How and why (and who) to ask for advice

Many a month ago, I read a book on how to make hard decisions. And like many of the books I read, I only retained one key point. In this case, the point was that when you’re facing a hard decision, it’s very easy to go around and around in your mind, going over the same arguments. You get trapped into a certain frame of reference and start convincing yourself that certain things are true.

MW-BE153_advice_20130614173008_MGThis book said, though, that if you’re facing a difficult decision, one of the best things to do is to get more information. For instance, let’s say you’re choosing between two agents. One is at a large agency and one is at a small agency. It’s very easy in this situation to get trapped in a debate over whether large agencies are better than smaller agencies: will you get lost at a big agency? Or will the big agency give you increased clout when your agent is trying to make a deal?

The thing is, you don’t actually need to answer the big agency vs. small agency debate. What you need to do is answer the question of which of THESE agents is good for you. And the solution there is to go out and do your due diligence: talk to their other clients; talk to other people who’re at their agency; ask around. Maybe you’ll discover that one of them is a horrible person and a crook! At that point, your decision goes from being hard to being really simple.

And even if you don’t discover a dealbreaker, what you can do is create some specific questions and try to answer those: Does this large agency actually work cooperatively? Or is each agent on their own?

This kind of thinking and questioning is vital, because too often you find people making decisions on the basis of false assumptions. I see this all the time when people are applying to MFA programs. They’re like, “Oh, Johns Hopkins is academic, and this other program is more practical.” Well…not really. That’s just a stereotype. The truth is that JHU has a sort of austere aura to it, but your actual courseload is incredibly easy.

Which brings me to my larger point. Most people think the reason you need a mentor is so they can get you stuff: write you recommendations; pass you to agents; nominate you for awards.

No. That is not it. The reason you want a mentor is so you can get information. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel. All of these decisions are ones that’ve been faced by other people before. And if you leverage their knowledge, then you’re going to end up making much better and more informed decisions.

Furthermore, while it’s very hard to get stuff from people (especially people who’re older and more established than you), it’s very easy to get information. Many authors–particularly midlist ones–don’t get that much email. You can seriously just email an author you like–or message them on FB–and ask them your questions, and they’ll most likely answer (particularly if the questions are a little higher level than “How do I get an agent?”)

Personally, I am not as amazing about finding mentor-type figures as I should be, but I do have a solid short-list of people whom I email when I need advice. They’re people who understand the industry and have seen lots of things and who give good, solid, practical advice.

(A caveat here is that you should be careful whose advice you take. Many authors have a terrible head for business. If you’re thinking about who to ask for advice, I’d recommend you don’t just take a look at sales figures. You should see someone who’s got hustle–someone who’s been able to take hits and keep going. And ideally it should also be someone who’s only a few steps above you. If you don’t have an agent, then ask advice from someone who just sold their first book. If you just sold your first book, then ask advice from someone who’s five or ten years into their career. Advice is a lot more likely to be fresh and relevant if it comes from someone who was in your shoes only a few years ago.)