Good Writing, Bad Advice


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Good Writing, Bad Advice.

My name (once again) is Dave Workman. I’m a developmental (content) editor IRL. I’m also an author. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a bit of knowledge that may help new writers beginning a long and often arduous (although hopefully rewarding) journey. Might I impart any significant pearls of wisdom on this page? I offer no assurances. Nobody in this business—in any business—can guarantee success. Finding a publisher is sometimes more luck (sadly) than skill. Good timing rather than dedication. Sometimes it’s who you know. Sometimes it’s who your daddy knows. Success is a subjective son-of-a-bitch with a chip on one shoulder and a crazed twinkle in its eye.

But knowing how to write well can’t hurt. And knowing a few basic rules along the way can definitely ease the process. Success may be elusive, but for an unprepared or apathetic writer, success is probably little more than a fuzzy daydream.

Do you know the Numero Uno, Most Common, Most Discouraging, and the Tragic Likely Outcome of all novel writing endeavors? It’s not finishing the book. Losing interest or losing your way, losing your nerve or losing your religion. It’s fear of success or fear of failure or fear of wrestling all those words into place, from “Once upon a time…” to “The End.” And if you can overcome those fears and finish a manuscript (even a first draft!) you’re already closer to success than most.

 Finish the book. That’s Rule #1.

In this and subsequent posts, I’ll attempt to reveal what many publishers seek in terms of a desirable manuscript, although—bottom line?—it’s very likely a polished, professional and unique voice. Yes, voice. A publisher (or agent) is far more likely to accept an uncanny voice over a complex, complicated or convoluted plot structure. Lock two characters in a closet, give them exceptional dialogue and quirky or witty personalities worth exploring, and a publisher will likely consider that manuscript over a done-to-death story about brain-sucking aliens attacking Las Vegas. (Although if your aliens have quirky, well-constructed personalities, a publisher will take a close look as well.)

But let’s face it—only so many finite plot-lines exist in literature. They’ve all been covered ad nauseam. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy is eaten by giant squid. (It’s been done.) But a unique voice is yours alone. Exclusive. Inimitable. Priceless. For a writer, creating a unique voice by infusing excitement, passion, eccentricity,  pathos, wit and charisma (or all of the above) into a distinctive character can be money in the proverbial bank.

Okay, enough preamble. Although I do have one significant bit of advice to share: Don’t listen to anybody (and certainly not to me) if the advice doesn’t resonate. Go with your gut. Go with your own instincts. By all means, listen selectively to proffered advice—accept feedback when it’s constructively given—although I suspect some 80-90% of what you hear won’t work for you. However, that remaining 10-20% might may prove priceless. So do keep an open mind! (See Confronting Criticism.) Remember, success is as much about breaking rules as following them. If it feels right, crayon outside the lines. I think Gandhi said that. Maybe not.

To illustrate, here’s a true story. This one still gives me nightmares. I still wake up cringing.

The most single, most horrific, most god-awful perverse piece of advice I’ve ever encountered occurred during a week-long writers’ conference in Southern CA. (And while a writers’ conference can be a wonderful, magical, scintillating experience… again, be careful who you listen to.)

One evening, a panel of “editorial experts” bequeathed their brilliance to a capacity filled auditorium of eager, fledgling writers. An attendee stood and asked a panelist a question, and in doing so happened to mention that her nearly-completed novel filled some 360 pages. About 90,000 words.

Without a moment’s preamble—without a speck of empathy or a grain of intelligence—the so-called expert replied, “It’s too long. Cut twenty thousand words.”

This Expert of Knowing Everything While Knowing Nothing had no clue about the nature of the story or its genre, or of the writer’s level of craft, the tenor of the book. Simply “cut it.” The writer was, of course, crushed. And I have never forgotten my frustration over that absurdly idiotic remark.

Should anyone tell you to arbitrarily cut (or add) pages without otherwise knowing your story—it’s intent and purpose—smile politely and walk away. I’ve read too many manuscripts that feel truncated and unfinished… only to discover that the writer had been previously advised to “cut, cut, cut!” without further direction or counsel. In desperation, many writers blindly begin hacking all the style and nuance from an otherwise excellent story.

Think of a novel as a living, breathing person. If I feel that your story needs to lose a bit of weight, I’ll not advise you to remove its liver or stomach or left arm. The process is to shrewdly exercise your book—trimming adverbs, adjectives and excess verbiage like so many bloated fat-cells. Eliminate scenes or chapters that do nothing for the story but flatter your ego. Prune those sections carefully, little by little. Or feed it more Skittles, should the opposite be true.

I acknowledge that the above-referenced workshop occurred before the Age of e-publishing. Stricter rules applied once upon a time (although stupidity didn’t count back then, either). And I continue to hear agents and editors and the so-called “people in the know” advising writers to cut or add pages, to alter a manuscript in order to satisfy some personal itch or the guidelines of a publishing system that no longer exists.

The biggest problem today? Since the emergence of e-books and self-publishing (around 2008-ish), the industry remains in flux. No one’s certain of the new rules yet. But in this rapidly changing paradigm of 21st century novel writing, here’s my best advice: Trust yourself—and hone those basic skills of storytelling in the (somewhat paradoxically) simplest, yet most exciting voice you can muster.

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6 thoughts on “Good Writing, Bad Advice

  1. This is the best advice I have seen in my 45 years as a writer, editor, agent, and publisher. It is clear, concise, with no ax to grind and no object except helping people. Thanks, Dave.

  2. Hi Dave,

    I saw Eileen’s post a few minutes ago and I followed it here. I enjoyed reading this article. I have heard nightmares from writer friends who have been told to cut their manuscripts until it seemed as if the story had lost it’s essence.

    Thank you for sharing.


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