Monday, June 4, 2012

Trusting The Source

By Sandra Ruttan

I tutor post-secondary writing students in diploma programs. Recently, a student asked me about my experiences as a debut author. I started thinking about what it was like, how I felt, how things worked...

Or didn't work. It took me several days to compile a cohesive response that didn't recount the entire history and drama of that event. As I was trying to figure out what to say, and what not to say at this point, one of the things I kept going back to in my mind was the wealth of bad advice that's available online. The blind leading the blind, and how often people stay silent and stand by and watch others make disastrous mistakes.

That's part of the reason I tutor. I have a chance to help people avoid the pitfalls and navigate the terrain successfully. I actually have a chance to help make a difference that can help someone be successfully published. I guess I've always been one of those people that thinks you should do for others what you would have wanted people to do for you. Sometimes, my faith falters, but generally speaking, I'm a stickler that way.

I think that's why I don't get along with a lot of people. I had a recent conversation with someone about a clear abuse situation with an individual, but the witness wouldn't pick up the phone and report it. They didn't want to get involved. I saw that when I worked in the schools. I've seen it in daycares and preschools. It's just so damned easy to sit back and do nothing. We wonder why the world is the way it is. All it takes is one apathetic individual after another doing nothing for nothing to change.

Then people bitch about all the ignorant aspiring writers out there, doing stupid things... And it seems to be equally easy in the writing world is to spout bad advice, to disregard the possibility of your influence and mislead people, either because some people genuinely don't think about how bad the advice they're shelling out is, because they're wannabes themselves, or they just don't care.

 I've always weighed the tone of discussion lists and forums, and as long as the general good advice outweighed the occasional insanity, felt that as long as the list was recommended with the caveat that you source the suggestions, and know your sources are reliable, that they could be more helpful than hurtful. I made a decision recently to stop recommending to students that they join certain forums or discussion lists. I've gotten pretty good at just walking away from a useless conversation with idiots spouting idiocy... but I've found that when the sites involved are ones I've recommended in the past, I have less tolerance for it. Undoubtedly, someone will come back to me citing horrific advice from some unknown nobody on the site who's never had anything published, and I've got to try to undo the damage.

Now, I could have turned this into an extended rant about something recently that did totally piss me off. However, that's not what I'm concerned with. What I really got thinking about was why it was so easy for people to follow bad advice. And I finally realized, as I was typing up a response to a student's question, the answer. Because in the early days, it's just the writing. Correction. It isn't even the writing, it's the storytelling. Aspiring writers are often just in love with the idea of writing. They don't think about the mechanics of publication, and why different things matter. I certainly didn't when I signed my first deal. Commas? Paragraphs? Formatting? Distribution networks? Print on demand? Retailer discounts? Why would I be thinking about any of those things?

Maybe you'll be one of the lucky ones. You'll get a good agent early on. You'll get a fair deal and have generally positive experiences in publishing, and have no reason to really learn the nitty gritty, or come to a point of regret where you wish you hadn't signed your deal.

Maybe. But it's more likely that you'll be one of the ones that experiences the ups and downs of publishing, to greater or lesser degrees, and finds yourself wishing you'd known more about the business before you you realized you were off course.

Early on in my writing ventures, I got into a spat with an author who'd had a few books published, with limited distribution. Not someone who was ever going to top the bestseller lists, and only had a few titles, but a known name in blogging circles and on discussion lists. The person told me I didn't know enough about the business of publishing. At the time, I suggested if they thought I had things to learn, why not tell me? The response was that they'd tried guiding new authors before, and new authors just don't listen. Now, at the time, I looked at the fact that this information was coming from someone who had three books that had been published, and behind the scenes had a pretty bad reputation, and blew them off. It was easy to justify, since they made it clear they weren't going to waste their time on me anyway.

I was wrong. So were they, but I've come to understand their position. I did need to know more. I was definitely frustrated by people like that one, who held their knowledge close and rubbed your lack of access to it in your face. I now understand the other side of the coin. I understand making the effort to try to be informative and helpful instead of counterproductive to people's writing. And I know what it's like to be ignored.

What I've learned is to move on. I'm not sticking around on sites that have an unending chorus of stupidity that dominates the discussion. I'm not banging my head against a wall or losing sleep about anyone who ignores sound advice (be it from me or anyone else). But once a month, I'll throw things open here to answer questions. Got one? Leave it in the comments.

First Monday of the month I'll tackle publishing-related questions, and if I can't answer them, I'll try to find someone who can. This gives everyone a fair shot to get insight on issues of importance to them. Take it or leave it - I won't lose any sleep over that either. I had to learn a lot of things the hard way. I'm doing this because the number of forums and discussion lists that I'll recommend has shrunk to nothing, and the blogging world isn't what it once was, although there are still a few blogs I recommend. If you do know great sites/lists, drop the recommendation in the comments. Otherwise, drop in your questions, and I'll see you in a few weeks.


Diana said...

A very interesting and timely post. I just walked away from a writer's forum that I have been participating in for six years. I realized that I was doing more harm than good. First there were the competitive ones who challenged everything I said to prove they are more knowledgeable than I. They're so focused on contradicting me that they were saying really stupid stuff. And then there were the contrary ones who asked for advice and then rejected every bit that was offered. If the goal is to help people and those people are going to do the opposite of whatever I suggest, then I help them more by shutting up and walking away.

I'm not sure about their forum, but I do recommend Writer's Digest and the books that they publish including the various market books as a reliable source of information. My mom writes short stories. When I was growing up there were always Writer's Digest magazines and writing books lying around the house. So when I decided to seriously write, I knew where to go for good information about the writing business.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I recommend the Writer's Digest books. One thing I've liked about online resources is that I can include a link, and know that there's access (because the tutoring is done via the internet itself, I can be assured the person has internet access). I can't ensure a person goes to the library or buys a book recommended.

However, you've really hit the nail on the head with your description of the forum you left. I also just pulled the plug on a discussion list I've been on for years. Since I was on digest and couldn't regain access to the group site, I've just auto-deleted all mail from the group. It's amazing what the change in leadership in a group can do. The outgoing president has been fantastic, and kept me on the list when I was on the verge of pulling the plug two years ago.

There are just too many who want to complain, or (as you said) prove they're more knowledgeable, and trying to offer advice is a waste of time. And then there were some politically-charged things happening a little while back that were so far outside the objective of the group... That, in combination with new leadership that was coming off as an inexperienced wannabe with strong views being dispensed with authority that, in my opinion, were unprofessional, prompted me to pull the plug.

Thomas Pluck said...

I'll be listening. Misery loves company. I get tired of writers complaining about 50 Shades of Grey, of all things. You can't change tastes. You can only work at being a better writer.

I try to read and listen to all the caveats experienced writers share, and I will be eager to hear yours.