Some Advice on Advice

Once, after reading the first chapter of a novel I was working on, an agent told me the story felt a little slow. He didn’t understand why the protagonist’s mother was in the story, and he thought the book would get off to more engaging start if the protagonist killed her. You know, with a knife or something. “Two birds with one stone,” he said.

I’m afraid I started giggling. It still delights me to think of it. I mean, sure. Matricide is a dramatic way to start a novel. But then you sort of have to write the rest of the novel about…matricide. Even if every subsequent chapter followed the captivating life of a speechless man who falls in love with a humanoid marine creature (which my novel doesn’t, sadly) it would still be about that time he butchered his mother on page 15.

Of course, this wasn’t the agent’s fault. He didn’t read or represent literary fiction, and I shouldn’t have been wasting his time, or mine. But having done so, I began to wonder if he was right. Was my novel too slow? Would readers be turned off by the opening? Should I make it more sensational? I even tried, for an hour or two, to write the prescribed murder scene (maybe he killed her by accident? maybe while in an Ambien fugue?) but I just couldn’t do it. My sentences fell flat. My characters resisted me, crossing their arms, giving me side-eye, as if to say, “We’re a lot of things, but mother stabbers? Don’t you know us at all? Don’t you know yourself? You’re obsessed with a lot of weird things, but this isn’t one of them.”

I suppose this is the question for any writer navigating advice, be it from a friend, editor, or agent. What is your vision for the work? Does the advice further, clarify, or expand that vision? Does it solve problems you’ve been unable to solve on your own? If you’re resistant to a piece of advice, but it comes from someone you respect (or can’t, for whatever reason, ignore) can you identify the problem it seeks to solve, and address it in a more palatable way?

In this case, the agent’s affirmed something I already knew about my work: it was going to be too “literary” for some people. I could either: 1) despair over this fact, and learn to write thrillers/bodice-rippers; 2) tighten up the pacing in some other way; or 3) cheerfully ignore the advice entirely.

I settled on 2 with a liberal dash of 3.

Which is why I don’t believe in bad writing advice (with the exception of, “Quit your job and leave your family because writing is easy and you’re going to be rich!”) What other people say about your work—be it harsh or glowing, insightful or downright dumb—represents just another decision you have to make. And isn’t that what writers do, decide things? We delete words, and add others. We give our character brown hair and a limp. We change the limp into a lazy eye, because this just feels right. In fact, before we started making decisions, there was nothing there at all, just a blank page. And now we’ve got this lazy-eyed guy. Go, us! We’re on fire!

Most advice feels to me like a rope thrown to a drowning person. I’ll take a frayed rope, a burning rope, any kind of rope. But just as we must with rejection, a writer must learn (in the words of Saul Bellow) to rely on his own judgement and to occasionally say, in his heart of hearts, "To hell with you."

Instructor Amanda Rea will be a panelist at our Lit Fest salon, Just Add Aliens: How to Learn from Bad Advice, on June 14. Her stories and essays are published or forthcoming in Harper's, One Story, Freeman’s, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, Lit Hub, The Missouri Review, The Kenyon Review, The Sun, Indiana Review, Iowa Review, New South and elsewhere.