When to Ignore Advice

by Al Kalar

A poet called in about a submission he’d sent. While we talked, he asked that if I didn’t like his poetry, could I give him some guidelines as to what to write. He seemed to think he could write poetry to order.

I can’t think of a better way for him to kill his writing career.

Poetry, song writing, and such can indeed be cranked out to a formula. Unfortunately, formula writing comes off as just that.  Some of it will actually sell, but it will never become “great literature”.

The best poetry comes from deep inside the poet’s soul. The words struggle to get out and the poet’s job is to shape those words into meter and verse in such a manner that what s/he’s feeling inside is conveyed to the reader.

The same is true of music. Poets and song writers are “kissin’ cousins”. Their best and most enduring pieces are original creations that are uniquely theirs, not stuff written “to order” or by some formula.

Yes, hack writers can make a living. Look at the proliferation of television series that are cranked out to formula. Some original thinker comes up with an idea for a series. The originator may even create some scripts during the first season of the new show. But eventually, the hacks are brought in to write to the show’s formula and a few seasons later, the show declines, to eventually disappear into the plethora of reruns that provide programming for most of the cable networks.

Don’t get me wrong. Hack writers are quite talented in their niche of writing. It’s hard work to come up with 13 new ideas every year that follow the show’s formula and central cast of characters. Without these writers, the truly creative people would have to spend most of their time writing scripts to the detriment of the next new series they could be creating.

The same is true of novel writers. When the muse strikes, the worst thing you can do is ask someone how to write up your inspiration and then follow their formula slavishly. Yes, you can ask for ideas. Yes, you can run your manuscript past your writing workshop or your editor. But the final decision on all change suggestions is your responsibility.

Okay, I’m an editor and a fan of some types of literature (but not all types). I write my own stuff (under a pen name). I have my own bundle of prejudices as to what makes a “good read”. But I’ll never be as familiar with your story as you are. I’ve seen your manuscript for a day or even a week, but you’ve lived with it for months, maybe years.

I can tell you what doesn’t work for me and perhaps why it fails.  I can offer some advice on how to fix it. I can tell you to use active rather than passive voice. But if you don’t apply your own filter to my advice, you could kill your child in the process. My feedback and your workshop feedback can help you see problems you may have missed because you’re too familiar with your creation. But none of these people can take over the writing tasks for you. If I rewrite a section of your book, it might not really fit the entire story. I may destroy a clue you dropped to explain why the lead pipe was so conveniently placed for a later fight scene.

So, do listen to advice. Read blogs on writing (mine as well as others), join a peer-to-peer workshop, read books on writing.  These things will help you learn how to write. But when the muse strikes use these tools to craft something that is truly original and uniquely yours. In doing so, you will be more likely produce publishable stuff that is new and exciting. Perhaps you’ll create the next Tale of Two Cities.


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