Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Keep It To Yourself

Occasionally, I’ll drop by the Writer’s Digest forums and read some of the threads, putting in my two cents here and there. Today, I found an interesting post by a writer named Lexi, who has been showing her unfinished manuscript to family and friends. She’s found herself in a quandary because her readers are so involved in the story they're telling what should happen next. Now she’s afraid of disappointing them if she takes the story in a different direction.

The writing process is different for everyone, but I cannot stress how perilous it is to share too much too soon. Most new writers are guilty of this—when an idea is bubbling inside you, it’s very difficult not to share it with someone. You explain your story to your loved ones, mostly in hope of a little affirmation, and the next thing you know they’re too involved, adding their own flourishes and plotlines. Or worse, their enthusiasm doesn’t match yours. The reason could simply be that they can’t visualize the story’s execution the way you can, but nonetheless, it can take the wind right out of your sails. Suddenly, the story that you couldn’t wait to write is no longer so urgent for you. Without that urgency, much of the magic of creation is lost.

Or maybe, like Lexi, you’ve shared your half-written story and are so inundated with opinions that you don’t know how to proceed. As Lexi now knows, she would have been much better off finishing a first draft before sharing the story with anyone. That way, at least, she could have had the peace to stick to her own vision, instead of feeling the need to bend to someone else’s.

When I was studying writing at Colby, I had the opportunity to meet the author Gish Jen (TYPICAL AMERICAN, THE LOVE WIFE). Among the great bits of advice she shared with our class, Gish recommended that when we were ready to write our first novels, we complete the first draft before sending the manuscript to agents and publishers. Her reason was that if you send only a partial draft, the editor would have too much sway with the rest of the story and it would no longer be just yours alone. I took this advice to heart.

When writing CEDAR HOLE, I didn’t show my work to anyone for four long years. I didn’t even show my husband. In fact, I didn’t let him read anything until it had been edited and galley-bound. When I tell people this, they find it slightly odd that I would keep the story even from my spouse. All I can say is that this is what works for me. These are my characters, living in my world, and any outside influence tends to complicate matters.

I’ve also discovered that keeping a story bottled up inside is a great source of creative energy. The moment I let the story out verbally, there’s no longer a need to write it down. It already exists in the world.


b-dub said...

Heh...yes, quite. My wife is a great editor - for my commercial stuff. On the creative side, we both finished Nationial Novel Writing Month 2005, and she has yet to see my draft for your very reasons.


Stephanie Doyon said...

Some writers rely heavily on their spouses as their first readers, and while it works for them, I think it can be really problematic. Fiction writers have too much of an emotional investment in their work; couple that with the emotional investment of a marriage and things get dicey pretty fast. Even friendships can be jeopardized. I think it's better to find someone from a writing group to look at your work rather than give it to a loved one.