“Beware of advice – even this.” Carl Sandburg
I spent the first few years of my writing journey wondering if I had what it took to be a writer. I always thought I did. But after a few writer’s conferences, I began to think maybe I needed to change my process. Every workshop I attended preached the same idea. To write well, to have the strongest plots and most well-rounded characters, I needed to plan out everything before my fingers touched the computer keys.
Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the planning process. I understand how it works, and when I must, I can use it. I can pick my own brain for all the details about my main character and write them in an easy to use list that takes me from past experience to character quality to outward actions. I can apply these traits to my character and fit them to an equally well-developed plot.
I can use this method for writing. But it isn’t natural to me. One look at my life and it becomes apparent that there’s rarely room for planning. I can organize with the best of them. When I must, I can craft a plan for an event that takes into account every possibility and the contingencies needed to face each one. I am actually very proficient at doing these things, but I have no love for them. I’d much rather my life be filled with pursuits that didn’t require all that extra time and energy to complete. That feeling carried into my writing life, and each workshop I attended pointed out where I was failing.
Then it happened. I attended a very small conference where each presenter was also an author. It was a more personalized and focused experience than the other conferences I’d attended. And the best part was one of the presenters was my favorite author. I’d admired her story-telling ability from the time I picked up my first book by her. Her characters were complex. Her plots were intriguing and entertaining. Each consecutive series showed growth in her ability. I gave all my attention to her as she stood to speak. When some of her first words to the group were about us all being unique as writers, that some people tell you a writer must be a planner to be a good writer, and that if that’s not who you are that’s more than okay I thought I must have misunderstood. When she shared that she’s not a planner either, I finally felt freed to write my way without wondering if it would hold me back. She didn’t say there was no benefit in planning. She expressed pros and cons for each method. But my take-away was encouragement to be myself in my writing, and it went against all the other professional advice I’d heard.
Advice in the writing process can be tricky. There are most definitely universal ideas that can help anyone better their ability to craft a story. Market changes are constant and require someone in the business to navigate them in the best way possible. I’m a firm believer that we must learn the rules and their reasons before we can even think about manipulating them to work in our stories. We learn them from others. It’s good to listen to those who have gone before. They have a lot to teach us. But as I found, there is a place where you have to determine if the advice you hear is good advice or good advice for you. Then, you do what fits best with your writing personality and face the consequences, both good and bad, knowing it was your choice that put you there.
While there are some times writing advice comes down to whether it fits you or not, there are still times when it falls into the good or bad categories. I doubt I’d be quick to sign up for a workshop on character development if it was taught by a math teacher. That doesn’t make sense. They aren’t a credible source of writing expertise. When I want to learn about writing, I go to those in the writing profession.
It’s a good practice to get into no matter what advice I seek. We seek advice all the time, but how often do we think about who we’re going to for that advice. It seems everyone in today’s society has an agenda, something to sell us. The results are conflicting information that lead to frustration and confusion. But when it comes to the important matters of how we live our lives, we don’t have to settle for the mixed messages.
The Psalms and Proverbs are full of warnings about choosing our friends and confidants wisely. Scripture teaches us that good character helps build good character in us. It warns that bad character will corrupt our ways. Why the warnings? God knows we are curious people. We will seek answers outside ourselves, and He wanted us to be prepared to know what advice was good and which should be ignored. He wanted us to understand that to choose the godly path, we needed to surround ourselves with people who would advise us in godly ways.
Knowing even that much is sometimes hard. People are adept at showing us only what they think we want to see. But God knew that too, and He gave us a way to judge the advice we’re given. It begins with weighing it against scripture. With scripture as our authority, we know that any advice given that goes against it is not godly advice. He also gave us the Holy Spirit and discernment. When the answers are less clear, we can spend time in prayer and wait for the Holy Spirit to speak to our spirit about the validity of the advice.
It takes a heart willing to search out the answers. It takes openness to learning and listening to the Holy Spirit. But we can learn to spot godly advice. We can learn to weed out the ungodly. When we do, we will find the freedom and peace that comes from knowing we are living inside God’s will.