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Doing it: early and often, or better to hold out?
Sharing your story ideas.
Forgive the title. I sent it to Andromeda expecting her to talk me down, but it turns out she’s a bad influence.
In the couple years I've been working toward finishing a satisfactory second novel, I've had verbal conversations about my half-baked book ideas at many stages, for a handful of reasons. (Research, impatience, bonding/commiseration, contractual obligations, commercial viability predictions.) Every time I go to open my mouth, I think: should I really be doing this?
I emailed a panel of suspense writers and asked for insider insight into when to talk about ideas, with whom, and to what end. Here’s the roundup. (Yes, we plan to do this again with other questions, so comment if you’ve got one!)
WHAT THE NEIGHBORS SAW
Put me squarely in the under-sharer camp. Lots of reasons why—introverted tendencies, starting to write in earnest during pandemic lockdowns, deep-seated fears of rejection…I don’t think there’d be much use for me in casually running half-baked elevator pitches by my friends. But I have started to think about whether becoming part of some kind of writing group would be productive. It’s only now, in the few weeks that my first book has been out and opportunities to connect with other writers are coming up, that I realize how isolated I’ve been. I don’t have any professional training as a fiction writer, so no old classmates to call on, and also no “writer friends,” so it will take some work, but probably worth doing.
[Note from Caitlin W: thank you, Melissa, for taking my invitation to include a meme with the response. Memes are my favorite form of communication. I would read a whole novel in memes.]
DEER SEASON, BLACKOUT, and COME WITH ME (out August 22, 2023)
I love that you two are asking this question, because it really is a personal thing! I have a friend who is super secretive about what she’s working on and always has been, and I have another friend who doesn’t really talk about a project until she figures out the title, which could be the first thing or after it’s nearly done. I like to start talking about an idea before it’s even a half formed thing in my head. For me it’s not about when I talk about it, but to whom. My first person is always my husband, who is a woodworker, English prof, and nearly had a career in engineering, so he is the ultimate problem solver. He’s so good at helping me work through complications and add more and he’s my first reader at every stage. He also calls me on my bullshit, which is incredibly rude but ultimately helpful. He knows my love language is READ MY PAGES NOW.
THE NINE LIVES OF ROSE NAPOLITANO and 20+ more; fellow Substacker!
I think about these things a lot—for myself. I had an experience early in my writing career where I learned I need to be careful about sharing a novel before I’ve finished a first draft, or I may never finish the first draft.
I’d joined a writing group because it’s what every writer seems to do. It was my turn to share chapters of the new novel I was working on. I sent them to the group, we all met, everyone gave me their feedback. The feedback was largely positive! There were concerns, too, of course. But there was so much feedback, and a lot of it was conflicting.
Afterwards, I was paralyzed. I imploded. I came away thinking, This book is obviously totally dumb and awful and there’s no way for me to move forward and I should just delete it from my laptop.
Before that group, I’d been zipping along writing happily, la dee da, with tons of excitement and momentum for working on the novel. But after getting all that feedback when I was barely a third of the way through the first draft? Boy did I lose momentum. The next morning, I didn’t want to write, I became completely stalled. It took me ages to convince myself to go back to the novel. I did eventually finish it, the novel got published, and incidentally, it’s one of the ones I’m most proud of. But I came so precariously close to throwing in the towel on it.
Beware sharing something too early. You may never finish it.
Also: Beware sharing with a large group. Writing groups aren’t for everybody.
After that experience, I made a rule for myself: If I share something early, I ask my reader to answer one question—should I keep going? Basically, I’m looking for a cheerleader. And someone to brainstorm with. (Brainstorming ideas I always enjoy and this can help me stay motivated.)
But after I’m done with the first draft? Then I’m completely ready for all the feedback. Gimme all the feedback, bring it on, keep it coming.
NOTES ON AN EXECUTION and GIRL IN SNOW; also, literary agent extraordinaire
I start talking about my ideas very early on. Throughout the writing process, there are two people I rely on heavily: my husband and my agent. My husband's job is mostly to listen to my stream of consciousness over our Thursday night beer, and to keep listening as the idea changes. He reads most of my drafts as well, so I can talk through my process. He's there less for editorial consultation and more for emotional consultation, as I try to parse through which ideas work and which don't! I include my agent very early on too, as she provides a lot of developmental guidance for me along the way. She'll usually refrain from advising me thoroughly until she's read parts of the manuscript in progress, so she comes in a bit later, once I actually have words on the page. Aside from those two, I mostly keep my ideas to myself, though I think it's so important to have an outlet! I've never regretted sharing my ideas, mostly because they change so regularly and constantly—I don't think I've ever squashed a concept, just twisted it until it worked. The process is forever evolving.
PLEASE SEE US
I tend to keep my ideas very close, talk about them with as few people as possible, and wait as long as possible to have conversations about a work in progress. Part of this is superstition, perhaps—a worry that talking about something that feels like it has some spark and is going well will immediately conjure up a fatal roadblock to that project. But I do think there is some value in keeping things quiet for a long time, too, or at least as it relates to my process. I change things SO much as I work from draft to draft that it can be dangerous to let someone in too early. While validation from someone else can bolster my confidence in a project, it can also skew my sense of what is vital and exciting about it, creating loyalties to old versions of characters or plot points that the novel should shed as a part of its evolution toward what it needs to become. There's a sweet spot in a book, when I've gone through enough drafts that I have my bearings a little bit, but there's still room for interesting, even radical revisions to happen—usually around the third draft for me—and that's when I like to share with an early reader. I'm approaching that point with my current novel-in-progress and it's both exciting and terrifying!
THE DEEPEST LAKE (2024), ANNIE AND THE WOLVES, and four more
Sharing work too soon can drain a new idea of its propulsive energy, but not sharing at all increases isolation and uncertainty, which for me, are the hardest aspects of the writer's life. There is no right answer, but I do spot a trend in my own life, which is to share more and sooner (both ideas and actual pages) as I age, either because I am more confident in my ability to execute or simply because I am greedy for any kind of encouragement. I already spend my life waiting--for contracts, for emails, for edits, for checks. I need some instant gratification once in a while, damn it!
In some cases, discussing a premise without sharing pages can create misunderstanding. Four years ago, I had an idea for a novel, wrote a few chapters, and mentioned the concept to my husband, who was utterly indifferent. I set that idea aside, returning to it only recently, when I decided (why not?) to send pages to a writing group. They were enthusiastic. Because I wasn't wedded to the idea yet, I risked sharing the same pages with my husband. He was enthusiastic, preferring these pages to a project I'd spent months toiling on. I shouted, "But this was the idea you didn't like, years ago!" He shrugged.
Oddly enough, it's when I am most committed to a book--when I feel like I am going to see it through and my gut is working just fine--that I tend to wait until I have a completed draft. If all is going well, I hardly need to talk about a book; I just keep laying those bricks, focusing on what the characters are telling me. But as the anecdote above shows, I sometimes recklessly show raw pages--more so, when I feel I have nothing to lose.
If I had to frame this as advice, I'd say never take someone's response to an idea too seriously, because an early pitch can't possibly communicate a project's full potential. When it comes to the pages, err on the side of not sharing if a mixed response will derail you. And also, cultivate beta-readers who are good at different stages. You may have friends or a group with whom you can share experimental first pages, especially when you're not feeling committed to them, and entirely different readers to be entrusted with a full draft that they approach without any previous knowledge of the work. Finally: wouldn't we all love to be the kind of people who are unaffected either by hasty criticism or premature praise? Whatever gets you there--sharing or withholding--it seems an ideal worth working toward.
I believe very strongly that I should not talk about my ideas, and so I talk about them profusely.
Tell us what to ask next time!!
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