I’m always excited when someone I don’t know contacts me wanting to be part of Writers in the Attic. That’s how this post came about, and until I read Cait’s essay, I knew as much about this Irish-Canadian author and editor as you!
Read on to learn more about Cait (pronounced ‘Cat’) and her tips on when to listen to feedback on your manuscript, and when not to. I found them spot on! Whether you’re writing your first draft or your twentieth, this essay is well worth a read.
Cait is an Irish-Canadian warrior princess and author of Life in the ’Cosm, a space opera about a little green guy who’s crushing on the female half of his two-headed colleague (Renaissance). Cait’s also the editor of the Spoonie Authors Network, a blog featuring authors with disabilities and/or chronic illness. And she loves cupcakes.
You can follow her on her personal website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
When to Listen to and When to Ignore Writing Advice
Um. I’m not sure if I just shot myself in the foot with the title of this article. I can just picture you all thinking, Oh. Well, I’ll chose to ignore then. Buh-bye Cait. Have a nice life.
This happens to be the topic I’ll be discussing in a panel I’m leading at the Limestone Genre Expo this June (2017). The inspiration came from my own journey while writing my comedy sci-fi, Life in the ’Cosm. And what a ride it was, too. I learned the hard way that if you ever want a massive deluge of unsolicited advice, just post on social media that you’re writing a book. Holy wiggies. Everything from ‘your word count is too much, cut 20,000 words’ to ‘sci-fi isn’t really funny if it’s real sci-fi’ to ‘you’re never going to get published in Canada’ to ‘even if you do get published, they’ll slash your book to bits’.
Yeah. So that happened. I also was told to go to conference upon conference with my first draft and try to get the attention of editors before I even dared finish the book. Did I mention that none of these advice-givers had even read one word of my work-in-progress? When I think about it, every person had good intentions, but was it ever derailing from the writing process. I half-wonder if this kind of advice is akin to the unwanted parenting advice or birthing horror stories that expectant mothers receive. I’ll have to ask around.
‘The problem with listening to writing advice before you’ve even finished the first draft is that it can be so discouraging, you might stop working on your manuscript full stop.’
The problem with listening to writing advice before you’ve even finished the first draft is that it can be so discouraging, you might stop working on your manuscript full stop. At least that’s what happened to me. Thankfully, my husband and some good friends told me to continue my story because it made me happy. This encouragement helped get me out of my head and I made it to the first-draft finish line.
However, once my first draft was completed, I was all eyes and ears. I read and heard about the importance of beta readers, and common mistakes authors make in their first drafts. I learned about useless words (think very, really) and having too many ‘was statements’. These tips pushed me to become a better writer. When I sent my second draft to my test readers, their feedback proved invaluable. I took their comments seriously, and weighed each one’s merit. Some comments forced me to retool two characters’ personalities, and they read so much better after that. I cannot stress enough how wonderful constructively critical beta readers are to the process. I want to kiss them all breathlessly. Metaphorically speaking, of course.
‘When I sent my second draft to my test readers, their feedback proved invaluable. I took their comments seriously, and weighed each one’s merit.’
During the editing of the submission draft, I gobbled up articles from editors. I learned how important it is to follow a publisher’s’ guidelines to the letter, or else face instant rejection, and this prompted me to format the manuscript accordingly. But even before that, I combed through my book, following every best-practice I had read about, and edited that baby until I wanted to smack myself.
Knowing when to listen and when to ignore advice resulted in a submittable manuscript of which I could be proud. And you know what? I did get published in Canada by an amazing press who values their authors. No, my word count did not get slashed at all. I had a say in every part of the publishing process, including the cover design. My publisher loved that my space story was funny. In short, none of the nightmares came true for me.
And as for taking all the editing advice? My publisher says my manuscript was one of the cleanest they’d received.
‘My unsolicited advice, which I hope is constructive, is to write the crappiest first draft in the known universe.’
So, the bottom line? My unsolicited advice, which I hope is constructive, is to write the crappiest first draft in the known universe. That way, you’ll have a first draft! After that, you can fill in, rewrite, clean up, and so on. Then, get beta readers. Choose them carefully, because you want people who aren’t afraid to speak up. If there is diversity in your book, then you want that diversity represented in your test readers. Take the criticism, even if it stings at first. Sometimes I screamed, “WHAT?!” but then when I cooled down and thought about it, more often than not the readers had been correct. But you still have the right to choose what to listen to and what to ignore. Just give it a really good think first.
‘Lastly, edit your work until you are sure you hate yourself.’
Lastly, edit your work until you are sure you hate yourself. The tougher you are on your own manuscript, the more publishers and editors will love you. You’ll come across as a professional, even if it’s your first book.
Okay, super lastly: follow the publisher’s guidelines for manuscript format. It’s the way you establish a respect for their business and show you want to work with them.
My sincere best wishes to all you alphabet arrangers out there. Good luck!
If you’d like to contribute a personal essay for Writers in the Attic, please contact me here. The topic is fairly broad—anything to do with writing, your writing life or what writing means to you. 600-1000 words is a good length.
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I love that Cait compared receiving writing advice to unwanted parenting advice. I’d never thought of it like this before and it’s a great analogy. Another great Attic post, and very helpful, Thanks Cait and Louise.
I hadn’t thought of that either, but it’s so true! (I’ve been guilty of doling out both, too! :/) I’m glad you’re enjoying these posts, Marie. x
You’re welcome! Glad I could help!
“edit your work until you are sure you hate yourself.” 😂😂😂
I love that line, too. Cait gave me so many pull quotes!
Yes to all of this! And I love the term ‘alphabet arrangers’ 😀
Me, too! It’s amazing what we can create with 26 letters!
It really is, when you think about it!
One of my favourite things about the Writers in the Attic series is how each contributor gives so much to their fellow writers, sharing their experiences and hard-won battles.
Cait thank you for passing on your wisdom and thanks Louise for the wonderful ‘venue’!
I’m always floored by how much everyone gives to this series—I’ve learnt so much from what everyone has to say.
You’re welcome! I’m glad that people find these tips useful. Cheers!
Hi Louise. Such great advice. I love how each one is different x
I loved Cait’s advice, too. And you’re right—each of these posts is very different. Never boring! 🙂
Thanks for the advice, and the caveats about advice. Helps give me the sense of going on regardless, while heeding the words of others. Thanks Cait and Louise.
It’s so hard to know when to heed advice and when not to—one of the hardest things to decide. Even if the advice is correct, it can feel overwhelming, especially for first time novelists on their first draft!
One important thing I’ve learnt is that editorial advice doesn’t mean what I’ve written is crap! It just helps make it better.
Thanks for having me as a contributor on your great website, Louise! Wow, this is one of the few places on the internet where it’s really pleasant to read the comments! 😀
Thank you so much for writing this piece, Cait! Your advice is so good and wise! It’s really hard to know when to accept advice and when not to, and you’ve made it a lot clearer.
As to trolls, I’m very lucky because they don’t visit here! I get occasional differing opinions, but they’re always given respectfully. I love this little corner of the internet. 🙂
Thank you so much for the advice Cait. Advice like this, that is constructive and encouraging, is always wanted!
It’s handy, concise and wise. The best sort of advice! 🙂 Thanks for visiting, Jess.
You’re very welcome! 🙂