The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Received

There’s a lot of writing advice out there. Some of it is great. Some, even from professionals,  isn’t very good at all.

The worst advice I ever received came from a professional screenwriter. He declared that writers should only write screenplays like the ones that had been produced by Hollywood the past ten years. Stay away from unpopular genres! Only write screenplays that appeal to young males! Otherwise, you’re going to fail.

Just before I dropped off the screenwriters message board where this advice appeared (I decided to concentrate on novel writing for a while), one of the writers asked for some advice. He wrote mainly horror scripts. He loved vampire stories. But his agent kept telling him he should write torture porn, because that was what was selling at the time.

A virtual tsunami of advice followed. Something like 95% of it was that he should listen to his agent. Vampires are old hat! No one will buy a vampire screenplay! Vampire horror as a genre is deader than the Western!

A few short weeks after this discussion took place, there was an article in one of the trade papers (I forget exactly which one, probably Variety or The Hollywood Reporter) that torture porn was out.

What was Hollywood interested in buying?

You guessed it. This was the beginning of the vampire craze. Which was pre-Twilight, folks. Several vampire projects were being put into development, including Justin Cronin’s yet-to-be-published novel, The Passage

The lesson I learned from this was two-fold:

1. Pros aren’t always right.  Of course, many times they ARE right, and their advice is invaluable. But we have to use our own common sense to guide us, too. I had reflected many times while I was hearing this “only write what Hollywood has already bought” mantra that most of the screenwriters who had broken out over the past twenty years or so–i.e. Quentin Tarantino, Michael Arndt, Diablo Cody, to name only a few, had done so by writing things that were outside that criteria.

Of course, the argument you would get if you pointed that out was that they were the exceptions. If so, there are an awful lot of exceptions.

2. Chasing trends is a losing game. This is just as true with publishing as with screenwriting. It usually takes a couple of years at least to get a movie made after the screenplay gets what they call the “green light.” It’s not unusual for the same to be true of getting a book published after it sells–it can take one to two years.

Which means that publishers are not buying books for now–they’re buying for one to two years from now. What’s hot now can be cold as ice two years from now.

It seems to me if you adore a current trend, then you’re not chasing it, and could conceivably still produce something that publishers would want to buy.

But if you’re only writing what is considered popular now with the notion that it will increase your chances of selling, that’s a poor strategy.

I value the writing advice I’ve garnered from many professional writers over the years, and they are right way more often than they are wrong. In this instance, though, I think the advice was wrong.

5 thoughts on “The Worst Writing Advice I Ever Received

  1. So that’s why we now have movies like Cowboys and Aiens and Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies. It’s all because people are listening to professionals. I think the problem is, many professionals are so afraid to take risks that they’re also missing all the rewards. J.K. Rowling got declined by numerous publishers at first and look what happened there! Topics like vampires are classic. The trend may go away for a while but it will always come back. I agree that the advice was wrong this time.

    1. Very true–there’s a lot of risk-aversion out there. I think it’s better to fail taking a risk than to fail at doing what everyone else is doing.

  2. The biggest problem with this idea of chasing the trends is that if you are writing based on a formula or genre because it is popular then you are not writing something you are interested or excited about. That is only going to make your writing worse. Any idea that excites the writer will make the writing better whether it is a popular genre or not.

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