Is It Safe: When to Tell People About What You’re Writing

Right now many of you are cranking out stories for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You’ve got two more weeks to hit your 50,000 word goal. If the words are flowing you might feel an urge to share your idea with everyone and their mom, but now isn’t the time.

It’s hard to stay on the right path when your friends say, “What if, instead, you took your story in this direction?”

It’s hard to concentrate on where your story is going if someone questions where it’s been. It’s hard to power through to a deadline when criticism derails your train of thought.

I know you’re craving validation, appraisal of your brilliance, and confirmation that your time is being well spent, but I implore you to delay your gratification until November 30.

Sometimes I can’t wait to show off one of my creations before they’re fully formed. Sometimes I pitch stories to strangers before I’ve written word one. Sometimes I survey friends while I’m drafting, and sometimes I shut out everyone. I put my defenses up when I know I have the spark of something special that could fizzle out if not handled with care.

Earlier this week I asked this question on twitter:

It occurred to me that the answer to this question varies from the conception of an idea all the way to the submission stage. So allow me to answer my own question with a series of questions.

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Questions to ask yourself before including others in the idea stage:

  • Are you looking for writing prompts or fully formed pitches? You can make an idea from a writing prompt your own, but you may have to share credit if you flesh out some else’s fully formed pitch.
  • Are you inviting your friend to participate in a dialogue or are having a one sided conversation where you just hurl ideas at them? If your friend isn’t engaged they’re not going to give you much worth putting on the page and they’re not going to have much of a good time.
  • What type of story do you feel like writing? Do you want to write something in the spirit of the Twilight Zone? Is that your friend’s scene? Are you asking the right person?
  • Are you writing something inspired by something personal? Can your friend relate to the situation? If you’re writing about the neighbors from hell odds are your friend has experiences worth listening to.
  • Are you interested in commenting on an emerging social trend, like how technology is changing dating, or how apps are replacing businesses like taxis services, or how sick patients are crowdfunding their own treatments? Has your friend made similar observations? What are their theories about what’s happening? Can the two of you come up with a list of other social trends that might be on the horizon?

Questions to ask yourself before asking friends about an idea you’ve already started writing:

  • What are you really looking for? Are you testing the soundness of your idea or do you want someone to validate your creativity? One reaction will satisfy you in the immediacy of the moment. The other could derail your progress.
  • Are you willing to listen to someone else’s ideas for your story, even if they spin it on its head, even if they pose an idea that contradicts your story’s moral, tone, and deeper themes?
  • Could you pose your story questions in the form of multiple choice answers? Do you have a pitch prepared for three ways your story could go? People are more inclined to answer a survey than to pitch you ideas of their own.

Questions to ask yourself when looking for suggestions when you’re stuck:

  • Are you willing to jot down bad ideas if only to dismiss them later?
  • Will you feel like a friend’s idea isn’t entirely your own?
  • Are you comfortable telling them you had to cut their idea later?
  • Do the suggestions friends give you seem sound because they’re actually based on story clichés you’d rather avoid? Maybe your friend is suggesting a familiar trope while you really want to break new ground.
  • Is the reason you’re stuck because you’d prefer a clever solution to an overtly simple one?

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Questions to ask yourself before showing an excerpt from your work in progress to a friend:

  • Does this person regularly read the genre you’re writing in?
  • Do you respect this person’s taste in literature, TV, and film?
  • Is this person qualified to give you specific feedback or just a general emotional response?
  • Would you take it personally if this person didn’t care for your excerpt?
  • Is there something in your excerpt that could be misconstrued as having something to do with the person reading it? Do you have a disclaimer prepared?
  • When does this excerpt take place in your work in progress? Is it from early on? Would you have to make big revisions to your entire novel if you applied feedback on the excerpt?

Questions to ask yourself before sharing an excerpt from your work in progress online:

  • Is the excerpt a tool to gage interest in the material or are you trying to drum up interest in a finished product you intend on self publishing?
  • Are you concerned with the possibility of someone else stealing your idea and developing it faster?
  • Are you going to preface your excerpt with an explanation of the type of feedback you want?
  • Are you presenting the excerpt to an insular audience you’ve already developed (like your blog followers) or are you prepared to share a link with a less supportive group (like say, Reddit)?
  • Can you tell the difference between constructive criticism and trolling? Does hostile commentary trigger your anxiety or compel you to just scroll down?

Questions to ask yourself before sharing your manuscript with beta readers:

  • Does your beta reader have their own manuscript they also need reviewed? Could you work out a trade and give each other a deadline to ensure you both get feedback?
  • Have you corrected your grammar and punctuation so that your beta readers can focus on your content instead of copyediting?
  • Have you formatted your document in a way for beta readers to leave feedback? Is your manuscript a .doc file with space for comments in the margins? Or would your beta readers prefer a document formatted for their e-readers?
  • Does your story have problem areas that you’re well aware of? Are there characters you’re thinking of combining, subplots you’re thinking of cutting, or twists you’re thinking of forecasting better? Create a checklist of the weakest aspects of your story. Ask for feedback in those areas. If your beta readers confirm those suspicions use that information in your revisions.
  • Are you prepared to thank someone for giving you negative notes? It takes a long time to read a manuscript with a critical eye, especially if the reader is taking notes the entire time. Your beta reader might give you harsh scathing feedback, but appreciate the fact that they took the time to read your novel. So be a good little submissive and thank them for your lashings.

Questions to ask before submitting to publishers:

  • Do you have a 3-paragraph query letter? Do you have a log line for your story, a single sentence hook you could pitch in an elevator?
  • Do you have a mini synopsis that distills your 100 thousand word opus into about 150 words? If not I’ve written about how to do this step at length.
  • Do you have a Writer’s Biography? Have you won any awards or been featured in an interesting publications? Are you an authority on anything interesting? If you lack a bibliography or even a publishing history ask yourself if there’s something unique about you that would look cool on the back flap of a dust jacket. If not, don’t fret, just introduce yourself and use the extra space to pad out your story’s summary.
  • Have you had a chance to see query letters from published authors? If not check these guidelines and examples out.
  • Is your first chapter your best foot forward? Publishers ask for a treatment and a sample chapter. That’s why it’s so important that your first chapter establishes the lead character, their drive, the break in their routine (or what will likely break their routine) and their goal. The submission chapter should give readers an impression of the tone and atmosphere of your story, as well as of the situation. It should leave the reader with a question they want an answer to.
  • If your first chapter is more setup than payoff could you pull out another chapter out of context and have it serve as a delegate for the rest of the book? Could that chapter function on it’s own?

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Closing Thoughts

The worst disservice a writer can do for themselves is to never share their work, to hold everything back until it’s absolutely perfect, to tinker with a project until they resent it.

In screenwriting they say write three screenplays, burn them, and try to sell the fourth. I know it’s a metaphor, but I did exactly this. I wrote three big projects, and abandoned them during the revisions. This is one of my biggest regrets.

In a blog entry Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn advised creatives to FINISH WHAT YOU START (in all caps). In his closing thoughts he wrote:

“If you’re an open-minded and honest person, finishing what you start is a way to learn if you want to pursue a career in whatever field you’re considering. Maybe you aren’t that great at the job you’re considering – but you’ll never know that unless you try.”

No matter how many of my questions you were able to answer know that you’re going to have to kick your story out of the nest eventually, whether it’s safe or not. Preparation is important, but be prepared to make mistakes along the way.

•••

This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

9 thoughts on “Is It Safe: When to Tell People About What You’re Writing”

    1. How did the quote go? “Art is never finished it is only abandoned.” You’ll have to kick something art of the nest eventually.

      I share a lot of little samples of myself online. I have a few bigger ones up in my store, but I’m holding my long form writing back so that I can go the traditional publishing route. Sometimes patience is the better option.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I have managed to kick some of my writing out of the nest. I used to write an online figure skating serial, which meant releasing new chapters as soon as they were done. I didn’t have time to do much editing. More recently, I published my first book, Time Trip: A Dinosaur Musical. I wrote the original version of it for a music teacher friend, who needed a dinosaur play for her students. I guess this means I’m better at releasing my writing into the wide, wild world when someone else needs me to get it done.

        Liked by 2 people

  1. This post is super-amazing and very timely, seeing as I’m in the process of trading novel mss with other writers. The last paragraph was particularly helpful as I’m also drafting my synopses and query letters. Thanks for the links you provided too.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m glad I could help you out with your query letter. One of the hardest things to do is summarize a story with all of its beautiful crazy details. Hope you found some useful info. Thanks so much for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate the questions for sending things to beta readers. ^-^ I accidentally wrote a novella last year,and I’ve been thinking that I wanted some good feedback on it before I try and do any editing myself. These questions will make a great checklist once I get my small flight of betas sorted out!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Invaluable post, Drew.

    I would add that those being questioned or asked to read beta copies should also adopt many of these questions with the requisite shift in perspective. For instance, “Before you continue, could you let me know exactly what kind of feedback you want from me, so that I can be most helpful and focused?”

    I always do this.

    One thing I’ve found, however, is that writers who swap beta / ARC copies can tend to pander, hoping that if they fawn and promise a rave review, the other person will do the same regarding their own work. So, I’m not sure I’d trust feedback from some writers in a swap scenario.

    By the way, for anyone who finds yourself in these shoes often in any fashion (of being asked to review or give feedback on others’ work), I wrote a guest post on another blog site, which I entitled “The Uncritical Critique: How To Not Be Mean.” You may find it interesting.

    Like

  4. I have found that in the earlier stages of a work, it’s not only important to me to find someone who I respect, but who respects me. When I know someone thinks I’m incompetent and I’m not yet confident in the work (or what the work should be) it drastically affects my ability to gauge the usefulness of the criticism.

    Liked by 1 person

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