Thursday 7 February 2013

Advice for Writers – Myth or Magik?

Who am I to pose this question? I have been offering advice to writers – in person or in print – for twenty years. That is five years less than I have been publishing.
But now advice to writers has blossomed and boomed into an industry powered by the internet and the social media embedded in it. Does it promote the myth or engender the magik?
Writers I know are being encouraged – nay instructed – to get out there with the blogging and twittering to back up (more probably replace) the publisher’s press department in their attempts to get the book known.
Even well known writers are put on the talks/appearance/literary festival trail (unescorted) to do promotion not just for their book but for their publisher *  The writer often performs at festivals for nothing, supporting the festival’s profits and funding huge fees for celebrity speakers – Bill Clinton for instance. Ah, you say, the publicity for the individual writer is their payment. It seems to me not.
And now there has evolved a tribe of travelling writers – some of whom are shy creatures only happy when they are on their own hunched over a keyboard or a notebook – dragged blinking into the limelight for the delectation of  festival groupie audiences sometimes more interested in celebrity that the reading of books.
(Scroll back for my  blog post on Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time for his witty tale on the ubiquitous literary festival.)
That brings me to outcomes. When I was teaching educational research we were always careful to point out that aspirations and objectives are not outcomes. There have to be some measures in place which demonstrate true outcomes – positive and negative – from any project. For me in the case of writers a positive outcome should be a general rise in sales, not just a cluster of sales at the event itself. Or the rosy glow of feeling famous. I would like to hear evidence, or even discussion, on the matter of outcomes from these performances.
And what about the as-yet unpublished writers – often writers of talent who have been unrecognized by the behemoth publishing industry? For them the internet and social media have been seen quite rightly as a vehicle where their writing can be showcased, where an audience can be nurtured, and publication can be achieved through Kindle and other outlets without the destructive intervention of nay-sayers of the publishing trade.
I think this is a wonderful evolution. It has had its starry successes of course – writers who have become best sellers through this means. These, one has to say, are exceptional cases among thousands. But the benefits to lesser selling writers are still manifest – their book is out there to be read and appreciated by strangers; they have taken it up to its best form and the good ones becomes a valid part of a writer’s showcase. And in the case of Kindle there are inbuilt outcome measures in the sales visible to the writer. Even a trickle of ten books in a month tells the writer of strangers who have read their work. Over a year or ten this becomes a significant number and is indeed part of that writer’s showcase.
Of course this open process does mean  that also out there are some publications that  have missed the filter of the publisher’s front desk and have also  missed the sharp pencil of a literate editor. To this I say so what? There have always been dubious, ill-written books on the market. We only remember the good ones. The rest were quite rightly pulped.
The internet has also spawned quite flourishing peer writer support networks which like any peer review set-ups are only as good as the peers involved. The art of critiquing and nurturing creative work is subtle and complex and should not be approached lightly. Crude criticism or unbounded praise should not come into this process but it often does.
We need to be careful. Sometimes there groups take up so much energy that there’s little time for ongoing solid, personal and progressive writing.
But it is all kindly meant and can give support and nurture development outside the umbrella of mainstream publishing.  
More widely there is lots of advice out there. On the internet

One way to cut down a tree...
Lots of  ‘Ways’ out there - eg:.
  1. Five ways to beat the writer’s block
  2. Five ways to get the attention of an agent
  3. Five ways to find what a publisher needs
  4. Five ways to create a believable hero or heroine
  5. Five ways to make your novel a best seller
I have to say if it were as easy as that just anybody could be a successful writer.

So, in this world of advice here are my Five Ways to Develop Your Writing

1        Evaluate any advice you are offered. Does the adviser have a successful record in the writing field rather than the advice-giving industry? Is adviser a successful and seasoned writer?
2        Write at least a page every single day. (One year makes 365 pages) Bibles for this approach are Dorothea Brande’s On becoming a Writer and Julia Cameron’s A Writer’s Way. You could take a look at my On Being a Writer
3        Give yourself short term targets for positive outcomes. Competitions are great for this. Sign up for Avril Joy’s ( Newsletter. She is great and very informed on the benefits of competitions. Of course this  befits this year’s  Costa Short \story Prizewinner who has thus proved her theory. Even so, regularly entering  competitions should not be about winning. Remember every entry is a five finger exercise in your development as a writer. And this valid form of writing also builds up your body of work and develops your sense of audience – a very subtle aspect of a writer’s skill.
4        Write what you really want to write, what in your deepest heart you feel impelled to write, not what some egregious expert says the market wants at this time. They are always three years behind, any way, copying trends rather than creating them...
5        Let people know what you do. Talk about your project with affection and information.   Blog posts too can be five finger exercises in expressing thoughts, ideas and work in progress – a coherent expression of your writing self. Twittering can be a more casual notice board  to express an occasional spurt of joy and inspiration and to let a wider group of people know what you’re up to. Some people make an art form of this (not me) showing distilled wit and real character.  
6         Most importantly don’t do any of this a) if someone has instructed you to do it. b) if it is a chore(that will show!). Or c) if it is instead of doing your proper writing: your ongoing work must be a priority.

In answer to my own question Advice for Writers – Myth or Magik? -
It remains a myth if you don’t sort out that good advice from the weak and self serving. It becomes magik if it helps you to your transform your own writing to a point where you know it is  good and worth publishing, whatever form that publishing takes,
Happy writing


  1. Superb site you have here but I was curious if you knew
    of any forums that cover the same topics discussed in this
    article? I'd really like to be a part of group where I can get advice from other experienced individuals that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Bless you!

    Here is my page click the up coming post
    my website > Carmon

  2. Dear 'Carmon'

    Very pleased you like the site as you are obviously an expert.
    The best place you can get such advice is to register for a well accredited course such as the Open University Creative writing Module.There you will have the advice of a very experienced individual and also some communication with individuals of the same interest.
    My advice, as you will see from My Five Points above is to gain self confidence and work on your own. After all writers do work on their own. Also ring-fence time - at least two hours in length to lock yourself away somewhere where you just write.
    Online peer forums are companionable and supportive but can be very time consuming (taking time away from actual writing time) and sometimes destructive.
    And you can keep your eye on my blog and go back into its history and find more helpful suggestions from an 'experienced individual' about the writing process.
    Happy writing. w



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