Book Stuff, Writing Life

Stieg Larsson and Writing Advice

The other day I read a profile of Stieg Larsson in The Walrus. Much of the article concerned his magazines fight against the extreme right, the unique freedoms of the press in Sweden and protection of people who are their sources, which makes the plot of his crime fiction believable there and nowhere else. But what interested me was something else.

Imagine the advice that Larsson could have received from agents or editors reading his draft of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

“I am sorry but our publishing house (agency) doesn’t see that your work fits for us at this time. However there is some power in it and we would consider reading the manuscript upon revision. It needs to be trimmed by half, irrelevancies cut away, and ideally a dead body should appear on the first page.”

Then, I guess, 20 million copies wouldn’t have sold in the first year, would it? But instead Norstedts, his Swedish publisher, accepted it.

(Okay, Larsson originally wanted to call the sequel, The Girl Who Fantasized About a Gasoline Can and a Match. Changing it was good advice.)

My point and one that puzzles me a lot, is how do you know when to take writing advice and when to ignore it? There isn’t any way to predict success. Everyone tries, but I do think it’s mainly a matter of chance. All I can do, as a writer, is my best. But even in that, how do you know when to listen and when to say push off?

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “Stieg Larsson and Writing Advice”

  1. the trillion dollar question. I tend to think this: If I hear the same thing three times, there’s probably something to it (for example, most every reader said there should have been more of a particular character in a book I wrote; I believe them). If what is said resonates or creates an ah-ha, I listen. But if it is so far outside of what makes sense to me and only makes its way to me through one critic, I will pause.

  2. Oh-ho, good question. Well, here’s my take on using feedback. Much of it falls into the category of: ‘If I were writing this, I’d do it this way’. But what I listen for is along the lines of: ‘I think what you’re trying to do is this, and with these changes, you could do that more powerfully or clearly’. I’ll find myself naturally drawn to any criticism that has some understanding of what I really want or need to achieve. Anything that suggests I rewrite the whole thing as a diary, or a radio play or a Socratic dialogue because that worked well for x last year simply does not deserve my time and attention.

  3. Those are both good, thoughtful approaches. I also find them reassuring. I worked so many years on my last novel that sometimes I question whether I ought to have taken the advice that I did, but based on what both of you have said from different approaches, the answer is yes and yes.

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