Stop Feeling Like an Author-Wishbone at a Table of Industry Experts (Part I)


Do you have a uterus?

If you answered yes and were a post-menopausal female in my practice roughly a decade ago, odds are I’d have talked you into taking combination hormone therapy.

Besides the fact you’d probably feel better, having ditched those inconvenient hot flushes without hugely altering your lifestyle, I was after bigger fish. I’d embraced the preventive mindset, and the Nurses’ Health Study said I’d be protecting your heart and nervous system, not to mention your bones.

Expert opinion backed me, too, and by that I mean brilliant people who’d read the same studies and reached the same conclusions. Good local clinicians. The type of person you could call in the middle of the night to say, “I have a feeling I’m in trouble with this delivery,” and there’d be no second-guessing. They’d show up in ten minutes flat with bed-head and a willing heart. The sort who wouldn’t let an incompetent resident through the system, even if the cost of being a whistle-blower was time and vilification by colleagues. No shortcuts for these folks.

As for me, I was passionate and persuaded. Since there’s little more compelling than a doctor without an agenda, other than the betterment of their patients’ health, I was extraordinarily effective at winning compliance.

Then the Women’s Health Initiative came out.

The promise: hormones would protect a woman’s vascular system.

The reality: an increase in heart attacks and strokes significantly above baseline levels.  To add insult to injury, in the two years following, as millions of North American women shucked their medication, the incidence of breast cancer declined by 2-3% per year. If hormones weren’t causing the outright development of breast cancer, even in properly screened patients, they certainly seemed to ignite its growth.

Lots of data, lots of expert opinion, lots of misery and fatalities in the name of preventing suffering.

Therapeutic whiplash.

Was this an unusual experience in medicine? I wish. I recall a long list of new sleeping agents that weren’t going to be addictive, except when they were. I remember the weight loss drugs that got you skinnier while damaging your heart valves; the lipid-lowering drugs that improved cholesterol numbers while increased rates of death.

You’ll notice I’m not even discussing issues like falsified results, suppressed data, or bought experts—in other words, fraudulent science. I’m only addressing the fact that even under the best of terms, even with thousands of data points and a team for analysis, evaluation has its limitations.

“Prescriptions” in the literary world

By now you’re saying, “Fine, Jan. We’re done with hearing stories about your ancient youth. What does this have to do with writing?”

And I’d ask, what are discussions like these, except attempts to diagnose, treat, or prevent literary malaise?

  • I’m a hopeful novelist. Should I blog, and if so, how often should I post? What should I write about?
  • If you have a blog, should you turn off comments altogether? Or should you minimize barriers to conversation, even if that means time spent deleting hundreds of spam comments a day?
  • Should a writer join Klout, then change their Twitter strategy and whom they follow based upon its scoring system?
  • Will you make more sales if you sign people up for your newsletter the minute you have their email address, or should you only ever ask them to opt in?
  • Nobody’s buying paranormals. We won’t be able to sell this book. Write me a dystopian.
  • I have $500 for promo. What measures will give me the best bang for my buck?

So, fellow writers, as you’ve read and listened to advice in the writing world concerning prescribed actions for your career, have you noticed the lack of consensus? Have you seen that the staunchest opinions can fluctuate over a period of months, even within the same individual? Have you noticed the quality of data which bolsters most points of view, if provided, is at best anecdotal and incomplete? (That is, not remotely as detailed or comprehensive as in the Nurses’ Health Study, which still got it wrong.)

Developing Your Own Criteria for Assessing Advice

Does this mean there’s no point to listening to advice? That if publishing/ blogging/ marketing experts can only advance opinions based upon small amounts of data and experience, culminating in intuition, we shouldn’t bother to listen?

Absolutely not. For one thing, we all know people who could stand in a feedlot during a tornado, stretch out their arms and snag two fistfuls of posies.

The trick is to learn to find these way-showers and stand next to them, if not become them ourselves. For just as we learn to filter critique advice through our own increasingly sophisticated knowledge of craft, self-identity, and story sense, we’re capable of learning strategies to evaluate “treatments.” We can determine patterns, evade the more obvious pitfalls.

I believe this because by the time I left practice, through sheer repetition and experience, I’d developed:

  • a healthier and realistic skepticism about the evolution of the Next Best Thing, and an understanding of its predictable cycle. (Wildly hopeful reception > generous and off-label use > development of unanticipated side effects > recall or significant narrowing of its scope of deployment.)
  • a better way of distinguishing the sound from the fury, so that fewer of my patients became the evidence of an intervention’s harm.
  • an improved sense of when I was being sold versus when I was being educated and emancipated.

Apply What You Already Know

I left medicine. I started writing. For reasons I should probably explore with a therapist, I unconsciously checked all that knowledge at the door. What could medical research and the search for quality evidence have to do with this world?

Maybe more than I thought.

That’s what I hope to explore in Part II of this series, in which we’ll look at some ways of evaluating writerly advice through a medical lens.

For now, here are a few conclusions:

  • Good, diligent, and intelligent people can still have poor understanding of a situation because of flawed data, flawed understanding of causality, or imperfect application. You cannot turn off your brain just because they are nice.
  • Good, diligent, and intelligent people can still prescribe wrong action, because they’re answering questions that are irrelevant to your goals. You cannot turn off your brain.
  • Data is sexy, and though we seek it with a real and primal urgency, the wrong data is worse than no data at all. It can get you pregnant with ideas you didn’t want or need.
  • Once in a rare while, you’ll meet someone who’ll try to blind you with “facts” or the force of their personality. Their motive might be money, jealousy, personal ambition, or compensation for their small organ size. I dunno. I don’t understand this mentality. Point is, your career decisions are always on you. You cannot afford to turn off your brain, especially when it comes to picking experts to whom you’ll defer.
  • If you’ve got expertise about evaluating data in non-writing situations, don’t assume your critical-thinking skills are defunct in this world.
  • Finally, all these cautionary tales apply doubly to me. I’m unpublished, unagented. Just because I’m under the WU masthead, that doesn’t mean I know squat about your career.

Have you brought an analytic skillset from another world that guides your writing decisions? If so, give us a sense of how they intersect.

Photo of Dr. Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) is from Smithsonian Institution, on Flickr. She was the first woman on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, remaining there until her retirement in 1935.

 

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

  1. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Jan, this is a tough one this am, because you’re coming close to relativizing all knowledge (at least about the unscientific literary arts) down to opinion.
    But since I’m having some really excellent coffee and feeling good about the warm weather, I’m going with the positive takeaway that it’s better to trust yourself and your instincts and not follow the lemmings, even if that leaves you standing in that tornado with empty hands while the posies rain down beside you.
    Enough mixed metaphors for anyone. Thanks for making me think. Gotta go sign up for Klout, whatever that is. :-)

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    • says

      Too harsh for a Monday morning? I wondered about that. If the takeaway message is that we can’t expect helpful guidance, then I apologize. I didn’t do my job about explaining the upside, because I think it’s huge.

      For me, realizing that I’m mostly reading opinions based upon case studies is freeing, precisely for the reasons you note. I might still follow the path an expert advises, but if the evidence says it doesn’t work, even if an expert says it should, I can make room to be my career’s expert.

      Experts still exist. Case studies and qualitative help! We simply need to be mindful of their limits. In Parts II and possibly III, I thought to provide medical principles which guided me in a field that also held a great deal of uncertainty.

      Finally, medicine is an art, too, and contains lots of relativism. What seems like an obvious treatment choice to one person would be repulsive to another.

      Welcome to my world of grey. ;)

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      • Jeanne Kisacky says

        I definitely got the positive out of it Jan, and think it’s a really good point that integrity is the only rudder through the storm.
        I think the reason it was hard for me (and hard is not always bad), is that there’s just too much gray in my life right now. So it’s a beautiful post, but it’s one that hits to the core–how do you stay true to yourself when the ongoing search for self is at low ebb?

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        • says

          First, I just want to say that you’re welcome to find the post too heavy. Anyone is. But to your question: “…how do you stay true to yourself when the ongoing search for self is at low ebb?”

          That is a post-worthy question. A life-worthy question, Jeanne!

          I hear you. As several people have noted below, it’s seductive to let others decide where we should go, and sometimes we’re abdicating our power. Know what? Sometimes it’s even adaptive. If I were flailing about an urgent writing decision, and I couldn’t make the call for various reasons, there are a few people I’d ask for advice. (Their names might begin with T & K.) That’s why so many patients will cut to the chase when faced with a number of overwhelming grey choices. “Doc, what would you tell your husband/wife/mother/child to do in my shoes?”

          Nothing wrong with that.

          And I’d work on the ebb. Maybe proceed to a retreat where I could hang out with wise, laughter-filled people, eat chocolate, and scuff the autumn-tinted leaves.

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  2. says

    Jan,
    Thanks for this wise advice. It is easy for writers to become seduced by well meaning “experts.” I’m dubious about experts who offer guaranteed results, especially in publishing. A writer must temper advice given with her own goals, skill level and experience. As to your question I bring the same organizational and planning skills from my day job as an executive to the task of organizing my writing time, though the creative process itself doesn’t allow me to draw on my professional skills. Thank you for a thought-provoking post, Jan,

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    • says

      “A writer must temper advice given with her own goals, skill level and experience.”

      Yes. This is it exactly. I should have harnessed your executive abilities and made this my post, CG.

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  3. says

    Wow powerful thoughts hitting me smack where I’m at. I spent 22 years in higher ed. running an entire department, making decisions and being tough in the face of institutional politics. Suddenly,in the world of writing I abdicate the brain and gut I used to trust. You put to words inklings of thoughts I’ve had about listening to my gut and trusting myself and my intelligence. I feel like shouting, “amen!”.

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    • says

      Good. That’s exactly what I was after, julie. If you feel this way in another few years, and you use all that hard-won wisdom to be more adaptive in writing, I’d love to know what that looks like.

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  4. says

    Fascinating, Jan! My 84 year old mom was one of the women who refused hormone therapy back in the day b/c she said her gut told her not to take it. The digital age has revolutionized my black and white self. I’m so thankful for access to all different kinds of beliefs and studies, and most importantly, for the confidence to trust my intuition. I can draw a parallel to this with my faith. Whereas the church I went to wanted to maintain that pastors and theologians were the authority on all things God-related… after spending a few years doing my own intense studying about a doctrine that rubbed me the wrong way, thanks to articles and books available as far back as the 1800’s, I’ve been able to validate what my heart told me all along. So I say, Viva la digital age and viva discernment!

    I’m very much looking forward to this series and how you’ll tie it all in to writing.

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    • says

      Viva discernment, indeed.

      In our culture, it’s not only prudent to question authority in the spirit of discernment, but some would say it’s our duty. (And it always seemed to me that the best teachers welcomed debate because, if nothing else, it helped them refine the quality of their thoughts.)

      Interesting to see how that philosophy is expanding, and I’d agree the Internet is a big accelerant.

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  5. says

    Great stuff, Jan. I’ve been through periods of reactivity, flailing to try to adapt the work and my online presence to the expert advice du jour. Getting back to my pre-writing roots is what (mostly) ended it.

    When Mo and I took over the management of our new company, we were the new kids in the big city. We had one primary competitor in our area of expertise (prefinished wood siding). And that competitor was kickin’ butt and taking names. Slick marketing was their middle name (quality product, not so much). Our company was 100 yrs. old, very staid, but had survived on quality and integrity. We decided to hang our hats on those, and all of our marketing efforts reflected it (proud heritage; the name your father depended on, and so can you, etc.). It was a long slow climb, but throughout, we were comfortable with ourselves and so was the company. People learned they could rely on us. In ten years, we not only became the market leader, but one of the national leaders of the industry.

    Sorry, long story, but my point regarding my writing career: focus on quality of the work–make sure the first one anyone gets makes them want another. Then deliver on that one. Integrity. Develop into something that can be relied upon. Same for online presence and blog posts. Give them value, let them know they can count on it. Only post when it’s worthy of their time. Well, that’s the goal, anyway. Notice I’m still unagented/unpubbed. (And hopefully an occasional clunker on my blog will not kill my reliability rep). Still working, working.

    I love that your bringing your experience to the table in such an interesting way, Jan!

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    • says

      The terrifying thing is when one realizes that their blog post can be construed as the advice du jour. Hence my disclaimers.

      “It was a long slow climb, but throughout, we were comfortable with ourselves and so was the company.”

      You’re going to see this as one of the (perhaps obvious) points in a future post–that in the medical world, before embarking on any treatment plan, we expect our healthcare team to take our values into consideration.

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  6. says

    The message I am hearing is ‘trust my instincts’, not ignore al the good stuff out there, but neither allow the perceived credentials of the so-called ‘experts’ to blind me from my own inclinations. Great post!

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  7. says

    Your post makes me even more committed to doing what works for me and stop worrying about all the “you should be ….” mantras out there. Thanks for the honest pep talk.

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  8. says

    To me the point is that it’s our responsibility to develop (and USE) our critical thinking skills. In this info-glutted age, it’s easy to merely be a receptacle for information, but I think our job is not to simply ingest it, but to process and evaluate it.

    It’s an important life skill, not just in writing. But it’s a particularly crucial skill for writers, with many situations where we need to apply critical thinking:

    – in developing the logic of our plot
    – in developing our characters and their behavior
    – in evaluating and responding to feedback, criticism, and rejection
    – in choosing our strategic directions as writers (genre, online persona, traditional or self-publishing, etc.)

    It may be a lot to take in on a Monday morning, but I wholeheartedly agree with what I see as Jan’s main point:

    Writers gotta THINK.

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    • says

      I feel so understood, Keith. *pats your big old bald head* Agree with you on the need to ditch passivity, no matter how much it might appeal.

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  9. says

    I’m also unagented and unpublished (as a novelist) and so I often wonder if I know squat about writing as a career — especially my own. And so when I first started blogging I tried to follow the herd, do exactly what blogging experts recommended. Of course then the question was — which experts? Finally, now after almost two years I’m realizing I need to make my own decisions… and that if I apply my analytical skills (I’m from a technical writing background, with lots of science coursework and a strong leaning toward the scientific method), it can help me figure out how it makes sense for me to approach my blog, come up with a methodology. And I also can figure out a system that works best for me in the course of my writing day… I can’t say I’ve gotten it down to a science, but it helps me to approach it in a very structured way. It’s the way I work best and am most productive, too. I love this post and look forward to part II!

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    • says

      You’re speaking my language. I tend to be intuitive, but I always prefer it when logic leads to the same conclusions and paths.

      You’ll have to let me know if I’m veering astray in future posts. Will value your critique.

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  10. says

    “Point is, your career decisions are always on you. ”

    Part of the charm of experts in any field is the reassurance and confidence they give you. It’s like being a kid again, absolved of any responsibility. And if you fail, you have a scapegoat. But the bottom line is it always hurts or helps only you, so you have to stay engaged.

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    • says

      That’s it exactly, Liz. The one time it varies, and I bet you’d agree, is when the expert is invested in your outcome, too, so that your success becomes theirs, and vice versa. (Success being defined in a holistic sense.) Many of us seek agents/ editors/ publicists/ blog mamas who behave as such. Those are my favorite kinds of experts, because the advice comes with certain advantages. (Will discuss this more in another post.)

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  11. says

    Even though I’m sans uterus, your article was very beneficial to those of us with outies, too. This line summed it all up for me:

    “For just as we learn to filter critique advice through our own increasingly sophisticated knowledge of craft, self-identity, and story sense, we’re capable of learning strategies to evaluate ‘treatments.’”

    It seems like if you have common sense, or at least an innate sense of when you’re running into B.S., the filtering process is easier, and becomes increasingly so with experience.

    Loved the tornado/posies metaphor!

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  12. says

    Such a smart and refreshing post, Jan. Thank you. A few of you lovely commenters mentioned “the gut” (as in, “trust the gut”) and I think being a writer who is able to weather storms WHILE improving one’s draft WHILE maintaining one’s integrity must learn to listen to The Gut.

    The Gut . . . that quiet voice or nudge or tap-on-the-shoulder that often gets lost in our nutty world where we are so connected to so many experts. Our world is loud; we have to give our gut some quiet space to let it whisper its mind.

    Sure we can listen to outside experts, we can be open to what they are saying, but in the end, we must trust the gut . . . even if it is a little flabby from childbirth and chocolate and grilled cheese sandwiches.

    Our gut is both our lighthouse and our center of gravity. Without it, we stumble, dizzy in the darkness.

    (Wow. That got a little heavy and metaphorical.)

    Monday Morningly,
    Sarah

    Thanks, Jan, as always! LOVED this.

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    • says

      “Our gut is both our lighthouse and our center of gravity. Without it, we stumble, dizzy in the darkness.

      (Wow. That got a little heavy and metaphorical.)”

      And beautiful, o one-with-internal-armor.

      Positively post-oatmealish,
      Jan

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    • says

      Land of grey? I’m afraid so, Patti, especially if you hang around me. Don’t you know I’m an unnecessary complicator?

      To wit, the gut is a valuable thing, but I personally preferred it paired with logic and evidence. I hope to give a few principles which can help. The big takeaway message, I think, is not to discount one’s gut, and to consciously work on and value your own system of evaluation. Does that make sense?

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  13. says

    Great article and so timely for me right now, as I prepare for publication in 2013. Thanks for the insights and opening up options for me. I look forward to Part 2!

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  14. says

    Great advice, Jan.

    I love your line, “for one thing, we all know people who could stand in a feedlot during a tornado, stretch out their arms and snag two fistfuls of posies.” Too funny and such a vivid image.

    I agree that as a writer we have to persevere. My current strategy is to daily move forward with craft, continually embrace the world and find words to describe the experience. I also try to maintain and better my platform and keep tabs and contact with the industry. Hopefully the combination will be the recipe for my WIP to be successful.

    As you discussed, I may learn something tomorrow that will cause my writerly direction to change. As long as I’m learning along the way, it’s another tool in the box.

    Great post!

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    • says

      Your spirit is one of entrepreneurism rather than following dogma, Kristi. I think that’s a sensible and fluid choice for a changing paradigm, especially when you don’t necessarily know what you like or what you’re good at.

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  15. says

    Jan, I love the lens you bring to this discussion. As for employing another skill set: As a playwright I had to learn to navigate a world that was both highly collaborative and chock full of expert (some not so expert) feedback. There’s a saying that your play can get “workshopped to death” meaning that you went through so many workshops, and re-wrote in response to so many opinions, that you “lost” or “destroyed” your own play. The least experienced writers trusted the experts the most, did the most revising, lost their vision, their plays. At first it’s reassuring that someone else might know how to “fix” your work. Only with time and experience do you develop the eye, the ears, the nose, the gut to know what you believe works. It’s a fine line though – remaining open to good ideas while sticking to what you believe and perceive. One thing that I’m grateful for – I went through that process for a new play at least once, if not several times a year. Novelists may have a different learning curve because the size of a book and length of time required to create/ revise, etc is so much longer.

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    • says

      “The least experienced writers trusted the experts the most, did the most revising, lost their vision, their plays. At first it’s reassuring that someone else might know how to “fix” your work. Only with time and experience do you develop the eye, the ears, the nose, the gut to know what you believe works. It’s a fine line though – remaining open to good ideas while sticking to what you believe and perceive.”

      Yes, yes, yes. This is true for me, at least.

      I do know some people who don’t lack for confidence, who also aren’t prepared to know or understand they are beginners. Some of them go on and do well, and shake off disappointments and “failures.” Others quit, or don’t seem to grow. As you say, there’s a fine line.

      And I think your point on repetition makes sense, too. I wish my brain worked for short stories. I hear this is one of the best things about writing them–a cycle of completion, so an opportunity to cultivate that self-expertise over a shorter time span.

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  16. says

    I’m reading along, vaguely aware the awesome-ness of this post is not quite sinking in because I’m still stuck on the newly gleaned info that you’re a doctor, *and* an incredibly funny one to boot. How cool is that?

    What I got out of this is “don’t turn your brain off.” We do that, don’t we? I don’t know why. The worst that can happen is we’re wrong. Perfect is boring anyway, and some really incredible discoveries have come from mistakes. I can live with that.

    Thanks for reminding us that sometimes we already have the answer, we just have to listen.

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    • says

      Here I’ve been feeling rather like a female baboon about my former profession, thinking I’ve left it on display so much people must be bored.

      I’m no longer in practice, D. Left that world some time ago.

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  17. says

    Jan, you are the master of the Opening Line!
    I love your post, not because it’s “advice” (I love your advice!) but because it’s affirming. *I* want to be my career expert. I think I have to be, since much of what is out there is simply “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.”
    All we can do is listen, evaluate, and use our brains.
    Thanks for the affirmation.

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    • says

      Heh. Thank you for liking my opening line. I’m trying to work on my copyediting skillz, so that sounds positive.

      Yes, “damned lies and statistics.” So true, and you’d know all about that, having been a participant in the medical world.

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  18. Ronda Roaring says

    Medicine is an imperfect science. Yes, I was post-menopausal ten years ago, but I’m vegan, and we don’t get hot flashes. So, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to read your article. Your post, though, brings up an entirely different issue about writing about subjects that conflict with your morals, whether in fiction or non-fiction. My WIP is about Pompeii. I’ve found it to be a highly controversial topic with some archeologists, especially in the past, having manipulated finds to make it appear to be a scene that never occurred and others, especially in the present, interpreting finds in totally different ways. Academia is highly competative, with some candidates sacrificing more than just time and expertise to get a professorship. In the long run, though, people believe what they want to believe, not what the research shows, otherwise everyone would be vegan.

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    • says

      Have you heard of John McDougall, Ronda? He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “People like to hear good things about their bad habits.” That tendency is present whether we’re discussing diet, writing, or apparently Pompeii. Interesting stuff.

      I’m veg, BTW, aiming for vegan. I try to get everyone I know to read The China Study. But diet is another place where the experts outshout one another, and without the ability to read and evaluate evidence independently, the consumer is battered around, forever in reactive mode. (Though I do think smart people are being increasingly heard. Ornish, Essenstyn, the Happy Herbivore, etc., seem to have platforms that weren’t possible even 5 years ago.)

      Anyway, back to the subject, which is writing! Glad the intro to this post didn’t stop you from reading.

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  19. Carmel says

    I learned years ago that I had to use my brain, read what others had to say, and do a lot of trying (will this work? will that work?), if I wanted good health. I think that mindset is helping me on my writing journey. Either that, or I’m getting old and you can’t help but pick up a thing or two if you hang around long enough.

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  20. says

    Answering “Have you brought an analytic skillset from another world that guides your writing decisions?”

    When I worked at Prevention, I learned to look at medical research while wearing “what I can do about it” lenses. I still try to wear those today, and apply them to my posts here and my tweets when possible. This is more challenging when I hit bumps with my writing career, but I know there are two ways to look at almost everything, and it’s my choice to wear rose-colored or shtank-coated glasses. I’m at my best when I focus on what I can control, which almost always comes down to the writing and not the business.

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    • says

      “I’m at my best when I focus on what I can control, which almost always comes down to the writing and not the business.”

      The Serenity Prayer, right?

      Robin’s post about the Seven Stages of Grief, for me, is about letting go of what’s not within our realm of influence. We mourn a perceived loss of power.

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  21. says

    Hi Jan,

    Loved this post, especially this:

    “For just as we learn to filter critique advice through our own increasingly sophisticated knowledge of craft, self-identity, and story sense, we’re capable of learning strategies to evaluate “treatments.” We can determine patterns, evade the more obvious pitfalls.”

    It’s all in the practice of the craft.

    To answer your closing question, I’ve just started a new blog where I examine my writing life through my woodworking life. I’m using the blog to journal about using tools, identifying their applications, and drawing inspiration from each endeavor.

    Looking forward to reading more from you. Best of luck with your writing goals!

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  22. says

    I’m really looking forward to part two. Statistics class opened my eyes up to really evaluating data and marketing strategies. My social work classes taught me to evaluate programs and systems. That might be why I’ve always been a little frustrated and combative with the set up writers must follow to become traditionally published (query, agent, publisher) – it doesn’t always make sense to me.

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  23. says

    I agree with Keith, too: It’s not so much the skill set we bring, or the metaphors we choose to apply to writing. It’s about being–at some stage of the process–objective, critical and analytical.

    To put it differently, sometimes we gotta be all heart; sometimes all brain.

    My dad sold electric motors and used to call on the purchasing managers at factories around America, back when America had factories. He returned from trips with fascinating stories about the methods of making everything from puffed rice to rubber tires.

    I think that’s why I want to know how things work, and why I’m so against the I-don’t-know-how-I-do-it-it’s-magic mythology in this fiction writing business. It’s misleading.

    Yes, sometimes its magical (intuitive, subconscious) and should be. Other times its craft and toolbox. And sometimes, screw it, stop thinking about it and just write.

    And no, no uterus. Can men open with the analogous question? Wouldn’t feel right, somehow. Odd.

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    • says

      “I think that’s why I want to know how things work, and why I’m so against the I-don’t-know-how-I-do-it-it’s-magic mythology in this fiction writing business. It’s misleading.”

      Remember how I said last month that this is what I most appreciate about you? That mechanical mind with a teacher’s mentality? It is possible to know things without being able to articulate why; there are at least two little people walking around now because I trusted my gut in medicine, and didn’t like the look of a situation well before it turned objectively south. But boy, if one leans towards analytic thinking, it’s so much nicer to have a toolbox. An approach.

      As for the analogous question, why don’t you try it? We’ll see how it goes over with WU’s readership. ;)

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  24. says

    I loved this article, Jan. And it was very timely for me right now. Matter of fact, I think I’ve asked you a couple of the questions on that list, haven’t I?

    It’s been hard for me to come from journalism, where things were fairly straighforward (at least when I was in it) to fiction, where everything is changing so rapidly and no one seems to know what the “right path” is. I like having a path, and I’m terrified of making mistakes.

    So far, I’ve been blessed to have been pointed in the right direction by a series of crazy events and a lot of trusting my gut. And some very smart writer friends. So for now, that’s the formula I plan to try to stick with.

    I can’t wait to read part two!

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    • says

      I gave you some of that advice? Uh-oh.

      When things are less clear cut, it’s harder to pick wrong. That’s the good part about uncertainty.

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      • LynDee Walker says

        I don’t think you gave me any of the advice, but I remember asking you about how frequently I’m “supposed” to blog.

        I hadn’t ever considered that side of uncertainty. Very good point.

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  25. says

    Great post, Jan. I wish I knew what to do — it’s pretty certain you can’t listen to ALL the experts, so you have to pick which ones resonate. And sometimes that’s best, but sometimes it just means you follow your worst inclinations with more confidence because they’ve been expert-approved.

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    • says

      Hahaha, Kell. Well said. This pertains to the quote I used above in another comment. It’s by Dr. John McDougall. “People love to hear good things about their bad habits.”

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  26. says

    Occasionally I stumble upon cross-over skills from my deep, dark secret–I’m a Bible College graduate. The dark comes from never having found a ministry opening and waiting too long before starting my non-ministerial life.

    You might be surprised at how critical preachers can be–perhaps discerning would be a better word but I was hoping for a chuckle there. I’m now a self-published scifi author morphing into a screenwriter for film.

    Now my self-publisher wants me to come up with a screenplay by Spring. I’ve learned several ways to write them and my novel wasn’t fitting the first few paradigms. Then the ‘let’s look at this from a different angle’ thing kicked in and the parts began to fall into place.

    ‘Conventional wisdom’ would insist I’m not really an author because I didn’t use a traditional publisher. They have no idea of the give and take between me and the editorial evaluation team, the rewrites, etc. I chose my publishing paradigm and other authors are free to do the same.

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    • says

      I had no idea about your background, Phyllis. That’s an interesting combination of skills. Is it common, do you know? (The SciFi and ministry association.)

      You have a point. You were self-published before it was fashionable, weren’t you? That implies a tendency to independent thought, where your own counsel ranks higher than industry experts. I doubt you ever were a wishbone, or if you were, I doubt you lingered there.

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  27. Denise Willson says

    Thank you, Jan, for making me feel normal for once.

    I’ve always been the outcast, the weird chick who has little regard for anything inside the box. I don’t follow orders, question everything, never outgrew adolescent WHY’S. This made me a great entrepreneur, blazing trails where everyone said I couldn’t, but when it came to writing…what did I know? Turns out, I know a lot. Just knowing who I am and where I want to be in this world is enough. I write with my heart and lay all my questions out to behold. The truly daring will get it, the people in the box will not. I’m good with that.

    Thanks, Jan.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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  28. says

    Can’t believe I’m a day late on this and there are 71 comments! Wow! This post made me smile. Especially made me think of the “social media gurus” a while back. I’ll admit I handle social media for a couple of clients as well as myself and everyone goes into thinking it’s the magic FREE potion that will turn into direct sales. I wish. It’s a communication channel and has the opportunity to be engaging, but so can a cup of coffee with a prospect. Which one do you think will close the deal at the end? I believe in integrated marketing, but you’re right – one case study doesn’t mean the same thing will happen for the next person. So much of it is trial and error and that goes for publishing, too. Now, how big is your coffee pot?

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    • says

      Now see, when social media gurus give full disclosure, meaning they discuss the probable limits of their tools alongside the benefits, authors win. I think that’s admirable. I suspect that leads to a more loyal, engaged, and plentiful client base. (You’ll note I have no evidence for that, but I still think it’s true.)

      It’s grounding to know there’s no magic potion. Thanks for the comment.

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  29. says

    So now it’s evening, and I’m just getting to this post. Enjoyed it immensely because it spoke to my thinking exactly. Consider all the evidence, then follow your own best instincts.

    As my grandmother used to say “No one has your best interests at heart like you do.”

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    • says

      Your grandmother sounds like a wise woman. Funny how their words can stick. I was thinking of mine today, too.

      Glad this made sense to you, Judith. thanks for letting me know.

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