On the giving of advice

Last week I had a post about panels at conventions, and I got interested in how to talk about doing panels better. I’d like to see more people talk about that–especially in the contexts of different kinds of panels. Getting slightly more specific seems like it might be a fertile source of good advice, because I think one of the places people hesitate is that panels vary so much. Does it really make sense to tell people to reread a few of their favorite short stories on the topic so that their minds are fresh without a huge time commitment, if “the topic” is long series, or TV shows, or if they can’t readily think of what short stories would be applicable because it’s something like grimdark or paranormal romance that has had its main flowering in novel form? Answer: no, but anyone who has any chance of being a good panelist has the sense to filter out what advice doesn’t apply to their specific panel, I would think.

But I started thinking about the more general problem of giving advice, which is audience and characteristic error. Even in the standard panel advice that is focused on etiquette, I see this problem. For example! One of the most common pieces of advice I see is, “Don’t monopolize the panel. Let the other panelists have an equal amount of time to talk.” Except…what if you’re on a panel on Non-Western Cultures in Fantasy with four middle-aged white men, two of whom think that Lord of Light is the last word on the subject but are maaaaybe willing to allow for Bridge of Birds if you stretch a bit? Do you sit back and let them go on and on about those and then squeeze in your long contemporary list (complete with non-Western writers GO FIGURE) on your “fair share” of the panel? HELL NO YOU DO NOT. At least–I didn’t. And I am not sorry I didn’t. But that is not my characteristic error. My characteristic error is not to sit down at the end of the panel and stare at my hands and say, “very true, Socrates.”

But for some people it is. So when you give the “don’t monopolize the panel, don’t run your mouth” advice, the odds that you will make a dent in the people who monologue about their own brilliance for twenty minutes: fairly low. The odds that Sherwood or Caroline* will hear this and nod and say, “Oh, very true, it’s so important not to rattle on,” and will shut their mouths even further? Unfortunately high. So trying to dodge the pitfalls of advice-giving in that regard gets difficult, and the question becomes: who is your actual audience for advice in the first place?

For me, talking about panels, it’s mostly new people. Because new people do not have a shtick already. New people know that they don’t know things. They are looking to know more things. (Ideally so are experienced people, but we know that doesn’t always work out.) So you might be able to catch J. New Shyauthor and say, hey, you’re on the panel for a reason, here’s how to prepare for it so that you can feel more confident. And you also might grab L. New Blabbermouth early enough that they at least have moments of self-awareness when they remember to turn to Pamela** and ask what she thinks while the panel is still going on and not just out for supper later.

This is true of writing advice, too. The people who were likely to get down on themselves for not writing ten million words every day are the ones who will pick up on the “writers write every day” quote from whoever they’ve picked now to be the person to use to beat yourself up over it. The people who were likely to be flaky butterfly writers are going to choose the “art finds YOU” quotes instead. People gravitate to their own characteristic errors. Yes, even me. Especially me. So: balance, balance, balance. And seeking out advice from people not like oneself. And asking oneself who the audience is for advice in the first place and whether it’s even worth the time, because if you’re not going to be able to get past characteristic errors so that the person who needs it can hear it, better to write about how to make a macrame owl.

Nobody makes macrame owls anymore. I am from the tail-end of a generation consumed with kitsch and retro, and yet are there macrame owls everywhere? There are not. It seems that everybody’s characteristic error is not making macrame owls. You folks might really want to get on that. I’m telling you for your own good.

…eh, who am I kidding, nobody listens to unsolicited advice.

*Randomly selected names for hypothetical panelists. Resemblance to actual insightful fantasy writers entirely coincidental.

**See previous footnote.

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