Shut Up and Do as You’re Told. Or Not.

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Do as you're told.

When we’re kids, the lesson that gets drilled into us more than any other is this: Do as you’re told. It’s right behind don’t talk to strangers and look both ways when crossing the street. And the more general, “Don’t be a moron.”

We grow up trained in obedience. In school we have to obey our teachers. At home we have to obey orders. Our friends expect us to conform to some definition of normality. And it doesn’t stop when we become adults. The work world demands adherence to its rules, both written and unwritten. (The latter makes things really fun if you’re not adept at playing workplace games.) Our other communities also require us to obey and conform. Have you ever stepped out of line in a room full of parents who turn on you like sharks on chum? Yeah…

Over the years this exhortation to obey and do as others are doing becomes so ingrained in us that it can actually hamper us. Have you ever noticed how many successful people are labeled “mavericks,” “nonconformists,” “individualists,” or even “eccentrics?” Free spirits, renegades, rebels, loose cannons, etc. are the people who seem to get things done. They’re the ones who think outside of the box, dream big dreams, and take the risks to make those dreams come true.

The rest of us, well, we stick close to the norm. We do what everyone else is doing or, worse, what we’re told to do by people who are outright failing at life. But hey, they are our “superiors” and they told us to do something, so we guess we’d better do it, even if it seems like a crappy idea.

This is where doing as you’re told goes wrong.

I see this in all facets of life. People doing jobs they hate because they were told that’s what they should do. It was the “safe” option. Or people who don’t engage in hobbies they love because others told them it was stupid, juvenile, or uncool. There are people who even choose their friends and mates based on what others told them to do.

And I see it more and more in writing/publishing (and I’m guilty, as well, but trying to reform). There is a lot of advice out there about how to market your work, what you should be writing, how you should be writing, etc. All of it is well-meaning, and I suspect most of it is (or was) valid for someone at some point. But two things (okay, three) are wrong with all of this advice.

  1. Everyone else is already doing it.
  2. Things change so quickly that what was true probably isn’t true now.
  3. Most of it probably doesn’t fit you and what you’re best at.

Do as you're told.

The first is obvious. If all of this advice is making the rounds about what “works,” then it’s because it’s already being (over)done. Look at author newsletters, for example. I’m still not sold on how well they work, particularly for fiction authors. I’m still not certain that a regularly updated blog isn’t just as (if not more) effective. Best I can tell, most people have newsletter burnout. They’re tired of seeing the popups on every website and they’re tired of having to subscribe to something to get the good stuff. Most people I talk to would much rather bookmark a website and visit when it’s convenient. But the advice persists. “Have a newsletter!” Is it right or wrong? Who knows. But if everyone is doing it (be it newsletters or anything else), I’d say it’s an overdone idea and it’s time to go against what you’re told.

This also applies to trends in writing. By the time a trend catches on (be it paranormal, wizards, true crime, thrillers, etc.) it’s too late. All the advice to “Write [insert trend]” is useless because the market is already saturated. You’re far better off writing what you want to write. The work will be better for it and good stories well told are what sell. Not crap churned out to shoehorn into a trend.

Number two is loosely tied to that idea, as well. Things change. And fast. Advice to create a newsletter becomes advice to start a podcast. Who knows what comes after that. Advice to write romances becomes advice to write psychological thrillers. Who knows what will come after that. The advice to sell only on Amazon becomes advice to “go wide.” Or vice versa, depending on the week. The point is that the world changes too fast for any advice to be absolute.

Number three covers a myriad of sins. If you’re going to make it as a writer (or anything, really) and enjoy doing it, you have to do what suits you best. Maybe you aren’t capable of publishing six books a year, despite the advice that says the more you write the better your chances of success. There may be some truth in that, but if writing that much means either killing yourself, churning out crap, or neglecting other important aspects of your life, let it go.

If everyone is writing romance and you can’t stand it, you’re going to be miserable and it’s going to show in the work. If you can’t stand doing personal appearances, then going to bookstores and schools is going to kill you. Social media makes you ill? Don’t do it, or figure out a way to do it that you can enjoy. Whatever it is that others are doing, if you hate it, don’t do it. You’ll be terrible at it and it will make you miserable. Find another way.

Find your own way. 

The only “Do as you’re told” advice that you should take in writing is this: “Write the best story you can, as well as you can. Edit it until it’s as perfect as you can make it.” Beyond that, pretty much everything else is open for debate and experimentation. How you market, how you publish (traditional or self), and what/how often/when you write and publish is all up to you. And the truth is, you’re probably better off doing what other people aren’t doing.

It’s easier said than done to break out of doing what we’re told. The rules are usually so strongly ingrained that it feels almost dangerous to go against them. This is something I struggle with personally. I was always a good kid, not a troublemaker, so finding my inner rebel is taking some time. But slowly I’m learning how to forge my own path. Slowly… But the journey will ultimately be worth it. Will I be a millionaire? Probably not. But I’ll have a career that suits me and makes me happy.

Now, nothing I’ve said above means doing whatever you want and damn the consequences. There are times you have to conform and obey. Otherwise, you’ll be going to jail. At the very least, you’ll end up hurting people and leaving unnecessary collateral damage in your wake, or committing career suicide when you piss off the wrong person.

What I’m saying is that once you’ve left school and home and your decisions are truly your own, it’s time to learn for yourself when conformity is a good thing, and when breaking a few rules might not be a bad idea. You might as well try to forge a new path. Set your own trends for others to follow. Very few things, no matter how stupid they seem, are forever, after all.


(Photo courtesy of KokomoCole)

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