Friday, 27 August 2010

When Bad Advice is Good Advice

I loved my main tutor on my MA course. He gave me terrible advice.  Of course, he didn't mean for it to be terrible advice, but it was - for me.  A couple of examples:  

Halfway through Adultery for Beginners and feeling it was heavy going, I asked him if I should give up and pursue another idea I'd had.  He said yes.
I'd never say this to a student.  I think every one who ever tries to write a novel gets to a point when it seems grim and ghastly and any new idea appears fresh and shiny.  But that shiny new idea will be grim and grisly too at the 40,000 word point. I'd advise anyone to push on through.

When I'd finished the first draft of A for B he said it had been a useful experience, and now I'd got one novel under my belt, I should now ditch it and write another one.
Arghh.  Writing a novel is a huge investment of time and energy, and you can always re-write and make it better.  I've turned round novels several times, cutting characters, adding plot.  I'm not saying it's easy, but it's a darn sight easier than starting another one from scratch.  And quicker too.  

That's just a couple of examples I can remember.  I ignored all his advice, stuck with re-writing A for B, and it went on to be published round the world etc etc.  So, I think you could safely say he gave me bad advice.  

But it was useful because it was consistently terrible.  I learned to do the opposite of what he suggested, and that was the right choice for me.  Sometimes we need to be pointed in a direction for us to know that that direction is wrong.  Bad advice can be very good at clarifying what we really think, at what our instincts say is the right choice.  I loved that tutor - he gave me really good bad advice.


A Confused Take That Fan said...

Interesting. I am doing a course at the moment and finding the advice confusing. Although some of it is lovely and positive, and other completely spot on - grammar issues (I blame schools in the early 90s for focusing on creative and not correcting spelling or grammar! Ha), other aspects of the advice goes against my gut instinct on where the novel is going. Not in the, she says it's rubbish, I think it's brilliant, more in the - she's suggesting storylines for my characters that I'm not sure about...
So thank you for an interesting post. Lots to think about.

badas2010 said...

Yes, very well said.
We all get told things we can't agree with and we should just nod and smile and then go our own way.
The best critic we will ever have is ourselves.

Sarah Duncan said...

Grammar is a sad and sorry issue, and getting worse. The only people who seem to know grammar are those who were at school in the 50s or earlier, the rest of us are struggling.

If you're getting suggestions for storylines, remember you don't have to take anyone else's advice. But it's worth trying to think through why your tutor is suggesting those lines - is she really suggesting you need more drama/emotional development/whatever?

And we have to learn to develop our inner critic, because they're the one we have to rely on.