Most writers in England waste a lot of their time posting off extracts of their exciting new manuscripts to publishers. Most of the time these would-be authors see their work come winging back, unwanted. That's annoying enough in itself, but in some cases there is an even more unwelcome addition advice. 'Try a larger publishing house' High Power LED Floodlights Suppliers says the note. That's meant to be helpful? Which publisher do they have in mind? What makes them think the other guys would want something that people here have decided is unpublishable? In most cases, unfortunately, unwitting authors take these snippets at face value and assume the creator knows some secret information that they are not privy to. They take the advice, they take the action, and are disappointed again when it leads nowhere. After all, an employee of a publisher might know what their own firm requires, (if they take the time to listen to their colleagues), but they are as much in the dark as the rest of us when it comes to discerning what the company down the street wants.
Worse, the unsolicited advice often concerns the quality of the work itself. 'The dialogue needs to be sharper' says the note. That's their opinion, but beware if you take it seriously. You'll soon find that one man's 'sharp' is another man's 'dull'. Or one man's 'sharp' is another man's brusque, or downright rude. No, it doesn't work. There's no way that anybody can come to agreement on what 'good' dialogue is, just like 'good' description or 'good' characterisation. It's all a matter of taste. Now, if the person in the publishing office was giving a promise, then it wouldn't be so bad. You know, 'Write sharp dialogue and I'll print your book', something like that. Woe to the writer who interprets such casual 'advice' as being a firm promise. If they take out their manuscript again, work on it in detail and implement the hint they've been given, type it all up neatly and post it off, they're in for a nasty shock. The previously 'helpful' correspondent can't remember the submitter; or the advice they offered them, all that time before; or whether they wanted such corrections to be made and sent to them. Confused, awkward, feeling at a disadvantage, the person at the publisher's office does what they do best reject. In this case, again.
Even worse than that, is the so-called advice that comes from family, friends and the guy you once sat next to in the bar. All these 'experts' have ideas and suggestions, and are never slow in coming forward to offer them. Trouble is - if you have the patience to listen then you will once again be left baffled and even more in doubt than you were before. The advice is contradictory. After all, some people read Westerns and some don't. Some people adore Agatha Christie's books and some people despise them. Some people are addicted to 'CSI' type investigations and some people refuse to have anything to do with them. What makes you think, you authors, that the five people you happened to run into on a typical day like today would ever agree on anything, let alone what makes an interesting novel and a 'good read'?
Let's take an example. Today, as I write this, the radio News is mentioning that an inquest has opened in London into the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. It just so happens that I've had an idea for ages about taking those events of 1997 and working them into a thriller-type book, using some characters that I've already used in other situations. I ponder what to do. Should I abandon the novel I'm working on and dig that old manuscript out of the cupboard, dust it off and send it to a publisher? (After all, I've been given the advice 'Be topical' and there's nothing more 'now' than Diana, back in the news, again.) Or should I forget the Headlines and carry on, eventually hoping to produce a publishable work, several months hence, hoping it will be 'topical' then? Or do I ignore the 'topical' advice, and keep trying to find something that has more universal relevance, and is interesting to people every day, not just today, or tomorrow. The eternal themes, like love and death and honour and comradeship? Maybe I should start that book on World War 1 that I was thinking about last year. It's not 'topical' but it won't be 'out of date' by the time I finish it either, neatly avoiding the timing issue.
In other words, whose advice do I take? The man behind the till in the supermarket? Does he really know more than the Junior Editor at the New York publisher I received a letter from last month? The woman on the web site with her coaching tips? No, the best advice for all authors is listen to everything, then ignore it. Make up your own mind and listen to your heart. Trouble is, you might find your instincts don't correspond with what publishers in big cities are gossiping about right now, and all your efforts will be rejected by eager Editors, looking for the 'next big thing'. Which brings us back to the Internet. If ever there was an argument for publishing your own work through an on-line publishing firm like Lulu, it's this. Do it yourself and nobody is ever going to turn you down. If nobody likes what you've done, then you won't get any sales, but at least you'll have the work in print. Who knows, you might simply be 'ahead of your time' and public taste will catch up with you, making you famous sometime in the future. Highly speculative, I know, but far, far better than the alternative - trying to work out which nugget of advice is actually true, as opposed to all the false leads you will be swamped by. For you to know that, for certain, there's only one possible way I can see that that would happen telepathy. Most of us haven't developed that Sixth Sense yet, as far as I know. Still, why take my advice?