Late last year, I was out for dinner with a group of writers. Somewhere between pasta and chocolate cake, our conversation turned to Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules of Writing. Lines were drawn in the sand over which of the rules were worth following, where he'd gone wrong, and who felt the need to die on the hill of adverbs.
I came to a moment of clarity. "The reason I listen to Elmore Leonard's rules," I said, "is because he was Elmore Leonard."
Cut to this past weekend, and the most chilled-out version of Harrogate's crime writing festival I can remember. For whatever reason, be it that I've been a voice in the community for a decade now, or that someone had put drugs in the water supply, a number of authors came to me asking for advice. And I gave each of them the same answer.
"The first thing, is to stop taking writing advice from the type of people who want to offer you writing advice."
And I was wrong, of course. The first thing is to finish whatever damned thing you're writing. Get to the end and do it again. I should have said "the second thing is to stop taking writing advice from the type of people who want to offer you writing advice."
Readers may know I've dabbled in the world of Stand-up Comedy. Not enough to call myself a stand-up Comedian, but I've been on stage, gotten laughs, killed a room, died on my arse, and gone back to do it again. One of the best things about doing comedy is hanging out at the back of the room with the comedians. We've all seen that group. The people in the corner, or at the bar, watching the acts, appreciating the inside-jokes, supporting those who are dying, sharing war stories. We all want to be in that group, sometimes. We all want to be seen and heard in the inner circle, to have our opinions valued. The thing is, to really be accepted into that group, they need to have seen you doing it. That is, if you want to be seen as a comedian, they have to have seen you doing comedy. Kill or die doesn't really matter. You can have been the funniest person on the bill, or the worst piece of crap in the room, but you've earned your spot in the group by getting up on the microphone and doing the thing.
There are tiers within that, too. If you turn up night after night and do the same set, in the same way, without ever learning, you won't be taken as seriously as someone who is seen to be progressing and adapting. If you regularly kill a room, you'll be taken more seriously than someone who never gets a laugh. And, the distinction of all distinctions, if you're a paid act -if you earn money from your comedy- your voice carries more than an open spot.
Advice is given. If you're seen as someone who has a bit of talent, or has something that can be improved, the paid acts and the experienced open spots might take you aside and give you some feedback. And, if you're smart, you listen, you thank them, you stay gracious, and you learn from what they say. There's no ego involved in that process. They know a thing, they're willing to give it to you, you take it because it makes you better at your craft. There is bad advice, from people lower down the order. But it comes from a place of ego, and it's easy to spot it for what it is. The lines are clear. We know who has earned their voice and who hasn't.
The problem in the crime fiction community, is that there are no clear lines between those who have earned their voice and those who haven't.
There is much more bad advice floating round than good. And it's easy to fail in this game, it's easy to miss an opportunity and grow bitter. If you've taken some bad advice, it can create a cycle, where you become jaded because things didn't work out -not seeing or knowing you were step up to fail- and you pass the same bad advice on, wrapped up in an extra layer of resentment. For some, this can turn into lecturing the audience, or complaining about publishers. For just a second, let's relate this back to comedy again: Who wants to see a comedian lecturing the audience for not laughing? Who thinks a comedian gets booked by badmouthing the bookers?
Part of it is down to the idea of branding, I think. For over a decade, anybody who is fresh to the field has been told they need a brand and a platform. For many, social media has made that seem simple. Their brand can be opinions or advice. The platform can be twitter, or facebook, or a blog (pauses to stare at the camera.) How are you going to give meaningful advice on writing a book if you've not finished one yourself? Or if you're only two or three books in? How are you going to give tips on getting an agent if you don't have one? How are you going to talk about the insides of the publishing industry if you're sat on the outside, looking in? How is what you're doing going to be of any help to the person coming into the game two steps behind you, who doesn't know enough yet to know whose advice is worth taking?
Writing advice in and of itself is not bad. But bad writing advice is destructive. It can ruin careers. Too much of it comes from ego rather than any desire to help. Too much of it is about trying to build your own brand to sell your own book.
Another side that we don't talk about is money. Look, I'll be honest, sometimes I'm a full time writer, sometimes I'm not. There are months -there can be a whole stretch of them- where I need to get out on a bike and deliver food to pay my bills. There are other times when my books sell well enough to cover everything. Within this writing game, for those of us who try and turn it into a job, there is a degree of hustle. Chasing down leads, looking for opportunities. Finding ways to earn. And sometimes, those opportunities come in the form of teaching, or coaching.
To my view, both teaching and coaching are valuable skills. They come with their own craft, and should be taken as seriously as writing. We should want to learn how to do them, and earn our spot. We should want to be teachers or coaches, just as a writer should want to be a writer. But often, in our game, the opportunities come as a way to pay bills. "Hey, if you're looking for some work, why don't you teach this course..." And then you think, sure, I can do that, and set about cooking up some opinions and forming your experiences into something approaching a teachable lesson. I've had those opportunities, and couldn't in good conscience take them. The best teachers I know are people who want to be teachers, and they deserve to be paid for it because they put in the work and we should be paid for work. I'm not a teacher, I'm not a coach. I'm a writer. And I'm a pretty good bike courier.
I keep talking about good and bad advice. I could put it into a different context by talking about earned and un-earned opinions. We see that everywhere. We're in the middle of a culture right now where we lost the distinction between an opinion that has been earned, and one with no weight behind it. Where someone on Facebook feels their opinion on any given issue is equal to a scientist, journalist, or expert who has studied that issue. It's everywhere. But we fix everywhere by starting here. If we begin to insist again on distinguishing between earned and un-earned opinions on writing, we can do out bit to make a larger change.
None of this is to say there should be no advice. Like the comedians, there are people out there who will help other authors out. There are people who can set you straight. I've been given invaluable advice at key times by people like Ray Banks, Al Guthrie, Lee Goldberg, Reed Coleman, Jacque Ben-Zekry, Johnny Shaw. I have each of these people to thank, at one point or another, for helping me avoid a serious mistake. In each of these, the help came from people who have earned that opinion. And none of them ever tried to tell me how to write, they gave me guidances on choices I was making.
I've spoken with a number of authors this year who've not had the benefit of that kind of guidance. For varying reasons. Some have come into the community from a background that didn't prepare them for publishing, some have come in and been given bad advice.
To an extent we all learn by making mistakes. But we need to accept that mistakes don't cost us all equally. I'm working class, from a town that doesn't produce writers. I was the only kid at my school who listed 'writer' as an ambition, and I have a learning disability that means I need to work harder just to pass for literate. Someone from a middle class background, or who comes from the 'right' town, or who grows up in closer proximity to publishing, would have more contacts and be able to make more mistakes than me. But even still, I'm a CIS, straight, white man. So by default, I'll have more chances, I'll be allowed to make more mistakes, than someone coming in from a different background. Some authors, for no fault of their own, may only be allowed to make one mistake before their career is over, whereas they might see me striding on past, burning a second or third bridge.
For these authors, for the people who might only get one swing at bat, we need to help them out by clearing away this culture of un-earned opinion, of bad advice. And sure, we can say it's on every writer to do their research when entering the community and to realise who to take advice from, and who to ignore. But we're not making it easy. How is a new person supposed to read the room?
Those lines are clear in comedy. Not so much in crime fiction. We need to change that. We need to make it much more obvious. We need to make it uncomfortable for the people giving un-earned advice, because they're hurting other people.