In retrospect, I’ve actually been given a lot of advice that was pretty good. My dad enrolled me in judo classes when I was ten and taught me how to box. This accompanied his advice that I had to learn to stand up to the kids who were bullying me. Eventually, I developed enough physically and emotionally to do just that and gave one such bully a terrible, retaliatory beating when he tried to pick on me. Once the world spread, they never bothered me again. This doesn’t really qualify as “career advice,” but I think it set the tone for things that followed. My father also used to urge me to “Speak up,” but alas, I was born with a voice that many people have told me is more suited to the bedroom than the classroom. Fortunately, over the years I did develop a modified yell that I found useful in certain emergency situations.
Maybe the best bit of good advice was “Don’t quit your day job.” In reality, I never considered quitting my day job (police work) because it was my life. Although I’ve always been a writer, since doing my first short story in sixth grade, I spent my whole adult life in police work. That’s something I’m very proud of and never regret. The advice should be modified to say, “Do what you love doing,” or “Do what you do best.” You can’t go wrong if you find something you love and make a career out of that.
I’ve had a lot of bad advice over the years, too. There was my sixth grade teacher’s comment that I should “never write another short story” after the less-than-spectacular debut with my first one in her class. There was my father’s advice to go into dentistry. He’d spent his life as a dental technician and always worshipped those doctors of dental surgery from afar. But it was his dream, not mine, and I shudder to think how things might have turned out for me if I had somehow gotten through dental school and become Dr. Black, DDS. I know I would have been miserable. So perhaps the bad advice in this instance has to do with following someone else’s dreams instead of your own.
As far as writing, people advised me “not to outline” (“It stifles your creativity.”) and “Don’t revise. Your first attempt is always the best.” I’ve come consider both of these examples of bad advice. Certainly, some writers don’t outline, and write perfectly wonderful books. But writing is such an individual pursuit that you have to find out what works for you personally, and then adopt that technique. For me, outlining is a valuable tool and has allowed me to complete seventeen books and over a hundred short stories. Not revising may be applicable to completing a first draft. Certainly, one of the pitfalls that often trips up many beginning writers is “the constant revision loop”—going over the opening chapters again and again to get them “just right.” Most likely you’ll end up with two or three highly polished, well written chapters rather than a completed novel. But you have to go back once you’re done and smooth things out. One of the best writers I know calls it “polishing.” I couldn’t agree more, and for me, “polishing” is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing.
I’d be hard pressed classify any heart-felt advice as “ugly.” Sometimes it may be misguided, or downright dumb, but ugly? I think that depends on the person giving it. If you give someone advice designed to help, even if it’s off base, it should just fall under the heading “bad advice.” If, on the other hand, you intentionally give someone advice that is designed to be harmful that’s ugly. I remember watching Pumping Iron, the documentary on body building that spotlighted the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Olympia. At one point the Austrian Oak was describing his relationship with his best friend and fellow body builder, Franco Columbo. Columbo looked up to Arnold, who was the bigger and better known figure in the sport. The interviewer asked Schwarzenegger if he were worried about competing against the up-and-coming Columbo in the next Mr. Olympia contest since both men were training together. Schwarzenegger said his strategy was simple. He knew Columbo looked up to him and would, at some point ask him for advice. Schwarzenegger said all he had to do was give Columbo “the wrong advice” at that crucial time so that he would not win the contest. It always struck me as very unsportsmanlike, not to mention kind of duplicitous. Plus, he said it with a sly smile. I mean, these guys were depicted as BFFs, and Arnold was Franco’s idol. Is there any doubt why Arnold later went into politics? Perhaps the documentary should have been re-titled, Pumping Ugly.
I could also go into some advice given to me by one of my former agents, which in the final analysis turned out to be pretty ugly as well. It had to do with following his instincts instead of my own gut. When the dust settled, the guy had led me astray, and then folded when things got tough. I suppose it ties in to following someone else’s dream and not your own, and not trusting your gut.
However, I’d rather end this one on a positive note. So let me provide you with a couple of quotes about writing that kind of sum things up:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass. ~ Anton Chekhov
You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence. ~ Octavia E. Butler