Writers Workshop:

ADVICE ABOUT ADVICE
(Original version published by Writers.com; New version July 2002)

"They're fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves." -- Lillian Hellman
Panels are a mainstay of convention programming. In theory they consist of several people grouped together based on their knowledge of or experience with some topic pertaining to writing, publishing, art, the convention's theme, and other related issues of interest.

I remember thinking -- at the first convention I ever attended -- that these people spouting information and opinion were worth listening to. Now, after many conventions and sitting on or moderating numerous panels, I realize the "wisdom" dispensed may not always valid. Conventions, articles, publications, and direct guidance from individuals can all be valuable -- occasionally priceless -- sources of information and insight about writing and publishing. They can also be misinformed and misleading, downright wrong, or even primarily self-serving. Occasionally such advice, if believed, can be downright detrimental.

This realization makes one appreciate sound advice from informed sources even more. It also brings up the question: Who/what should you believe? I'd like to answer "Just use common sense," but I've seen too many otherwise intelligent and perspicacious -- and somewhat naive -- writers temporarily lose their capacity for prudence in these matters.

These three suggestions are really nothing more than common sense. But perhaps they will come to mind if you ever need them:

1) Beware of prophets. The publishing industry is in the throes of tremendous, possibly revolutionary, change and no one really knows what the outcome will be. I tend to immediately doubt anyone who is overconfident with their predictions about any future scenario involving the industry or any part of it.

During the dot-com boom, for example, some highly creditable folks in the publishing industry pushed e-publishing as the "next big thing." Perhaps they sincerely believed what they said; maybe they were out to make a quick buck for themselves. But the resulting surge (and eventual outflow) in spending by major publishing houses was, at best, premature. The industry's reaction told us more about its hopes and fears for new technology, than it did about the true potential for its future use.

2) What's your source's source? Publishing professionals gain knowledge over the years *in their area of expertise*. A slick magazine editor may know nothing about the book trade. An editor with decades of experience with romance may be a great source in that field, but don't ask him about true crime. A longtime science fiction publisher may know her way around that universe, but might know nothing about e-publishing. (And yes, just like every other field in the world, there are people in writing and publishing who sometimes forget that they don't know everything.)

Sure, there are folks who can speak knowledgeably to a wide array of topics. There are also relative newcomers who can give good advice. How do you sort out the good from the bad? Try to gauge who or what respects that source. Are they top pros, veterans in the field, peers, people who you already respect? Or is the supposed pundit supported by small (but perhaps vociferous) circle of "friends of the source"? Don't look to the Web to be the sole arbiter of who's who. It has few filters sometimes only amplifies the loudest voices -- not the best.

One more warning about the Internet -- email, public or private newsgroups, message boards, etc. are all vehicles of the immediate response. Regrettable words are often uttered without thinking. Text without verbal inflection and nuance often results in misunderstanding or misinterpretation. Be careful out there.

3) Know your history. In this day of instant knowledge, people seem to be accepting the immediate with little or no understanding of that which went before. Even though the history of horror-as-a-genre is short, it -- like any field -- has its politics and its varied perceptions. Creative people are also pretty emotional types. Their relationships and reactions are sometimes just as highly-charged.

4) Examine the source's motivation. Some folks love to distribute their loads of questionable wisdom in order to gain recognition for themselves. On the other hand, there are a lot of genuinely helpful, sincere people who just want to provide good information. This may require a lot of reading (or hearing) between the lines and sheer intuition. But maybe just stopping to consider motivation may help separate the chaff from the grain.

There's plenty of "grain" out there -- on the Web, in books, at conventions -- to nurture the new writer. Just make sure you winnow.

-- Paula Guran


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Copyright © 2002 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.