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Robert's Rules of Writing #66: Doubt Everyone

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Tap, tap....is this thing on? I know the microphone has gotten a bit rusty since I last posted on of these (December 19, 2006, for those of you keeping track at home), but I didn't realize just how encrusted it had gotten. Let me just clean it off...


When I first started this project back in 2005, I tried to post my "Robert's Rules" commentaries about three times a week. Sometimes it ended up being only twice a week, but I still managed to post with some regularity.

Obviously, there have been some recent upheavals in my life, and blogging about "Robert's Rules of Writing" had to fall to the wayside. But I think I'm back now, and my more modest goal is to post a commentary at least once a week. If I manage to do more, that would be great too, but if not, once a week is a manageable goal. And it'll give me something to talk about all the way into 2008.

For those of you who are coming to these discussions anew, note that you can always find all the Robert's Rules commentary posts by using the address http://mabfan.livejournal.com/tag/roberts-rules.

And now, to the actual commentary.

With rule #66, "Doubt Everyone," Masello discusses the pitfalls of listening to the advice of others when it comes to your writing. He points out that although writing workshops are helpful, the advice offered can sometimes dilute a writer's own voice. And he cites the personal experience of listening to agents and editors tell him not to bother with writing certain books, only to find other books on those topics showing up in bookstores a year later.

Having just been a guest lecturer at the Odyssey workshop on Sunday, I've actually been ruminating on this rule a lot. As I listened to the students critiquing stories, I flashed back to my own workshop experiences. I remember how James Patrick Kelly analyzed one of my stories and gave me two pages of notes on how to fix the story...but I couldn't help but notice that his suggestions would have made the story much more a Kelly story than a Burstein story.

On the other hand, I had written a story about our universe getting in touch with a parallel one, and when Howard Waldrop read it, he gave me one piece of advice: set the story in the other universe. I adapted his advice by setting the story in both universes, and it led to a Hugo nomination, so I'm glad that I didn't doubt Howard's advice in that case.

But there are many examples of where Masello's rule is well applied.

For example, it's no secret that Daniel Keyes was told by many editors that if he would just change the ending of "Flowers for Algernon," they would be happy to publish it. I don't want to mention any spoilers here, but anyone who has read the short story or the novel knows how vital the final scene of the tale is. The story's ending resonates so well with what has come before that I can't imagine it ending any other way.

In my own personal experience, I've sometimes found that it's necessary to doubt even one's writing collaborators. A few years back, I collaborated on a story with my friend Charles Ardai called "Nor Through Inaction", that appeared in the October 1998 Analog. Although he writes the occasional science fiction or fantasy story, Charles's forte is mysteries, and in one of the revisions of the story he introduced a plot element involving a computer reading old hard-boiled mystery novels aloud to our trapped protagonist.

But on the other hand...at Odyssey on Sunday, almost everyone gave the same piece of advice to one writer regarding her story. And when it came time for me to add my thoughts, I shared a line from the Talmud, which I paraphrase here: When one person tells you that you're a donkey, pay him no heed. But if two people tell you that you're a donkey, buy yourself a saddle.

So how do you know when to doubt everyone? And how do you know when to accept the advice of others?

In the end, my advice would be to follow these two steps:

1. Solicit the opinions of people you trust.
2. Never take any advice that destroys the heart of your story.

Because in the end, it's your story, and no one else's.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


Whoo-hoo! Robert's Rules is back! This was a particularly useful installment as I have joined a writers group and recently went through my first live critique session for a story of mine. Thanks for continuing this great series!
Um, you're welcome. :-) But seriously, I appreciate the enthusiasm. And once I'm done with this commentary, there are many other writing books I can comment on as well.
Welcome back, Robert's Rules! I think that's good advice; it's basically the way I deal with writing groups. If a majority of people (or one person who really gets and likes my writing) see a problem with a story, I pay heed, and see what's in the story's best interests, but if the person's comments overall make it clear they just don't get that type of writing, or wouldn't like the story if it was covered in chocolate, then why twist myself in knots over them?

December 2016

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