It’s better to ask for information, rather than advice
People, in general, are too quick to pass the buck. They don’t want to make decisions for themselves. They’d rather turn to someone in authority and do what that person tells them. Now, I’m pretty sure that every single person reading this post is like, “That’s not me!” Except guess what? It is you (and it’s me as well!). Luckily, we don’t live in an authoritarian society (cue the horde of people disagreeing), so our sheep-like instincts don’t cause that much harm.
In general, I find that, in writers, sheeple qualities tend to manifest itself in peoples’ desire to abrogate their own decision-making by just doing what some famous author tells them. Like, oh, Robert Heinlein said never to abandon anything I work on, so I’m going to abandon it. Or so-and-so turned down a publishing contract in order to self-publish, so I’m going to do that too. We don’t even notice ourselves doing it, because, to us, what we’re doing seems like what I said, in yesterday’s blog post, we ought to do (namely, when we face a difficult decision, we ought to find more people and ask them about it).
After all, it’s good to be open-minded! It’s good to consider other viewpoints! It’s good to defer to experience!
But too often I think ‘open-mindedness’ turns into a fear of forming and drawing your own conclusions. And when that happens, you see people being led astray by the whims and casual opinions of other people. For instance, let’s say you’ve just finished your first novel. And you send it around for peoples’ opinions. And an eminent writer looks at it and says, “Oh, this book is really fantastic, but it’s 175,000 words, and that’s really long for a debut novel, so this might be a hard sell.”
That’s all true, of course. But I know many writers who’d then immediately take out the knives and start hacking their book to pieces in order to get it below 120,000.
But you notice what the eminent writer hasn’t said? He hasn’t said, “I think this novel could be brought down to 120k words without losing any of its impact.”
All he’s done is state a truism of the marketplace. But the writer has viewed the statement through the lens of their fear and their desire for certainty, and what they’ve heard is, “This book is too long to sell. In its current form it will sell. If you cut it, then it might sell.”
But no one said that!
And even if the professor had said that, it’d still be just his opinion. What does he know? He’s not the God of buying and selling books. He’s just one guy.
The problem here is that writers, once they’ve reached any level of achievement, have often learned how to tune out criticism. But they don’t know how to tune out the wrong sort of praise. They get drunk on the fact that someone actually cares about them, and they start to convince themselves that this person, who knows so much, MUST be right.
What they don’t understand, though, is that no one–not even their closest mentor–is ever going to care as much about their writing career as they do. Which means that it’s very possible for a much-more-experienced person to be wrong, simply because they haven’t thought as much about the problem as you have.
Which is why, when talking to mentor-type figures, I think it’s important to be specific about what you’re asking. It’s fine to ask “What should I do?” but you shouldn’t just ask that question. What you want here isn’t to use someone’s judgment–you want to learn the information and the cognitive processes that allow that person to make those judgments. Basically, you don’t want someone running around telling you what things are right and what things are wrong–what you want is for that person to sit you down and teach you how to tell the difference between right and wrong.
So for instance, in the above case, what you ought to do is go back to the eminent writer and ask him some follow-ups: a) does he think your work can be cut?; b) Is there a way to handle the issue of length in your query letter?; c) is there any genre or area in which your novel’s length might harm it?; d) when people do publish long debut novels, how do they go about it?
Some of these questions are probably stupid, but you don’t know which ones are stupid and which ones aren’t. The key here is to get a full understanding of the landscape in which your novel’s length is such a factor, and to then, with all that information in hand, make the decision on your own, using your own judgement, as to whether or not it ought to be cut.