When Writers Receive Conflicting Advice

Sunday, December 08, 2013
He received conflicting advice!
As a parent, I have often heard two people give completely opposite advice about a problem someone is having with her child. Things like: "You can't spoil a newborn. Hold her as much as you can," as opposed to. . "Never, ever let a baby fall asleep in your arms." I could write more than just a blog post about this, but you're not here for parenting advice.

This same phenomenon happens to writers, too. For any piece of advice you find on the Internet, in writing classes and in craft books, or from other writers, you will be able to find the exact opposite advice some place else. Here's my recent example.

I sent a query for a middle-grade novel to an agent who was offering to look at queries and provide feedback! This was an awesome experience, and although he did not agree to represent me, he did give me some terrific ideas on how to improve my query and get my book idea across to an agent--I can tell by his comments that I should work on my query and first five pages some more.

But the weirdest thing is that he said in a query letter, I should not tell agents what happens in the end of the book. Keep them guessing.

Maybe some of you are nodding your heads. I think my critique group members may have said the same exact thing. But I have been in COUNTLESS conference sessions with real, live agents and editors and heard them say time and time again. . .put the ending of your novel in the query. Tell us what happens. Don't keep us guessing.


So what is a writer to do? Take a poll? Drink some wine? Write some query letters with the ending and the others without and see what happens?

I've been thinking about this all night, ever since I read his feedback. What should I do with this query letter rewrite? But then I realized that the conflicting advice is really a bigger issue, and it happens all the time--there seems to always be a writer who says black, and another who says white. An agent that wants hot, and another that wants cold. And so on.

What can we do?

1. Do your homework. Try to research the person the best you can with the tools (the Internet) available to you, and see if anywhere in a blog post, tweet, bio, etc. the agent/editor suggests what he or she wants in a query, a first chapter, a book, and so on.

2. Write from your heart. Once you've done your homework, write a query letter from your heart. (I HAVE to work on this--get out of my brain and to my heart.) I am passionate about my writing. It DOES NOT COME out in my query letter. I am not even sure if it's coming out in those first couple of manuscript pages. I have to let that passion come out--even for a humorous middle-grade mystery novel.

3. Believe in yourself. I know that I can write a good query letter. I know that I can write a first chapter of a novel. I'm sure there are things you know about yourself and your writing. Once you've done your homework and poured your heart into your work, then you have to believe in it. No one else will if you don't.

It will be hard to find conflicting advice to the three above, but I suppose there could be someone out there writing a non-inspirational blog post that says you don't need to believe in yourself. .. naw, no way. So, listen, read what you can, straight from the source if possible, do your very best job, but most of all enjoy yourself. You are writing. You are following a dream. There are so many people in this world that are not doing either one of those. Pat yourself on the back.

photo by Nicolequick (flickr.com) 

Margo L. Dill is teaching several online children's writing and novel writing classes in 2014. To see a schedule and sign up, visit the WOW! classroom page. She also blogs at The Lit Ladies, where they are having a Holiday Book Sale, with free gift-wrapping included. More details here: http://www.thelitladies.com/holiday-book-sale/


Anonymous said...

Margo--A valuable writing exercise I've done is this:

Walk and talk. Walk with someone (a neighbor, a husband, a friend, even your child) and talk to them about your book. (You will need to bring a small recorder, probably.) The physical act of walking changes your mindset, and you might come up with some heartfelt, passionate tidbits to use in a query letter.

Another one: Imagine you are talking to a person who is critical of your work. Imagine what they look like. (When I did this, my critic was in her ratty old bathrobe, she had cat-eye glasses on, scuffy slippers and a cigarette--its ash long and dangerously dangling--in her mouth.) Write to your critic, telling them about your manuscript, the plot, the characters' obstacles and so on. You might get some valuable things to use in your query.

Good luck. I wrote a query for a mock session with real editors, and my query went up in a spectacular fire ball. However, it made me realize how little I knew about my manuscript and also how little direction my manuscript had.

Unknown said...

I get the same thing in hockey all the time; conflicting advice from different people from week to week. "You should pinch there" and "Oh, no, you need to back up in that situation." "If you've got momentum, keep chasing that person" versus "If she moves to your side, I'll drop her and you pick her up." I try to do what you suggested, Margo, and remember who gave me what advice so I can play the way they like - but I do have a devil of a time simultaneously implementing everyone's particular preferences. In the end, I guess the true measure of a style of play is how well it succeeds. And maybe that's something we all have to develop on our own.

Margo Dill said...

@Sioux: Thank you for leaving that awesome advice on this post. I will try those. :) I need to loosen up when I write my query and first 5 pages--maybe I should drink a little wine. DId you try that? :)

@Lori: Sports are another area where everyone has an opinion! :) Thanks for chiming in with your experience.

Connie Brentford said...

Really good article, Margo! When you match the right type query with the right editor on the right day, you win!

Another piece of conflicting advice I often see is write what you know.

I struggled with this myself as a new author. Was I even qualified to write anything I didn't know? Oh, the self-doubt we writers have! Then I read a book (How To Write A Damn Good Mystery) by author James N. Frey. In it was this quote. "Write what you know about is good advice, but you can always learn what you don't know. And after you study it, you will be writing about what you know." It saved me from the doubt. Now I know I can confidently write a book about anything as long as I do the research!

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Sioux. Sometimes talking it out with someone who knows you and knows your work can help you figure out how to proceed. In chatting, you re-discover why you wrote the piece in the first place. Rediscovering "why" or who may audience is can lead me to the right fix.

Margo Dill said...

@Connie: Great example. Geez, if we all only wrote what we know, I would be done writing by now. :)

@Sue: Yes, I try to do this with my critique group. I think I need to do it again!

Renee Roberson said...

I really think this is one of the tough things about working in the publishing industry--all the conflicting advice! It spans through all levels, writing for the web, writing and querying regional and national magazines, nonfiction book proposals and writing/selling fiction! On a side note, every time I read a book with a prologue (another source of conflicting opinions), I give a little shout and scare my husband. "This book has one and it works fine!" I have a prologue in my YA but I'm going to try to disguise it by simply calling it something else. Hee hee!

Unknown said...

Oh Margo! Your timing is wonderful! I have been stewing about the black/white advice I've received since starting my writing journey:
you need a blog, you don't need a blog;
you need a Facebook page, you don't need a Facebook page until you have a published book;
Facebook in your pen name, refer to your pen name on your personal Facebook page. YIKES!

What did I do about it all? I decided to stop the spinning wheel and advance to GO! I moved forward--pen name, Facebook pages (another story), and a blog. My business nature steps in and I analyze the return on time invested, and whether it seems I am hot or cold or getting it right. I suppose I'll know next year when the memoir finally comes out! Thanks for reminding me alone I am not alone! This is par for the course!

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