Sourcing Advice


In which I accidentally write a blog post in which I encourage you not to read my blog.

Or at least, not to read my blog exclusively.

Please don’t leave.

Back to the point. It’s no secret to anyone that’s been reading my blog for a while that I’m of the opinion that it’s a really good idea, if not outright necessary, to get advice on your writing. I’m going to go ahead and assume that you’re probably of a similar opinion (otherwise you’d probably have clicked away from this blog already).

I think it’s also pretty common sense that advice should come from several sources. After all, writing is a very subjective thing, and the more information you have from more angles, the better equipped you are to make choices between what of that information makes sense for you.

Let me, for a moment, ask a very tangential question.

Why was/is Twilight such a popular series?

The answer to this question doesn’t actually matter for the purposes of this blog post, I’m just doing that thing where I ask a question and then make assumptions about your answer.

See, there’s a huge chunk of people, frequently though not solely writing people, who seem to have decided that the answer is “because people don’t know what good writing looks like”.

Which is clearly untrue. Not because Twilight was particularly high on the list of books with good writing craft, but because there were just too many fans for that to be the case. And they weren’t all pre-teens for whom this was their first taste of the genre, either.

But I’m not going to get into that discussion now – I have some theories, but that’s not the point.

My point isn’t even really about Twilight. Twilight is just an example.

Truth is, there’s no end of books that the writing community insist shouldn’t be as popular as they are because of the level of writing craft. Twilight isn’t the best example, because it’s not just the writing community that started to get up in arms about the writing quality. However, if you’ve talked with writers, you’ve probably heard them complaining about books that sold really well, but weren’t written with the skill to match. And a lot of non-writers won’t really notice those things, because they haven’t trained themselves to look for these pieces of craft.

Now, I’m a fan of knowing one’s writercraft, as a writer. It’s a good thing to pay attention to writing craft, because a lot of the time, even if readers can’t necessarily put into words why they didn’t click with a book, writercraft can be the difference between immersion and throwing a reader out of the story. Even not on a pacing or plotting level – stilted dialogue can be the difference between a reader crying for a dead character and giving up on page 10 because nobody was appealing to them.

But it’s also very easy to get caught up in that type of mindset – you learn writercraft to write the best books possible. And in order to do that, you talk to more successful writers than you, or you read their blogs or listen to their podcasts. You go to writer’s groups. When you write things, you ask for other writers to beta read for you.

This is a good idea – writers have the vocabulary to express their advice so it’s helpful to you, and the experience to know when something is wrong (or should, if you’re asking them to beta for you).

But they’re also an echo chamber. Because as much as writers are great readers, not all readers are also writers (as much as it can seem to be a nearly 1:1 ratio sometimes). And the things that writers look for will not always be the things that readers look for. As much as writers will notice things that readers won’t, they’ll also be looking for things that normal readers won’t.

I have a pool of beta readers I usually go to when I need some people to tell me where, when and how I suck so that I can suck less. Here’s a breakdown of the people I usually ask.

I have the person who doesn’t read much, but enjoys reading, and who knows a lot about very practical topics, particularly economics, which I don’t have a very good knowledge base in, in general. This reader is also one of the most practical people I know. If I’ve screwed up in a “people don’t act like that” or “that’s not how laws work” or “let me explain to you why this trade arrangement is completely impractical” way, this reader lets me know about that.

I have a writer or two. In this category I’m including people who create graphic novels and tabletop RPG stories as well as novel writers. Anyone who works frequently with narrative goes in this category. They can tell me where I’ve signalled my foreshadowing too loudly, or my pacing is off, or I’ve used a trope that doesn’t work in context. All my writercraft questions.

And I have a few readers. People who don’t write themselves, but have read, widely and voraciously, and like fantasy. These people may not necessarily pick up on the same things as a writer, but I can see where their advice lines up with the writers’. Where the writer tells me that I haven’t got enough foreshadowing and the readers tell me that my ending felt like a deus ex machina, I know that I’ve got a problem. They’re also the people who are more likely to give me emotional feedback – the writers will often try to label the problems, or express why something did or didn’t work, and in doing so they’ll focus on craft problems. But a reader will tell me when they loved a character, or hated them, or skipped scenes, or wanted to put my manuscript through a wall, and that tells me something similar but subtly different: That tells me where the craft has conveyed the point correctly, not just whether the craft hangs together nicely.

Of course, there’s overlap in all the groups – many of my reader betas will tell me when I have stilted dialogue or I’ve completely misunderstood how basic engineering works, my writer betas will tell me when they wanted to wrap a character up in blankets and give them a hug, and my practical person will tell me when they sympathised with a character and when they didn’t. You’ll never get only one type of advice from one person – it’ll all come mashed together. The trick is getting enough variety that you cover all your bases.

So while it’s important to discuss and network with other writers, don’t rely on them alone. If you find yourself getting advice from only one type of person, maybe go out and look for some others as well. You’ll get advice you never would have thought of, and that’s only going to make your writing better.

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