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The Best and Worst of Writing Advice

When you gather a panel of writers to discuss the best and worst writing advice they’ve ever received, the conversation promises to be as colorful as it is informative—and this one with spy novelist Alex Dryden,  mystery novelist Lisa Gardner, author Alex Kava, and debut author Daniel Palmer, did not disappoint. by Jessica Strawser, reporting from ThrillerFest 2010 (New York City)

When you gather a panel of writers to discuss the best and worst writing advice they’ve ever received, the conversation promises to be as colorful as it is informative—and Friday’s session did not disappoint.

Matt Richtel, thriller writer and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, moderated the discussion with international journalist and spy novelist Alex Dryden; bestselling mystery novelist Lisa Gardner; Alex Kava, bestselling author of the Maggie O’Dell series; Daniel Palmer, debut author of the forthcoming Delirious.

Much of the discussion focused on writers block, and panelists offered their own best advice for a remedy: Talk to people. “When you’re stuck, you just need content,” Lisa Gardner says. Ask questions about things they have experience or expertise in. Get them to share their stories. “You will walk away inspired, and your writers’ block will be a thing of the past,” she promises.

For example, if you’re looking for something twisted and unexpected for your antagonist or villain to do, try asking a law enforcement agent about his own experiences—sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, so why not use it to influence your work? “People are the best resources,” Kava says.

Richtel agrees. “People like to talk about what they’re an expert in, and often they don’t get an opportunity to do it,” he says.

If you’re looking for firsthand info or anecdotes on a specific topic and don’t know a source who might be able to help, Gardner says she’s even cold-called experts for information. (Her tips for doing this? She says the key words are: “I write fiction.” She says law enforcement agencies are happy to help fiction writers—after all, you’re a taxpayer, and they’re there to serve—but leery of reporters.) When using sources for inspiration or research, the panelists recommend you always ask if they want to be included in the acknowledgments in your book—and for the opposite reason that you might think. Many people aren’t comfortable being mentioned by name.


  • Lisa Gardner shared a piece of advice that she says she first thought was the stupidest tip she’d ever received from a fellow writer, and later came to find invaluable. “When you are writing, light a scented candle,” she says. Why? If you do this for two weeks, you’ll get a conditioned, Pavlovian response to that smell that will evoke creativity. She says it works for her.
  • Daniel Palmer’s best advice from a fellow scribe came from his father: “It doesn’t have to be probable, it just has to be possible.”
  • Alex Dryden’s favorite tips are, in his words, “two bits of excellent advice I’ve never heeded.” 1.) Write 1,000 words a day—a discipline he’s still working on developing himself. 2.) “Plot every book from start to finish.” Of course, he admitted he doesn’t do that either, quipping, “The reader is going to have the enjoyment of not knowing what’s going to happen, so why shouldn’t I have that enjoyment, too?”
  • Kava’s worst advice ever received from someone in the industry? “Let’s wait and see.”
  • Richtel’s best advice ever received from an editor: “You don’t want people to have to suspend disbelief all the time.” He says this is an important reminder to make your story as believable as you can before you get to the more unbelievable parts of your story.


  • Daniel: When you ask someone for their opinion or advice about your writing, don’t get defensive about what they say. Remember, you asked for advice. Also: Feedback doesn’t have to be specific. Sometimes it’s enough for someone to just tell you that something’s not working, even if they can’t really pinpoint why.
  • Kava: Ask advice only from people you really respect.
  • Dryden: “As soon as I start defending myself, it’s a sure sign that I’m wrong. That’s true in life as well as in writing.”

Want to strenthen your character's Point-Of-View? Consider:
The Power of Point of View: Make Your Story Come Alive

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