Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Stories Are Fragile--Handle With Care

So, I've finally finished the first draft of my next novel. I call it a first draft because it's finally a complete piece, but the reality is that I revise many times as I go along so this is probably my tenth, twentieth, thirtieth draft--who knows? I've lost count. For publishing purposes, though, this is called the first draft. And there will be many, many more to come. 

Still, there is much reason to celebrate. After nine years of trying to write this book while raising twins, I've finally manage to finish it. As a reward I gave myself a week off from writing and turned my attention to friends and household projects I've been neglecting. Now my break is over and it's time to start writing something new while I wait to hear back from my agent. 

Waiting is so painful, but it's a fact of life in the publishing business. Publishing is one of the slowest, most archaic industries around. It takes a lot of time for an agent or an editor read a 400+ page manuscript while handling all the other urgent business that's always cropping up--phone calls, deadlines, meetings. If only agents and editors had USB ports connected to their heads, we could download our manuscripts directly to their brains and the whole process would move along a lot faster. Until that day comes, we writers will just have to learn to have a little patience. 

One of the reasons I find it so hard to wait is that basically my agent is my first reader. I've shared a few scenes here and there when I needed a little boost, but basically no one has seen it or heard much about it for nearly ten years. I feel like I've been holding a burning secret and finally, finally, I can tell someone. 

During my little celebratory vacation, I had a few lunches with fellow writing friends and the topic of sharing vs. not sharing came up. Writers, I think, are given mixed-messages regarding sharing. We often encourage writers to join writers' groups and workshops to get feedback. On the whole, it's pretty good advice. Appreciating and critiquing the work of others strengthens our own work; receiving criticism opens our minds and prepares us for working with editors and handling reviews. There is a point, however, when sharing becomes counter-productive. 

For example, one of my friends joined a writers' group and found that the group wasn't a good fit for her. The members of the group seemed to be on one wavelength and she on another. Thankfully, she had enough belief in herself and her work to recognize that it was best to leave the group instead of becoming discouraged and giving up writing altogether.

Another friend is in the early stages of a novel and has been tempted to show her pages to her spouse. Alarm bells rang in my head when I heard this for two reasons: 1) The most dangerous time to share your work is early on. You're excited about your idea and it's so tempting to tell someone, but in doing so you lose steam. Even simply talking about it relieves some of that built-up urgency that compels us to write, and  2) Sharing a story with a loved one (especially a spouse) is a recipe for hurt feelings. Think about it--who in our lives is capable of hurting us the most? The ones we love. Asking for their approval puts them in a bind. What if they don't react exactly the way you want them to? Even an enthusiastic response might have you questioning their sincerity. Spare yourself the trauma and wait until you're finished the piece and a more objective third party has given you the thumbs-up first. 

Even seasoned writers fall into the "show too soon" trap. A friend of mine who is a published author warned me against the need for early approval from one's agent and editor. He sent a few early drafts to them thinking they would share in his excitement--only to find out they weren't enthusiastic at all. How could they be, when all he showed them was a partial rough draft? Unfortunately, early sharing is often the start of a downward spiral--what you want is encouragement, but what you end up with is indifference. Or worse, disapproval. What a confidence killer. It's hard to finish a piece when you've been crushed by an unfavorable response. 

Do yourself a favor--protect your work at least until the first draft is finished. Avoid even talking about your work if you can bear it. Treat your stories like the fragile things they are. Wait until they're polished and complete and beautiful and then--and only then--show them to the world.