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Thursday, January 26, 2012

The blind leading the blind by Terry Burns

 I used to have the time to be very active in our local writing group, to the point that I was a two time President of the organization. Unfortunately these days I nearly always have a place to be working conferences and events when their meetings occur. But that’s beside the point.

I sat in so many classes and crit groups and talked constantly with other writers and amassed a level of knowledge that I was so confident in that I began to teach in the group. The information that I handed out was eagerly received.

Then came the fateful day that we had a bestselling author there to present. He also sat in on my session for beginners. After it was over he quietly said, “You don’t really believe all that garbage you were handing out, do you?”

Well, yeah . . . I did.

I was stunned. I took him out to eat that evening and we talked for a long time. I came to understand two things, first that I had ceased to learn and started to teach, and second that I was getting all of my input from writers who didn’t know any more about it than I did. We shared opinions with each other until we came to accept it as truth.  I gave up teaching until I could reach the point where I could be sure of my subject matter and have a strong level of confidence that I could believe what I was saying was accurate.

Nobody has a handle on exactly how things work in this business. Every time I tell a group that in my experience something works a certain way, someone is sure to point out that some highly successful person did it just the opposite with phenomenal results. Absolutely, there is always the exception that proves the rule.

I’m not a gambler, but I understand playing the odds. If most of the time certain actions are going to produce certain results, I feel no need to try and buck the trend and do the opposite hoping that I can be successful where others are not.

Everyone has something to teach, and I try to be open minded to it all. But am I more likely to learn from someone who has had significant success, or someone who has studied and possesses a lot of information but has not been able to prove that information with results? That was me, I knew a lot, but much of it turned out to be a collection of opinions rather than someone sharing what had proven successful for them.

I was the blind leading the blind.

I teach again now, with many years of experience under my belt, but I don’t JUST teach, I try to constantly learn. I try to learn because teaching without learning means I am soon passing on stagnant information as fast as this business changes. And I constantly tell people in classes and workshops that while I am confident information I pass on is accurate, there is always another way to do everything.

We have to learn to filter and assign weight to people we are learning from based on how likely they are to know the truth of what they are saying, I know these days I sure try to do that. 


Timothy Fish said...

That's part of the reason why there are so many religions in the world. People start teaching stuff without knowing the truth and because the whole group is saying the same thing, they all think that it must be true. Some even go to the point of saying that the truth isn't knowable, so their "truth" is just as good as any. Whether it is the religion of theology or the religion of writing, we should always look for the truth rather than feeding our own ignorance.

Diana said...

Great post Terry. So glad God is gracious and has placed me on the Hartline Team. Our sharing of information on a daily basis keeps me on my toes, ever learning as well.

Linda Glaz said...

It's funny you posted this. In every class, online, etc. conferences, everybody talks about my fave pet peeve, growling male characters and I tend to pass along to clients/fellow writers what I've been told when it's by an editor etc. in the know. BUT, and I say this honestly, I have just finished four hist romance novels with more growling and snarling, etc. than I could have imagined. BIG PUBLISHER and great writers. The frustration is so high when trying to help new authors get placed, telling them these are not the things to do and then seeing so many successful at doing it. errgghhh! Sometimes it makes a body wanna scream, growl, snarl, and otherwise regret being in this business. (of course, that on a bad day, I recover quickly)

Author Jennifer Hudson Taylor said...

I LOVE this post, Terry! It's so true. Many are the blind leading the blind, but the moment we become unteachable, we become unreachable and we limit God. Awesome post!

Steven Hutson said...

I couldn't agree more, Terry. For many years I had only isolated experiences that I presented as fact. Not a good formula for success.

Linda Glaz said...

Jennifer, loved that comment. So true. One of the reasons I beat a dead horse about crit groups. You are constantly learning from each other. Even newbie eyes can catch matters that come from the heart, areas that tend to get stale year after year. So very true, we all always learning and if we aren't, we're stale.

Anonymous said...

Terry, could you cite several examples of the "garbage" you were passing on? I know the writing/publishing business changes constantly, but I was just wondering what a knowledgeable guy like you would have been preaching in error.
I've also learned that in this business, we are constantly learning.

Terry Burns said...

Oh my, there isn't enough space here. I do entire workshops on subjects that before I would have taught entirely differently. Let me give you an example. Conventional wisdom says that a book of fiction has to be completed before it can be pitched, but a non-fiction book can be pitched with a proposal and some sample chapters. Most conferences will still teach that. But I started sensing that something had changed in the responses I was getting back from such proposals and I sent a survey out to over 400 editors. Guess what? 85% of them came back and said they would rather know the book was complete, even on non-fiction. Now it is very rare that I represent nonfiction just on proposal. See what I mean? Things change and it can be so easy to be teaching material that is outdated.

Anne Schroeder said...

Thanks for your honesty. This needed to be said. As a beginning writer I attended workshops and classes and got conflicting info by "experts." My favorite was a mystery genre editor that read first pages and dramatically sailed the "bad" ones on the floor after reading a paragraph or two. Her rule was that every novel needed to show the main character, setting, premise and story need in the first 1/2 page. Period.

I remember watching a young writer collect her fallen page (a literary novel) and leave the room, crestfallen. Way to go, Teach!

Linda Glaz said...

Ann, I have no doubt, expert or wet blanket, she would have had that attitude if she'd been reading To Kill a Mockingbird. A little power goes a long way. If you don't love people, you don't belong in any people-oriented biz, and that's what this is. Our goals should always be to encourage people on their journeys, not crush them. Been there, had that crushing, and didn't like it. But if those hard people long for attention, they'll be remembered, a VERY LONG TIME...