Saturday, July 19, 2008

Bending Over and Taking Advice

I give advice all the time, often without being asked.

A wise man (Baz Lurhmann) once said: Advice is a form of nostalgia, dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

He's right. We feel we've earned our experience, and sharing it with others makes us feel good by believing we're helping someone else.

Because advice is more about the advisor than the advisee, most of it is useless.

Of course, this blog is a notable exception, and my words should be taken as gospel.

"But JA," the canny among you might say, "you can give advice, but can you take it?"


And no.

While everyone truly believes they have an open mind (they also believe they have a sense of humor and are an above-average driver), very few truly do. We're saddled with years of prejudicial, repetitive behaviors, and very little can make us entertain new ideas, let alone attempt them.

Anyone who has heard the story of how I got published knows my eureka moment was when I realized I didn't know what I was doing and starting looking critically at the situation and listening to others. In other words, I did the best I could to become a blank slate with an open mind.

My mind ain't so open any more.

The problem with being right is you take being right for granted, and assume one successful strategy means they're all successful.

Of course, they're not. Learning is about observing, asking questions, and experimenting with what works. It's not about getting an idea and automatically knowing it is the gospel truth.

So, like most people, I feel I know a lot. But I also try to listen to contrary viewpoints, and if possible, incorporate them.

For writers this is essential.

Since it's impossible to be objective about our own work, and our own careers, it's mandatory to get the advice of others. Family. Peers. Agents. Editors.

When they say things we automatically agree with, that's not very helpful. Sure, validation is nice. But you won't get better or smarter unless someone tells you what you're doing wrong.

It isn't easy being told you're wrong. But it is a wonderful opportunity to learn something.

When I'm given advice I don't agree with, here are some strategies I use to gauge its usefulness:

1. Consider the source. If the source is a trusted friend, or a respected peer, or an industry professional, I listen more closely. The importance of the person offering advice doesn't make the advice correct, but it does give it more weight than that overly-critical dunderhead in your writer's group or your Aunt Helga who keeps asking if you're rich yet.

2. Consider the intent. The best advice comes from people who have a good agenda. A flippant remark from a jealous sibling doesn't mean as much as a detailed critique by your agent, who is trying to sell your work.

3. Drop your guard. You can't hear advice when you're being defensive. Attacking the advisor turns it into an argument, not a discussion, and offering knee-jerk rebuttals is childish.

4. Listen. Listening is something that very few have mastered, but it is THE most powerful social skill. Completely hear the person out, and ask questions to clarify things.

5. Imagine. Think, really think, about the possible outcomes if you take this advice. Worst case scenario is you always learn something by trying it. Best case scenario is the advisor is 100% correct and just saved your ass.

6. Weigh. Advice, by its nature, usually goes contrary to what we're currently doing. In some cases, it gives us direction where there is none. But in many others, it asks us to change our direction. After you imagine where this advice might take you, you must weigh that against the path you're already following. Drop your pre-conceptions, and look at both ideas without ego. What are the pros and cons of each, and which will be better for you?

7. Act. You learn by experience. I think everyone should try just about anything at least once. Bias doesn't help you to grow. Denial doesn't help you to learn. Only through action can you truly understand cause and effect. If you like the advice, then take the advice rather than just dwell on it. I also believe that you should try taking advice that you don't necessarily like, just so you can study the outcome.

8. Thank them. Being grateful, and gracious, makes the advisor feel all warm and toasty, and ensures you'll be getting advice again.

I also need to add that giving advice, while cheap and easy, requires more than just an opinion and a big mouth. Many people don't want advice, so you should only give it when asked, or at least offer to give it before blurting it out. I try to give advice based on experience, rather than on hypothesis. This blog is about the things I've learned. Sure, there are also educated guesses, and my opinions are still subjective and hardly universal. My advice might even be flat-out wrong for you.

But if you want to know whether you should take my advice, you should take my advice about taking advice.


Spy Scribbler said...

Always listen, always learn, but always keep your own counsel. At least, that's my motto.

Anonymous said...

My motto is: Never take anything Joe says seriously, unless he's right.

Mark Terry said...

Okay Joe, but...

What is one thing you thought you knew about publishing and promotion when you started out and still think is probably a great thing, but experience has suggested sucks dead bears?

Dharma Kelleher said...

I was reminded recently how even when much of the feedback from someone may be worthless, there may still be some gold nuggets amidst all the dross.

JA Konrath said...


While I still think it's important to earn out your advance and think of your publisher as a partner rather than as a boss, I'm beginning to figure out that your partner doesn't always feel the same way...

Jim said...

The best kind of advice is "add vice."

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've thought of "giving good advice" & "taking good advice" as sexual acts.

Nevertheless. Good advice. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff.

I made sure to give you my very first platform superhero award.

I'll send you your special badge when they come back from the designer.

Keep up the great work/words.

Martin said...

#8 is the Papa bear in your list, IMO. I see a lack of it a lot with green writers who "say" they're looking for feedback. Said feedback (and not just from me, btw) is quickly dismissed with long explanations and counterpoints. I'm not sure where I learned it, but a long time ago I realized the only appropriate response to criticism is "Thank You".

Carolyn Haley said...

I just went through a long period struggling with a great novel that just wasn't working. Happily, I acquired two good friends, also novice novelists (say that 10 times fast!), who have fantastic critical analysis skills and the ability to articulate their thoughts. Both are experienced writers, readers, and critiquers. And they spent months working with me on my book.

As a result of their gentle and neutral help, I was able to solve many story problems and improve the work 150%. However, there came a point when I simply couldn't stand being analyzed and counseled any more! Even though every bit of it was valuable. I just got . . . saturated.

So I withdrew my book from our discussion circle, saying I was too busy to work on it. But in fact I secretly revised it and sent it out to my publisher of choice. (I'd like to say an offer followed, but the ms. is still in the queue.)

Anyway, the point of the story is that even fabulous advice can wear out its welcome. After initially sucking up everything these folks had to offer because it was so useful, I found myself resisting their input. But by then I had come to trust their judgment, so I could suppress my instinct to reject their advice and, instead, evaluate why I was resisting. That led to enlightenment about self and story, which led to solving more problems, better writing, etc.

Unknown said...

Advice is a good thing. But I have a question on when good advice from an agent/editor apparently leads nowhere. (maybe this is best for a different thread, jsorry if it's a bit long).

The story:
Shopped my novel 65 Below to dozens of agents and landed a well known, very successful, literary and book to film agent. She was enthusiastic and gave great advice. After reading the full mss said I needed some editing and recommended a few editors and I checked several others on my own. I couldn't afford the cost of an editing house ($2k-$4k plus for full on line editing). The agent offered to do a basic line edit of the first few chapters and worked with me on getting the rest all dressed up.

Four months later, I had it in what I think is good order. She agrees, we tweak a little, then... ... ... nothing.

When I finally hear back from her I am told that she is now focusing on biographies and self-help but will take another look at mine and get back in a couple weeks, which turns into a month. After another call and another "back in a couple weeks" turns into another month I am now curious about the advice I took. I don't think she ripped me off, the editing fee she charged was nominal and the editing was pretty good.

Question for the seasoned pro's: Has this happened to you before? Am I correct in assuming I've fallen from her list of priorites and need to start the pitch path over on that book? At what point should a writer drop an agent and move on to find new representation?


JA Konrath said...

Basil, reputable agents don't charge for anything, and any agent who refers you to an editor is a scammer.

Check WriterBeware and Preditors & Editors and look for this agent's name. I bet she's there.

Basil Sands said...

That's what I've always heard, but I guess I got duped since the agent was quite a big name. She is on P&E but no negatives. All over the web she was reported as a top agent, by many different sources...but either her way of doing business changed...or worse...she never meant the glowing stuff that pulled me in. Which that would suck, because she didn't make much off of me...

At any rate, I'm back to the drawing board as far as queries and searching for my so far "secret agent". Oh and learn.

g d townshende said...

I completely agree with your comments re: listening.

I've noticed that in conversations with people at work, that the conversations aren't really conversations. They're opinion fests where all the participants are more interested in hearing themselves belt out their opinions, than in hearing what others have to say.

When I try to have conversations with co-workers, I get immediately irritated when they talk right over me before I've had a chance to finish what I was saying. I try hard not to do that to others, but I know that I'm not always successful at it.

I've worked in telecommunications for 20+ years. I started in telecom when I was in the Air Force. Many don't understand that unlike electronic transceivers, people aren't made to listen and talk at the same time. Human beings are more like walkie-talkies: when you push the talk-button, you disable the receiver circuitry, and vice versa.

(As a side-note: I love it when I hear people in telecom say, "We're in the telecommunications business, but we have a communications problem." My response to this is: "There's a good reason for that. We're technicians, not communicators. Providing people with the technology that allows them to communicate, and possessing the ability to communicate are not the same things."