Unsheath a Steel Fist From the Velvet Glove? Timeless Agent-Insider Viewpoints on The Biz

By Richard Curtis

Traduttore, Traditore
("The translator is a traitor") - Italian proverb

One of the critical roles literary agents play is that of translator. We perform the task on several author. The writer who sells his first book to a publisher and reads his first contract is plunged into a sea of words that may be totally unfamiliar to him, or that are used in a totally unfamiliar way. "Force majeure," "net proceeds," "matching option," "warranty," "discount"—these need to be defined for the novice author. There are many difficult concepts to be grasped, such as "advance sale," "midlist," "fair use," "reserve against returns," "pass-through," and "hard-soft deals." The language has its own slang, too, and our initiate hears bewildering references to who handles the "sub rights," what is the tentative "pub date," and what happens when the book is "o.p.'d."
levels. The most obvious and fundamental is explaining the nomenclature of publishing to the uninitiated

Agents patiently try to demystify these terms, but it may take many years of experience before our clients are completely at ease with them. It may well be true that what distinguishes professional authors from their amateur brothers and sisters is that the pros have undergone this linguistic rite of passage and are now able to sling around "pre-empts," "first proceeds," and "escalators" with the best of 'em.

But there is another, and profoundly more important, job for the agent-translator to perform beyond explaining to his clients the terminology of the book industry. I'm talking about using language to forge and strengthen the bonds between authors and publishers. For, while the goals of both may ultimately be identical, they are usually achievable only after many conflicting viewpoints and interests have been reconciled. Sometimes those conflicts become intense, and if allowed to go unresolved can cause serious if not fatal breakdowns in the relationship. An agent, standing between these potential adversaries, must find common ground for them to stand on, else all - including his commission - is lost. And though their differences may be genuine, sometimes they are semantic, and if an agent can pinpoint and settle the linguistic problems, perhaps the more substantive ones will not seem quite so insuperable. Although it's a stimulating challenge, not all of us enjoy sticking our heads up in this no-man's land.

You must not think, however, that editors cannot be seriously wounded. And it is important to know that fact, because a hurt editor (or art director or royalty bookkeeper) may not want to work as hard for an author who has irked him or her as for one who has been supportive, tolerant, and forgiving. This is not to say that editors are so thin-skinned they fold the first time someone criticizes them. But I do know that if an author or agent injures an editor's feelings seriously enough, it can undercut his or her initiative, and that may eventually redound to an author's detriment. Some years ago I phoned a bookkeeper who had been verbally abused by an author a few months earlier. This author was owed another check, and I wanted to know where it was. "Funny thing about that check," she said, deadpan, "it keeps falling to the bottom of my pile. Must be gravity or something."
We have learned that "a soft answer turneth away wrath."
It is therefore vital that editors and their colleagues in other departments of publishing companies be handled with a certain degree of diplomacy, and it is in the language of that diplomacy that most agents are adept. We have learned that "a soft answer turneth away wrath." And most of the time, we are able to rephrase or paraphrase the blunt demands, the raw needs, the hard feelings, the hostile remarks, of our clients into gracious packages of civility that convey everything the author intended without damaging the fragile sensibilities of the person at whom they were directed.

I've been keeping some notes about discussions recently conducted with editors and am happy to offer herewith a few examples of this process in action. Some of them are tongue in cheek, others are deliberately exaggerated. Still others will sound stilted, and that is because, unfortunately, that is the way I speak.

Let's take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions. Editors are burdened with a great many tasks that curtail their reading time. They may be inundated with manuscripts to read. They may be on the fence about a submission and wish to postpone a decision for a while. They may be soliciting opinions or sales estimates from colleagues in their company. They have many legitimate reasons for taking a long time to read submissions.

At the same time, some editors seem to have a considerably dimmer sense of the passage of time than people in other fields, such as airline management or television programming. So, one of the first lessons one learns in the agenting profession is how to translate an editor's promises about time. "I'll read it overnight" too often means, "I'll get around to it in a week." "I'll read it in a week" means, "I'll be back to you in a month." And "I'll read it in a month" may well mean that the manuscript is lost.
Let's take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions.
In order to reasonably hold editors to their promised schedules, agents use the elegant phraseology of coercion. "As I'm loath to keep manuscripts out of circulation," I might write, "may I trouble you for a decision?" If this fails to yield a reply, I might escalate to something more pointed, like, "My client is getting restless," or, "I'm under some pressure to determine where we stand."

Sometimes a humorous approach is in order. I'm a great believer in the power of teasing to accomplish that which solemnity cannot, and I'm not above a little sarcasm under the appropriate circumstances: "When I submitted that manuscript to you, the oceans were two inches lower."

If an editor has sat on a submission for an unconscionably long time, I will invariably get a phone call from my client saying, "You tell that sonofabitch that if we don't have a decision by Friday, I'm personally gonna come down there and rearrange his prefrontal lobes with an ax haft!"

Justified though that ultimatum may be, it is couched in language this is terminally infelicitous. By the time I'm through modifying it, it may sound something closer to this: "As you don't seem able to make up your mind, suppose we say that if I haven't heard from you by Friday, I'll put another copy of the manuscript into play elsewhere, and you may take as much time thereafter as you wish." And sometimes I'll put a finer point on my message with this veiled warning: "Do let me know when your work load is down to a more reasonable size so that our agency can resume submitting books to you."

I'm certain that you must be saying to yourself, "How is an editor going to get these messages if the agent pussyfoots around that way?" The answer is, editors get these messages loudly and clearly, for unless one is incredibly dense, he or she will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against the throat.
The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, "It didn't live up to their expectations"...
Another common problem for agents is, of course, overdue checks. Authors are remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing the discomforts of financial deprivation and to depicting the character and ancestry of those who conspire to keep them in that condition. Unfortunately, most editors would go through the roof if exposed to the authors' invective. Enter the honey-tongued agent, and though that agent might love nothing better than to say, "Pay up or we'll vaporize you," it's more likely he or she will say something a bit more subdued. Perhaps a subtle form of extortion: "It would be to your advantage to remit payment promptly so as to avoid scheduling delays," In plain English, this informs the editor that unless his company ponies up the dough, the agent isn't going to deliver certain manuscripts that the publisher desperately needs to put into production. Because a late manuscript can wreck a production schedule at fearful cost to a publisher, the wise editor will undoubtedly give the check-processing machinery an extra-hard spin when he or she gets a message like that from an agent.

I can think of lots of other ways that agents refine the harsh language of their clients without sacrificing effectiveness. For instance, though we may be thinking, "My client just turned in a real turkey," what we are telling an editor is that, "My client thought you might like to see a first draft of his book before he starts polishing it."

Or, "My client is going to sue you into Rice Krispie-sized pieces" becomes, "My client is contemplating contacting his attorney, at which point the matter will be out of my control."
Or, "My client thinks your editor is so incompetent, he couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the C and the T!" becomes, "I'm not certain that the author's and editor's views about the book are entirely compatible."

* "My client is so upset he's taking big bites out of his living room sofa" translates into, "My client is finding it hard to understand why . . ."

* "You'll use that cover on my client's book over his dead body!" may be altered to, "My client is pretty determined."

* Here's a brief glossary of other agently euphemisms commonly employed when tempers start to overheat:

You: "I'm thoroughly disgusted with those people."
Agent: "My client is somewhat disenchanted."

You: "If I had that editor's throat in my hands . . ."
Agent: "I'm not sure my client is completely comfortable working with you."

You: "They're lying and cheating."
Agent: "My client feels he may have detected some discrepancies.

You: "What a crummy deal?"
Agent: "Some of the terms leave something to be desired."

You: "I wouldn't sell another book to that butcher if he were the last editor on earth."
Agent: "Let's have lunch."

The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, "It didn't live up to their expectations," or, "They found it lacking in certain respects." Or an editor's remark to the effect that a certain author couldn't write his way out of a trash can liner becomes, "They don't feel you've reached your potential quite yet."
Here are a few others.

Editor: "This material is simply lousy."
Agent: "Your editor is disappointed."

Editor: "What language is your client writing in, anyway?"
Agent: "Your editor pointed out some obscure passages."

Editor: "Your client is the rudest person I've ever had the misfortune to work with."
Agent: "Your editor seems to have overreacted to what he perceives as a slight."

Editor: "Is your client crazy, or what?"
Agent: "I'm not sure your editor appreciates your sense of humor."

Of course, not all agents approach matters as delicately as this. Some of us are in fact quite plainspoken, and even the most tactful among us realizes that there are unavoidable occasions when we must unsheath a steel fist from the velvet glove. Still, it is gratifying to know that at least when it comes to the language one may still find reminders of the time when publishing was a profession for civilized ladies and gentlemen.


In Defiance of The Iowa Writers Workshop and Samantha Chang, and Why You Should Ignore Them Both

          by Michael Neff
DISCLAIMER: the aim of this article is not to defame, it is to challenge the Iowa notion that an imaginary genetic pre-disposition is necessary before a writer can ever be defined as a really good writer, and secondly, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that a writer does not have to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop in order to learn to write really well.

"I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit."   
                                                                                       - John Steinbeck

"I feel that if I just brought them [her students] into the room and fed them chicken soup they would get better any way."   
                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

“I felt the years go by without accomplishment. Occasionally I wrote a short story that no one bought. I called myself a writer though I had no true subject matter. Yet from time to time I sat at a table and wrote, although it took years for my work to impress me.” 

                                                                                       - Bernard Malamud 

"The elements that go into making a great writer are completely mysterious and nobody knows what they really are."   
                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

"Much discussion has centered on the means by which Fitzgerald, in the three years between the publication of  The Beautiful and Damned  and 1925 made the artistic leap necessary for the creation of his finest novel, The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald himself partially credited his technical experimentation with point of view to his having read Joseph Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus  and the evolution in his thinking about western civilization to his exposure to Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West."

                                                                                       - Bryant Mangum (VCU 1998)

"The elements that go into making a great writer are completely mysterious and nobody knows what they really are."   

                                                                                       - Samantha Chang

"Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is."   

                                                                                       - Willa Cather

With curious mind and proper sense as both motivation and filter, just an hour or two on Google will demonstrate to you beyond any doubt that the greatest writers, poets and authors of all time struggled with their work, and it took them many years of toil and rewriting and experimentation, learning their craft and trade, before they stepped ever so lightly into the mainstream literary consciousness. And yet, if we examine the logic and philosophy of Samantha Chang above, if we listen carefully and blink in disbelief a few times, we hear her telling us just the opposite, that really good writers are simply born to be really good writers. They are BORN to it, and by inference perhaps, she and the Iowa Writers Workshop staff are among the best at deciding who is born to it and who is not.

So who is Samantha Chang anyway? 

She is the director and primary spokesperson for the Iowa Writers Workshop, the most expensive, famous, and perpetually praised college writing program in the U.S.-- a program that many other college programs have attempted to emulate for decades. Samantha and Iowa's motto: Writing Cannot Be Taught

Samantha has won loads of awards and fellowships from many of the usual places that cater to those in the academic club. She's been on a fast track you might say, and she might tell you no one has ever taught her a thing that has ever helped her grow as a writer. Note I said, she might tell you. But will you believe it? Perhaps. One wonders, first of all, if Samantha actually believes herself born to the literary gold. It's hard to know (though the video above seems to infer it). But if you read the two and three-star reviews in Amazon, i.e., those not written by friends or students (only 18 reviews total), the Publishers Marketplace review, and then a bit of her novel (her opening paragraph below), you might question whether or not the born-to-the-gold status is true or all in her mind:
In Chang's hands, the world of poetry is a cliché; instead of a novel, she delivers a case study of the modern poet with little bearing in reality and characters as one-dimensional as the premise. While the language is well crafted, readers may be disappointed by the lack of quality storytelling. 
                                                                            - Publisher's Weekly

This is one of the worst PW reviews I've ever read, but perhaps this reviewer has a chip on the shoulder re the Iowa Writers Workshop? Perhaps the three-star reviewers and the two-star do also? It's possible. And now, Samantha's opening paragraph of her last novel, All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost.

In all fairness, portions of Samantha Chang's prose demonstrate improvement over the paragraph above, and we do see show-don't-tell scenery as the novel progresses, so you can't judge the bulk of the novel based on above. But going on what I know so far, and after having dipped into her novel, I see a writer who, like so many, is struggling to define her voice, and who obviously has a lot to learn about craft. If I am accurate in my assessment of Samantha Chang's literary life graph, I would have to say that becoming a writer of literary gold is still a potential in her case, but she was not born to it. And who is? Back to the simple Google searching I noted above that proves no one is born to it. However, I do believe Samantha Chang can transcend the total sum of her current limitations and one day become a great writer, and I believe that potential lies not only with Amanda, but with the tens of thousands of writers who never attended Iowa. 

13 Students in One Samantha Chang Workshop?
And while we're at it, why do writers theoretically born to be great writers need to spend $80,000 to go to a program like the Iowa Writers Workshop whose motto is Writing Can't Be Taught? Why must they listen to a roomful of varying opinions from twentysomething gold borns recruited by Iowa much less putz around with Samantha Chang who thinks they would be just as well off if she simply skipped "teaching" and served them chicken soup? Emily Brontë and William Faulkner are great writers... or are they? After all, they didn't attend Iowa. And what about the likes of Ray Bradbury and Agatha Christie? Well, not sure if they count at all since they're genre writers. I don't believe Iowa and Samantha would have admitted them (it's a dirty little semi-secret that commercial genre writers are shunned by Iowa academics).

The primal God of the Iowa Writers Workshop Frank Conroy (God rest his soul), stated for the record that writing could not be taught. Frank's mantra waxed to universal in academic MFA and creative writing settings, and it resonates still today. From as far back as 1989, a note about Frank:

Conroy concedes the validity of one criticism of writing schools -- that which says writing can`t be taught -- but asserts it is beside the point. "You don't make a writer the way you make a lawyer," he says. "It's a situation in which you can save young writers a tremendous amount of time in learning nuts-and-bolts technical things."
Yes, who needs to learn those "nuts and bolts" anyway? Indeed, on the Iowa Writers Workshop web page, you read the basic philosophical statement:
"Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged."
The Iowa assumption though is based, in large part, on the alleged existence of a nebulous and indefinable thing known as "talent" (see Samantha utterance above). But this assumption is not supportable in any demonstrable manner. For example, the brain skills, experience and tenacity required to write successful commercial novels, in any genre, are far beyond even the most brilliant of child geniuses. As all published authors know, the tortoise wins in the commercial novel race. 99% perspiration is what matters. Even if "talent" exists, it performs precious little function when all is said and done, regardless of Iowa viewpoint and chest beating ego to the contrary.
The Iowa Writers Workshop, therefore, unlike the Juilliard School of Music, is not so much a center of learning as it is a warehouse of collectibles.
The Iowa Writers Workshop, therefore, unlike the Juilliard School of Music, is not so much a center of learning as it is a warehouse of collectibles. Its reputation is so stellar that it only has to reach out and pluck those who have already been taught to write prior to Iowa, those who have written ambitiously for many years. The advantages to Iowa's elite collection program is obvious. The better the writers they allow in via their screening process, the better odds that a meaningful percent of them will struggle on to become published writers, thereby lending credibility to a program that denies the possibility of teaching anyone a thing. Make no mistake. There are no Eliza Doolittles in Iowa awaiting transformation, only young writers whose trajectory was ordained even before their destiny as future Iowa alums. 

One does have a vision though of Iowa students whispering arcane secrets of craft at midnight behind closed doors, playing Harry Potter-like, teaching one another something wonderful and magical about writing until the dictatorship of the institution cajoles them by morning light into once more assuming the obligatory Conroy personality.

After all, Samantha might be stalking the halls, sans soup.


All manner of various articles on Iowa Writers Workshop, many buying into the Iowa myths, others somewhat critical, extreme, politically correct, and so forth.

Where Writers Are Made - Atlantic M

Critics of MFA Programs Have it Wrong  (just ask Samantha Chang!)

"Iowa is one of the oldest MFA writing programs in the U.S., and before Chang, all of the directors were white men. The program is so respected, Chang says, they have to turn away some of the editors and agents who are eager to hunt for new talent."

Glad we got rid of them! Those darn white men starting stuff!

btw, Vonnegut thought little of the Iowa Writers Workshop

Sandra Cisneros Hates the Iowa Writers Workshop

NEH Speaks Fondly of Iowa and why shouldn't they?

PBS Speaks to 75 Years of Iowa Writers Workshop (yes, lots of good writers from the workshop, but after 75 years, can't any decent program boast a marketing list?)

"Among the talents that emerged in those years-writing, criticizing, drinking, and debating in the classrooms and barrooms of Iowa City-were the younger versions of writers who became John Irving, Jane Smiley, T. C. Boyle, Michelle Huneven, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jennie Fields, Joy Harjo, Joe Haldeman, and many others. It is chock full of insights and a treasure trove of inspiration for all writers, readers, history lovers, and anyone who ever "wanted to be a writer."

Full of nostalgia for the Iowa Writers Workshop on Amazon

"Most full-residency programs concede publicly that they can't even teach students anything -- they can only provide a nurturing space for their talents. The MFA is, at base, a non-professional, largely-unmarketable art-school degree that can't get anyone a full-time teaching job (at least not in the absence of significant in-genre publications) and is not designed to "network" graduates into magazine or book publications. "

Seth Abramson speaks out in Huffington Post


The Writer Thin Skin Test Plus Pushy Writer Film

The test is designed to ferret out lurking narcissists, drama queens, and various immature writers who might best be served by not attending workshops or retreats any time soon. Feel free to use this test on any candidates for your own writer events 

                                                                                                                          - Michael Neff 
                                                                                                                             WE Chief Editor

  • Has any writer ever prefaced their critique of your work by first saying to you, "Don't hate me, please?"
  • Do you sense that writers who unfavorably critique your work are "loading the gun" and taking aim?
  • Do you rush to defend your work when a reader gives you criticism rather than absorb and weigh it carefully?
  • Do you feel a need to say unkind things about a writer's work if you perceive she or he was unkind to you first?
  • Have you ever chastised any writer for what you consider to be improper or incorrect critique of your work?
  • Have you ever been in writer workshops and reacted to criticism of your writing or story by demanding the other writer defend their decision in such detail that it served your purpose of making certain they never gave you unfavorable critique again?
  • Do you receive critique you oppose in good humor, but routinely seek the negation of it from those you know will agree with your version of reality?
  • Do you see yourself in one of the pushy and ill-informed stereotypes depicted in the film above?


"Top Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice" (and more)

      by Michael Neff

Without Proper Advice Though, No Publication

If you ever run or attend writer events, you will never cease to hear utterances of bad writing advice, the popular kind that circulates like a ruinous viral meme through the nervous systems of America's aborning fiction and novel writers. And each time you are exposed, you either chuckle or swear, depending on your mood and the circumstance. You might make a daring attempt to kill the meme in its tracks before it can infect someone else, or you might just stare at the writer with a dumbfounded look on your face and ask him, or her, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

Yes, the first question often asked: WHERE THE HELL DID YOU HEAR THAT?

Inevitably, many will point to their writer's group. Ahhhh, of course, you think. Why just recently in an Algonkian event, one of my faculty (a former senior editor at Random House) and I were faced with an individual who adamantly asserted to us both (and at the same time) that using only one point of view to write a novel was mandatory.

No exceptions!

I'm not kidding or exaggerating. I asked, "Where the hell did you hear that?"

She'd learned it from her writer's group. It must therefore be true. No doubt because they had told her this for seven years, and her workshop leader affirmed it, and as further proof the preposterous assertion was correct, a member of her group held an MA from Johns Hopkins! So in the face of this onslaught we displayed the typical dumbfounded reaction, and to our further astonishment, the writer just dug in and continued to resist our many proofs to the absolute contrary. As a matter of fact, one of the novels the writer was supposed to have read before the retreat was HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Of course, she didn't read it, but she did at least admit it contained more than one point of view. Uh oh! Moments later though, to bolster the writer group firewall of defensive ignorance, she said, "Well even F. Scott Fitzgerald screwed up once in Gatsby and shifted to a different point of view... So it just goes to show, anyone can screw up like that and use more than one point of view."

Stunned yet again following this mind-blowing comment, the two of us finally recovered to note several more novels that contained multiple POV, from WUTHERING HEIGHTS to THE POISONWOOD BIBLE to THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES to various thrillers and even to Rowling's later Harry Potter books. We figured that somewhere between Emily and J.K. this extremely stubborn person might actually stop and realize that perhaps her writer group had been steering her wrong. Sadly though, I don't believe she ever learned. Perhaps the bond with the group was too strong and the consensus delusion regarding single POV helped maintain their social cohesion. Perhaps her own narcissism disallowed her? Both? Who knows? I just know that the writer never once admitted she was wrong. No sign of epiphany was ever forthcoming. Instead, she lapsed into borderline hysteria, though recovered the final two days and went to work on another novel. I sent her at least 20 examples of multiple POV following the retreat and received only a very terse note in return. All in all, it was the most singular and remarkable act of writer ignorance I've ever witnessed, but one cannot blame the writer out of hand. Bad advice was one of her worst enemies, if not her worst. If you go to a writer's group respecting the leader and your peers and they tell you XYZ nonsense year after year, how can you not believe it? Nevertheless, we workshop leaders and teachers tire of being the target of theatrical repercussions at such time the narcissist writer discovers the world is not flat and the sun doesn't revolve around them.

On the plus side, the exasperating event above prompted me to finally work towards creating a master list of bad writer advice--something I've wanted to do for years. I searched on Google not only to help with my own recollections but to investigate anything I might have missed, and the first article I came across was in Lit Reactor: "The Ten Worst Pieces of Writing Advice You Will Ever Hear."

Lit Reactor seems to be a decent place for newbie writers seeking community and inspiration, but I have to take a few exceptions with the article above. I firmly agree with a lot of it, for example, WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW is really bad advice. How could speculative or historical fiction writers ever pen a page if this were true? But the author goes on to choose other literary adages we've all grown old with and claims that they too are actually very bad advice. One of them is SHOW DON'T TELL. So that's one of the worst pieces of writer advice? Huh? Now, let's pull in the reins for a second. As a writer I've never seen SHOW DON'T TELL as a hard and fast rule that covers all conditions and circumstances. Obviously, one may need to "tell" at such time a certain type of exposition needs to be artfully delivered and dialogue isn't sufficient. Like most writers I've known, I see SHOW DON'T TELL as a helpful guideline, especially for newbies who tend to lump pages of exposition in their opening chapter, or otherwise drone on and on about an important event in the story when they should be depicting in a live-action scene.

As in other instances in the Lit Reactor article above, the author isn't necessarily wrong when she counterpoints the age-old literary adage, as I did above, but the difference between us is that she posits SHOW DON'T TELL as an unbreakable rule, and when exceptions are offered up they stand as proof that the adage is actually bad advice. Logic dictates, however, that one can find several conditions to counterpoint the negative examples and then we're even. My point is that the unfortunate act of singling out the SHOW DON'T TELL guideline as bad advice is, in itself, bad advice--my apologies to the author of the article, and she is welcome to debate this here, but seriously, how the heck would you apply the anti-SDT logic to screenplay writers or playwrights when so much more is SHOW DON'T TELL?

Let's recap. We now have three slings of really bad writing advice to list. We'll build the list as we go:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice
Next. At every Algonkian event, I hear a writer state this to me sooner or later: "Writer's shouldn't use flashbacks in their novels." Yes. Another, Where the hell did you hear that? Of course flashbacks are acceptable, if used artfully. They are just one technique in the fiction writing toolkit, and the types of flashbacks vary from a brief memory to a full chapter, or more. Novels that use a framing device of looking back into the past after having first established a contemporary setting (e.g., A Separate Peace or I Claudius) are themselves one immense act of flashback. But like the first example in the beginning of this post, the writer's group can sometimes be at fault for spreading this unproductive advice, but in all fairness, is the writer group the true source? When questioned about origin, the writer spreading the viral meme regarding flashbacks more often than not says, "I heard it at a writer conference." And then I ask, from whom? And they answer, "Uhh, someone, an agent, um... on a panel."

Trauma time! The soul-searing memories return to haunt me. Years ago, I sat on a panel with five other agents at the San Francisco Writer's Conference listening to a new and incredibly ignorant agent drone on and on about the craft of writing (though she wasn't a writer and had never been an editor--in fact, like so many young agents, her only past experience involved reading query letters and wading the slush-pile), and every other utterance from this person's mouth about fiction writing was just plain wrong. I sat biting my tongue as long as I could, and then attempted to qualify and gently negate her assertions, and succeeded to some degree, but despite this calamity, I learned something. Here before me sat over 200 people, writers in their early stages, looking for good advice. And were they getting it? No, a hundred times NO. Past memories began to gel and I realized that the single biggest source of bad advice for writers might well be the typical American writer conference--and of course, these writers return to their hometown groups to repeat what they've heard, e.g., no flashbacks, show don't tell sucks, don't worry about your title...

Don't worry about your title? Back to a writer conference. I attended a panel at another large writer conference on the west coast in 2014. It was a panel of writers who had recently been published. There were about 75 people in the room. A poor neophyte stood and asked the assembled writers if he had to worry about his title before he was published, and the consensus answer from the panel? No. You don't... I sat there dumbfounded. So basically, these people told this guy that pitching his novel or nonfiction with a crappy, foolish, or hackneyed title was perfectly fine. Not to worry! Call it whatever you want. Must I spend any more space telling you why this was not only not perfectly fine, but perfectly stupid and self-defeating? A bad title is like a warning siren going out ahead of your pitch, whether it be an oral pitch or query letter. It makes a horrible whining sound of warning, and it seems to be saying to those who read or listen: This is a terrible writer, stop listening, stop reading, run screaming!

Now, time to add three more to the list:
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title
  • Any writer conference is helpful
Pitching the MFA
Though I don't hear it as much as I used to, I nevertheless hear it from young writers who have been conditioned to falsely believe that they will never write well or be taken seriously as writers unless and until they possess an MFA. My response to this: nothing could be a bigger lie. I'm sorry, I can't mince words or dance around the reality for the sake of anyone. This isn't to say that the right student can't benefit from the right MFA program (e.g., at Florida State)--they can, of course. I'm addressing the members of the Literary Academic Complex (LAC), also known as the Literary Industrial Complex (LIC), who relentlessly promote the marketing myth that the odds are you'll never amount to much as a writer without an MFA. Yes, no fooling. Just click to the article at WE regarding the MFA, and when you arrive, click on the link to an MFA writer poll and you will see Gary Shteyngart quacking forth on this very subject ("You have to get an MFA"). No conflict of interest here? Gary has an MFA, and how could this smiling goofy guy be steering us wrong? Thanks, Gary, for doing your part to convince America's youth to incur millions in debt to obtain MFA degrees of highly dubious worth. However, if we could overhear Gary talking in whispers at one of his terribly boring academic cocktail parties, you would get the real skinny, and it would sound something like this:
"Look, we all know there are only a handful of MFA programs in the country that are worth a shit, but you know, when you're interviewed you have to dumb it down so you won't piss anyone off."
One of the fatal flaws of MFA programs consists of using a writer group of fellow students (who know as little or less than you) to critique your work for the purpose of improving it, which brings me around to another bit of really bad advice: JOIN A WRITER GROUP. I wrote an  article here at WE that pretty much sums up why being in a writer group for critique and guidance can be a train wreck in any number of ways. Again, like the MFA, you're supposing that people who know as little or less than you (otherwise why would they be there?) are capable of providing constructive advice, but since you aren't knowledgeable enough to know one way or another whether or not the advice is good, you should never take it without follow-up investigation--and if you're going to be constantly reality-checking what you hear, why stay in the group at all?... Yes, it's a social fest, it can be fun, or it can be oppressive and even ugly.

Did you know, THE ELEMENTS OF WRITING GOOD FICTION CANNOT BE TAUGHT? I didn't know it either until Isabella Allende told me so. She believes, as I do, that great authors are self-made, not baked from a workshop recipe, but she goes on further to say that students of novel writing are only capable of learning a limited subset of craft. Why? I'm not sure. She's not as extreme as the Iowa mantra that states "Writing Cannot be Taught, only talent developed," but she's closing in on it. From the video below (final 30%):
"I have twenty students working on a novel, but only one might create a good novel... I can teach them a few things about the writing, but I cannot teach suspense, tension, tone... how to play with the imagination of the reader, what is the highlight of the story..." 
Hmmm, why not? We teach it effectively in Algonkian workshops and in online programs--quite effectively I might add. Tension and suspense derive from a number of sources, and all these are knowable, and examples can be displayed. We can't fold on our teaching methods because Isabella Allende believes otherwise. To each his own. Btw, I love her writing.

Finally, we come around to our number ten on the list: Don't plan or outline your novel, let the character write the novel, or even more simply, "Just start writing." How many times have I heard that? And guess where? At a writer conference, of course. A certain type of author is asked whether or not they plot or outline ahead of time. They smile and say something like, "I've been asked this question before, and I have to say no, I don't outline. It just all comes to me, the character inhabits me..." or some such drivel.

But let's be logical.

If you understand the primary foundations for writing a novel you know your plot line must develop certain points as it moves forward, and you know also that you must write separate scenes in the novel to perform certain tasks relevant to the plot line, as well as to the character arcs, etc. It's a complex undertaking, and one that demands a certain amount of planning. If you are some kind of genius and can keep it all in your head, more power to you, but if you are like me, you need to organize and place ideas on paper (or on the computer). Also, logic dictates that if your novel plot lines are a series of circumstances, reversals, and events that tie together, it only makes sense that you better know how point A gets to point M before you will know how point M gets to point Z.

Consider, do screenplay writers or playwrights just start writing without any planning? Of course not. So why should the novel be different? And we're not talking about Beckett or Joycean flights of fancy, we're talking about the vast bulk of commercial novels, whether they be upmarket or genre.

Btw, here we have a bunch of freelance editors confirming this awful advice. Interesting, yes, but if you look closely you'll see they are trying to sell you their editorial services. Perhaps the less you plan your novel, the more work they'll have to do?

Now for the summary.

The Writer's Edge top ten worst pieces of writing advice:
  • Only one point of view per novel
  • Write what you know 
  • "Show don't tell" is bad advice (OMG!)
  • Avoid flashbacks in your fiction
  • Don't worry about your title (someone else will)
  • Any writer conference is helpful (beware--all events are not created equal)
  • You need to get an MFA (or you wont' be taken seriously)
  • Join a writer group (to improve your writing and get good feedback)
  • The art of fiction can't be taught (and "writing can't be taught")
  • Don't outline or plan your novel (let it happen)