate for the opportunity to shut the world out, to find a quiet place where they can be left alone to work. Spend some time on social media and you’ll see no end of people engaging with memes offering a hypothetical deal like, “You have to stay in this cabin alone for 30 days with no phone or internet, but at the end you’ll be given a million dollars” and see authors asking what the downside is. And at a surface level, this solitude is accurate.
You can and most likely will do the bulk of the task of writing by yourself. But this can lull authors into the unproductive and potentially destructive mindset that they shouldn’t accept help or seek collaboration. Worse, some are of the opinion that they can’t seek help or take input, because that would somehow make them “not a real writer.” This line of thinking can lead an author into some unnecessary pitfalls and dead ends. So, while if you’re reading this you’re probably not a strict observer of zero input writing, let me take a moment to make a simple recommendation: Listen to advice.
If you know where to look, you’ll find valuable advice available at all stages of the writing process. So let’s take a look!
The preparation stage is arguably the most contentious place to seek help as a writer. This is thanks in large part to the enormous variety of reasons that people write. Many authors start writing because they had a brilliant idea that they simply had to write. And surely if the whole reason you’re writing is to share something unique and personal, then what good does outside input have? But there are plenty of reasons to seek out advice at this stage, or listen to earnestly given advice from people in the know.
Let’s suppose your idea is your first novel.
Regardless of how brilliant the idea is, having someone with greater experience in the craft there to give you some pointers on pacing, structure, and potential stumbling blocks to avoid can save you literal months along the way. And even if you’re a seasoned writer, if this new idea is a step into a new genre, it’s easy to miss genre conventions if you don’t have a word with people who are more familiar with reading or writing in that genre. Ask me how I know.
Okay, I’ll just tell you. As I’ve recounted elsewhere, I’ve frequently switched genres to try new ideas and new settings. Some, like sci-fi, were right in my wheelhouse and I was quite comfortable with my ability to navigate the defining traits. Others, like steampunk, were a little less familiar. And though I wrote a story that found its own legs, I missed the mark on multiple elements of setting. I did a secondary world rather than Victorian England, for instance.
And then there was my foray into urban fantasy. I did a lot of research into this, reading over a dozen books in the genre. I soaked up what I thought made for a “proper” piece of urban fantasy writing. But it turned out the kind of Urban Fantasy books that attracted my attention were outliers. The ones I picked lacked some subtle but highly indicative features of the genre. For example: first person narration and a focus on existing supernatural entities like vampires and werewolves versus creating new ones.
In both cases, to varying degrees, I was able to get my ideas across and find something of an audience. But I had to overcome friction that I could have easily avoided if I’d reached out to someone for advice.
When we construct stories in our heads, we know everything about them. We know the facts, the motivations, the idiosyncrasies, and the other minor points of the story. We know that our hero knows that the evil chancellor is betraying her because she overheard him plotting thanks to the echo of his voice through the drafty halls of the great palace. Thus, it might not occur to us that we didn’t set that fact up, or maybe even forgot to mention it.
It is devilishly simple to leave crucial information or necessary foreshadowing out of our story. Over the course of the months, or years of writing, we start to lose track of what’s on the page versus in our heads. Sure, we can catch these things by carefully re-reading and revising. But getting a view from outside your head is a much more reliable way to catch things that have been left out.
A great way to get advice like this is to join a writing group.
In addition to other valuable things, like helping you keep your productivity up by making yourself accountable to others, or exposing yourself to other people’s writings to learn from their tricks, flaws, and assets, it makes sure that a person who doesn’t already know the story can still follow the story. Doing this while you’re writing means a small change now can achieve what might have needed a full rewrite later.
If you have the money, this is also often where you’ll be working with a developmental editor. I won’t go too deeply into the importance of considering the advice of a development editor, though, because considering how much they cost I certainly hope you’re listening to what they have to say. Though if you do need advice on how to take their advice, then read on.
Even those who vigorously evade interactions and input on their writing tend to have some fairly significant collaboration after a draft or two. That’s when you’re likely to hand things off to an editor for clean-up. Thus, even if you haven’t had to do so before, now’s the time to learn not just that you should take advice, but how you should take advice.
The first, and most important thing is this: You don’t have to. It seems silly to write an entire article about taking advice and then tell you to ignore it. But this article isn’t about taking advice. It’s about listening to advice.
I think one of the things that chills people to the idea of getting input on their stories is the false belief that advice, once given, is somehow an obligation. You can always disregard a recommendation if you feel it doesn’t suit you. This is your story, after all. But always listen. Always know what they were suggesting, and try to know why they suggested it.
Sometimes skipping that advice will have consequences. If you want to maintain your voice by keeping a grammatical quirk intact, you can do that! But chances are the editor isn’t the only one who’ll flag it as a mistake, and customers tend to do that with lower star ratings and snide reviews.
But lots of advice you’re bound to get–particularly from people who aren’t professional editors–will come in the form of some veiled version of “You’re not doing this the way I would have done it. Change it to how I would have done it.” And those are notes you simply don’t have to take. But even when you disregard the specifics, there is value in understanding why the advice was given.
The thought that goes through a beta reader’s head will go through a reader’s head. And if they interpret something differently from how you’d intended, it may be worth a change even if it isn’t the one they recommend.
Then there are the changes that do make sense.
Plot holes, inconsistencies in characterization. Little things you missed. These should be easy pieces of advice to take, but for some even these feel… wrong. It’s not hard to understand why. You’ve spent time, in some cases years, sculpting this story. It is in a very real way a glimpse into your mind, a more personal and vulnerable window into your thinking than most people will ever create.
A criticism or an observed flaw can feel like an attack. But it is important to temper those feelings. Even if someone is blunt or harsh, remember that their words are directed at the story, and try to metabolize the wisdom of every critique before you raise your defenses. And believe me, when it’s really important, you’ll be raising those defenses.
Piet Hien said, “Problems worthy of attack prove their worth by fighting back.” He was a scientist, so he probably wasn’t talking about the protagonist of a sci-fi story causing a purse to burst open in a zero-gravity slap-fight, but the spirit of the quote remains true.
Those parts of your story which you feel compelled to defend? Consider why you need to defend them.
It’s not really in good taste or form to have a protracted debate with your editor about plot points and such, but if you feel the need, then you know that the focus of that criticism is close to the heart. Ask yourself why. Ask yourself why you want it the way it is, and why they want it changed.
If the answer is “pride,” sorry, not good enough. But if the answer is “That’s how that character would act!” then there’s something to that. If you have a close friend doing beta reading for you, it’s probably worth going back and forth a few times. You may still end up taking the advice, or you may end up ignoring it, but in either case you’ll know why and that will make you a better writer.
If you’ve reached the point of marketing your books, I hope you’ve learned to know when to take advice and who to take it from, but this is a place where a lot of people can trip up.
Unless you come to writing by way of a job in advertising, there’s a strong likelihood you know less about the market you’re going into than the craft that went into the book. I highly, highly recommend seeking advice from those who have gone before you and considering all evidence and all recommendations you get. The clearest example I can give you for how this has worked out for me is the cover of the first book I had any success with, The Book of Deacon.
My first cover was… not great. I made it myself, and I didn’t do a great job. I knew that. The second one wasn’t all that great either. But when I got some money, I sought out a cover illustrator/cover designer. And boy, let me tell you, I put some serious thought into what that cover should have.
“Okay, so the hero’s story starts when she finds this sword. So I want her in a snowy field finding the sword. There’s a dead figure in the snow, and she’s holding the sword she’s salvaged from the fallen soldier and investigating it.”
The artist said.
“Um. First, you don’t need a faithful representation of a precise scene from the story on the cover. The words are for telling the story, the cover is for giving a feel of the story. Let’s simplify.”
So I said,
“Oh. Okay, well, she’s got the sword then, and she’s looking at it.”
“She should be looking at the audience, inviting us to learn her story. Your main character should have a connection with the audience.”
“... But then she’d just be holding a sword.”
“So skip the sword.”
Bit by bit, almost every part of the staging of the cover was reconfigured. The result was a focused, determined woman who radiated strength, alone in an icy storm, clutching a source of mystic power and in all other ways mysterious. It remains my most iconic cover, and is responsible for more of my success than I’ll ever know.
I could have easily dug in my heels. He would have drawn what I described, and it would have been a beautiful cover, but I’m quite sure the result would have been missing the wisdom, design instinct, and visual storytelling that perfectly complemented my literary storytelling.
What I’ve said above is basically all you need to know. Seek advice when it’s available, learn why that advice came up, and take the advice if it makes sense.
But there is a final branching path. The reviews. Technically, every book review contains some semblance of advice. Even the ones that are just stars. A five star review says “Trust your instincts! They made a good book!”. A one star review says, “You failed to make something universal in its renown.” But a lot of reviews will contain more specific points.
There will be discussions of disappointment about choices you made, or excitement about potential.
Now, overwhelmingly I’m of the belief that you should NOT READ YOUR REVIEWS. It is a psychological gauntlet at the best of times. But sometimes, if you’re really getting roasted, it’s worth either taking a look or having friends take a look to see if there’s a common thread among the negativity. Seriously, you might learn–as an entirely random and certainly not specific example–that all of your italicized words are set to “black” instead of “Automatic” in the font color settings, so when your book is read in dark mode, italic words are invisible.
The point is, if there’s a lot of bad to be said, you owe it to yourself to learn if it was something mechanically wrong with your writing. But don’t make a habit of reading those reviews. They hurt.
And that’s it! That’s the advice I have for you.
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Joseph R. Lallo took a crooked path to authordom. He was educated at NJIT, where he earned a master’s degree in Computer Engineering, and paid his bills in the world of Information Technology until Sept of 2014, when he finally became a full-time storyteller. The international bestseller The Book of Deacon defined his early career, and he has since written dozens of novels, short stories, and novellas. These include the critically acclaimed Steampunk series Free-Wrench and the thrilling sci-fi adventure saga, Big Sigma.
Outside of writing, he has co-hosted multiple self-publishing podcasts over the years, including the Six Figure Authors podcast with Lindsay Buroker and Andrea Pearson and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing podcast.
Top image from Depositphotos.
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