When Writing Advice Goes Wrong – Shaken Baby Syndrome

Going Under by Jeffe Kennedy

Going Under – out 7/14/14

This month’s theme at the Café should be an interesting one – the worst writing advice we’ve ever received.I’m imagining us all gathering with our coffees and danishes, kibitzing and kvetching over all the advice we’ve been given over our careers, particularly the wrong-headed variety.

Because we all get advice. When we’re newbies, we seek it out with the ferocious hunger of baby birds, opening our little beaks and sucking down whatever some passing bird is willing to drop in there.

This works until you realizing you’re choking on the wrong worm.

Because, yeah, the wrong advice can be crippling. It doesn’t necessarily have to be bad in essence – just not right for that time.

A while back (wow – three years ago!) I did a blog post about how timing can be everything when it comes to getting feedback on my work. It’s not so much that I’ve gotten bad advice – but I definitely asked for it at the wrong time and it was a struggle to recover from that. So I’m resurrecting some of that post here.

The thing about being a professional writer, and by that I mean, wanting to make money from your work, is that most discussions about it naturally include both aspects of creativity and considerations about the market. Neither aspect can be escaped. Stories must come from our creative selves. I know there are some authors who say they care nothing about art and treat writing entirely as a business. I suspect they simply view their creativity in a different way. And, no matter how much other writers cling to the purity of art over commercialism, we’d all like to be paid well for our stories. The demands of the market cannot be ignored.

However, I’m a believer in making sure these things occur in the correct order: creativity first, then market. If you put these two things too close together, guess what results? Yes. Shaken baby syndrome.

See, our new stories, or even story ideas, are like infants. They have soft spots in their skulls. Their plot backbones can’t hold up their heads. They can’t stand alone, much less feed or defend themselves. When we have a new story, we must cuddle it close and nourish it. Lots of quiet. Some silliness and fun. Maybe long walks and wordless humming. It’s a special, intimate time.

When your story is new, you can maybe show it to a few special people. The ones you know will coo and tell you how beautiful your baby is. They might cuddle it too and speculate on what a fabulous future your baby might have. Choose these people carefully.

Because there are other people who won’t be so careful. There’s the selfish love-interest who’d just as soon kick your baby into a closet, all the better to have your attention. There’s the careless teenager who criticizes your baby. Worst of all are the industry professionals.

It’s their job – and they’re good at it – to take your baby and shake it. To shake it hard and see if its neck snaps. Then they’ll hand it back to you with a sorrowful look and suggest that it might be brain-damaged. They’ll tell you your baby can’t hack it in the market.

Of course it can’t – it’s just a little baby. And now they’ve damaged it. Perhaps fatally.

Now if you grow your baby up, feed it the best nourishment, work with it to make it strong and smart then, when it walks into your agent or editor’s office, it can take a bit of slapping. And likely give back what it gets. Then they give you the happy smile and say, yes! Now this kid has got what it takes. Let’s send her out on the town! She’ll take the city by a storm!

I know this can be difficult, especially when you have an agent. After all, an agent’s job is to look over your babies and tell you which ones might make it and which she thinks you should just smother in their cribs. This happened to a friend of mine. She took her new novel idea – that she was tremendously excited about – to her agent and the agent said, Meh. She said there were too many other kids out there like it. Don’t feed it, she said. Let it die.

My friend isn’t working on it. But I know she still has that baby tucked into a back room and she’s feeding it on the sly. She can’t let it die. She loves it.

I’m totally behind that. I think she should grow this kid up, like the princess hidden away in the deep, dark forest. Then, when she’s sixteen and more beautiful than anyone else in the kingdom, she can trot her daughter out and say, see? Look at *this* kid! She could be Queen of the realm.

So, my point is, baby your new stories. Realize how fragile, how vulnerable they are. It might take a lot of time for them to be strong enough to take the vicious blows of the marketing end. Even the right advice at the wrong time can be devastating. Don’t expose them to that. Protect them. Be good to them. Love them.

Then bring out the tough love and put them through the wringer before they face the world.

Your stories will go on to lead brilliant lives. I just know it.


When Writing Advice Goes Wrong – Shaken Baby Syndrome — 10 Comments

  1. Excellent points, Jeffe. I can imagine how crushing it would be to show your work to someone prematurely and then have them trash it, or even just give you that dead-eyed, so-what look. In retrospect, maybe it was a good thing that it took me so long to finally show my work to other writers. By that time I’d spent a lot of time polishing it and felt a bit more confident.

    • Thanks Reese! There’s a lot to be said for taking your time until you feel confident in a story. Even if someone loves your work, their input at the wrong time can cause problems.

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