Been there, done that


   Recently I heard a joke about a guy who went in for surgery. After he was rolled into the pre-op area, his wife trudged her way down the long haul toward the hospital cafeteria. But two steps from the cafeteria entrance, she heard her husband screaming, and she froze in her tracks. She looked down the hall to see him running toward her.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” she asked.

He pointed at the nurse marching down the hall towards them. “I heard what she said!”

“What did she say?”

“She said, ‘I know you’ve never been through this kind of operation before, but it’s a relatively minor procedure, so try to stop shaking. There’s a good chance everything will turn out okay.'”

The wife shook her head. “But, honey, the nurse was just trying to help you.”

His eyes went wide. “She was talking to the doctor!”

Yeah, we’d all like to know that our surgeon has been there and done that before we entrust our bodies to him. I don’t want my doctor to point to an x-ray and exclaim, “Wow! What’s that d0-hicky there?” Hardly a confidence builder.

One of the challenges of being a writer is deciding who to go to for advice. Let’s face it–and this is an uncomfortable truth–there are a few self-proclaimed experts out there on the literary landscape. Doubtless, many of them mean well and can even offer random nuggets of information that can benefit any writer. But others have never really been there and done that. And, frankly, your time as a writer is too precious to waste. The stewardship of story calls for us to carefully exercise discernment.

Thankfully there are tons of people (al though I’ve never actually weighed them) out there who bring to the proverbial table wisdom gained by the experience of having walked the road themselves. They are usually very humble people who are willing to share what they’ve learned because the respect the craft, and they genuinely want to help another writer succeed. They remember the times someone helped them in the past, and the vow they made to sacrificially do the same if they ever had the chance.

How do YOU decide who will help shape your story? How do YOU decide who to go to for advice? Any experience–good or not-so-good–you care to share (don’t mention names, please)?



Filed under Christian Fiction, Christian Growth, Christian Life, editing, Larry W. Timm, reading, Writing

7 responses to “Been there, done that

  1. My critique partners first of all because I trust them with the story. I also learn from blogs by well-established authors and writers I meet at conferences. Not so helpful: A writer who told me my novel was too short, which it was, but not giving me any encouragement about its quality.

  2. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve had to date was by an e-publisher, editor, and fellow author who taught a seminar I attended. Like me, one of his peeves was all these “rules” being fired around as though they were the shifting sands of an ever-changing Gospel. His advice? Ask WHY when someone tells you one of these “rules”, particularly if they use an extreme form, such as –

    WHY should I remove ALL adverbs?
    WHY should I remove ALL -ing words?
    WHY should I avoid dialogue tags and use ONLY beats?
    WHY should I NEVER use curly/smart quotes and ONLY use straight quotes?

    If the person shoving a “rule” down your throat can’t explain in intelligent terms WHY, ignore their advice and move on because they are only pablum puking what they’ve heard and don’t even know WHY they’re doing it themselves. Yeah, he put it that bluntly. *G*

    And yes, I was actually told two of those pieces of advice by judges in competitions. Yes, remove ALL adverbs. Yes, remove ALL tags and use ONLY beats. There were others, but those are the ones that stand out in my mind. And the -ing word one is a special peeve because not all -ing words are passive or weak writing, and sometimes they’re necessary for the flow of the story. For example, gerunds, people! 😉

    Oh, and the curly/straight quote thing? Turns out its an e-book conversion issue for SOME publishers – the software SOME publishers use has problems converting smart quotes properly, so books for them MUST be formatted with straight quotes. The person who originally told me that “rule” had such a publisher and had no idea why that publisher required that format but assumed all publishers required it. However, other publishers and most of the indie methods (KDP & NOOK, for example) don’t need straight quotes – they convert both types perfectly fine. Smashwords WANTS you to use those evil curly quotes, but it doesn’t appear to matter which you use. I’ve never been a fan of straight quotes, so I filed that “rule” away until I found out what the reason was behind it. Glad I did!

    So my personal RULE – always ask WHY and listen to the answer. If someone can’t explain WHY, move on and don’t take what they said as Gospel truth. Oh, and “My publisher says so” is NOT an acceptable answer unless you intend to use the exact same publisher as the individual who says that. Not all publishers have the same requirements because not all of them use the same formatting and grammar “rules”.

    • Dawn, thanks for the comment, especially for encouraging people to listen and be willing to try to understand why someone wants them to do something a certain way.
      You also said that if someone can’t explain the “why” of their recommendation, we should ignore it. Perhaps the opposite should apply as well: if we can’t explain why we won’t do it their way, maybe we should rethink our opposition?
      Thanks again for adding to this discussion. Blessings to you on your writing journey.

      • Even then I believe a writer should exercise caution and not simply listen to what they’re told. One of the worst times I had was because I listened to someone – I didn’t know NOT to listen to them as it was about fiction technique and was told simply that it was a “new rule”. I spent hours fixing it despite the fact I didn’t like the result, then I found out the other author was wrong and had to spend many more hours UNfixing it. If I’d done some research before implementing anything and checked into it before listening to that person in my ignorance, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and frustration.

        One of the ways I check things now is to pull recently published books from my personal library – how do those authors and publishers handle a “rule” thrown in my path? You can learn a LOT just by paying attention to grammar and fiction technique in books published by your favorite authors. 🙂

  3. Mary Gessner

    Good/ great advice.

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