Free Advice to Improve Writing

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I place great value on free creating writing advice. Let me explain why:

Years ago I went to a large science fiction convention. While wandering through a hotel, I happened to meet Jack Chalker, a writer whom many people today probably don’t know. I introduced myself, and though I’d sold a few million books, he wasn’t familiar with me.

We sat down and for the next two hours he regaled me with excellent advice on writing as a career. As far as my career went, I was well past needing most of it, but I thought, “When a person offers you a lifetime’s hard-earned wisdom, Dave, you really ought to listen.” So I clung to every word.

His advice was especially valuable to me because it was offered from the pure goodness of his heart. Jack was near death at the time. He didn’t hold anything back. His word didn’t come with a price tag. I felt to marvel at his generosity. I felt honored and humbled and eternally grateful.

  • Remember, free writing advice comes from the heart

  • Watch out for ignorant advice

  • Beware of teachers who hold back vital information

  • Even the greatest writers can be poor teachers

  • When seeking wisdom, search widely. Test the advice

1) Remember, free writing advice comes from the heart.

You can get good advice for free, but most of the time, you have to watch out. Last week I noticed a young woman who asked a simple question about publishing on Facebook. The 27th person to answer gave her the correct response, but there were another hundred and fifty uneducated opinions thrown out, even after the right answer had been given. The poor woman probably still doesn’t know what to do.

2) Watch out for ignorant advice.

So while I may be grateful for free advice, I’m also wary of it. You have to consider the source, and how well thought-out the advice is. Even a person who knows the right answer might frame it poorly.

I’m not afraid of paying for advice. I often go to writing conferences as a teacher, yet I spend thousands of dollars a year on books and courses on everything from plotting novels to marketing on Kindle. I’ve spent as much as $12,000 on a single writing course—and discovered that the information, once again, was forthright, extremely valuable, and worth the investment (if you are writing a particular kind of nonfiction book).

3) Beware of creative writing teachers who hold back vital information.

Even authors in-the-know may not give great information. Some authors have great taste and write by instinct, so they can’t explain clearly “how” they do it.

Other authors compartmentalize. They may be willing to talk freely about craft all day, but won’t give out detailed marketing advice, for fear of losing a competitive advantage.

4) Even the greatest skilled writers can be poor teachers.

Sometimes, all of the advice from a notable writer is lame. For example, Ernest Hemingway was one of the greatest authors of his time. He won the Nobel-freaking prize! Yet he misled new authors. When asked how many times you should polish a story, he said “sixty.” And when asked how long you should wait between polishes so that you could view the story with a cold eye, he suggested “two years.” Of course, if he’d followed his own advice, we’d still be waiting for his first short story.

I recall one writer who made millions in self-publishing. I dropped into her class at a convention. I knew some of her technique because I’d watched her career unfold and had asked myself, “Is she really this smart?” Well, in the class she only revealed part of her tactics but withheld the “secret sauce” that had earned her fortune. (Read last weeks post on “Stealth Advertising” for more hints on how she did it.)

That’s the big problem with books on writing. Over and over, I see folks who promise to reveal “secret” marketing tips, but when you take their courses, they hide the details that you want. You get general info, but the secrets are locked away.

They might say, “If you want all the info, just take my course!” But even when you do, with certain authors, it doesn’t matter how much you pay or how often you’ve paid, they just won’t reveal their secrets. They’re too frightened, too greedy.

For this reason, in inviting people to speak to our Apex writers, I’ve asked authors to speak out of the goodness of their hearts. I haven’t been offering monetary payment—yet.

We’ve gotten some great tips from many of our speakers. We’ve heard from #1 New York Times bestsellers like Terry Brooks, Rob Sawyer, Jonathan Maberry, and others. Yet the information that we’ve gotten from some of our lesser-known authors is just as good.

One promising writer wrote to me last week after Orson Scott Card gave some heartfelt advice on overcoming writer’s block. The author said, “My wife asked how the talk went, and I couldn’t answer. I just sat silently with tears streaming down my face.”

Very often, as a writer has been speaking to our group, I’ve wanted to stop and ask, “Do you realize just how profound that last bit of advice was?”

So, every author, editor, agent, or movie producer who has spoken to our group has been deeply appreciated.

I feel, though, that I’ve reached a point where I’ve spoken to many of the people that I know best, and will have to begin offering an honorarium in the future. I’ll still search for heroes, like those who have already spoken, who offer valuable wisdom from the heart.

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5) When seeking wisdom, search widely. Test the advice.

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