“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.” – Stephen King
I once had a heated argument with my friend Felicity about showing your work to other people. We sit on different sides of the writing ambition fence to start off with, so we were ripe for this sort of discussion.
My ultimate writing goal is to publish novels. Novels – not just one. I’m enamoured with the idea of a body of work, a portfolio, a back catalogue, a life-task level of completed works. Showing people my work at some point is a given for me. The idea of having something completed that I don’t then put out into the world in some form is painful to me.
I get it, the point of writing is not to publish or achieve praise or even be recognised and we should all be writing for ourselves first and foremost. However, the idea of going all that way, putting in all those hours of work and then putting the work in a drawer to moulder or get lost half a dozen computer upgrades later makes me scream. It just – it hurts, ok? It’s like you got to the finish line and sat down. Forever. You missed the last tiny step, the step that caps the whole thing off and makes what you did a race rather than a random run you happened to do with other people.
Felicity, however, doesn’t see it that way. She’s – quite fiercely – creating her stories for herself. Crafting stories is her motivation. Publication is part of that, but it’s not the driver. In some ways I think it’s probably somehow more “artistically pure” than my motivation of writing and completing things and having a pile of pages I can point to at the end of my life and say “look – I made stuff! I thought and wrote a lot of things and here’s proof!” She’s motivated by the process, the innards of the thing. I’m motivated by producing things and completing things and getting better at doing that.
That’s where the debate came in.
Felicity stated that the novel she was currently working on was a “trunk novel”1Trunk novel – n. a novel that is put away in a drawer and is either not seen, or given up on2Felicity has since moved on from this idea. I’m currently beta reading the first draft of her latest novel. She had nothing to worry about.. Decided from the outset.
I… disagreed. Loudly.
The idea of creating something with the intent of never releasing it into the wild is entirely alien to me. She thought it was completely valid. A training run at writing a novel. A pact with herself that whatever she did with it – through the whole writing and revising process was ok because it was safe and unseen. The door was remaining closed the whole time. She could consider opening it for the next one.
There’s a difference, to me, between deciding from the outset that you’re not ever going to show your work to the world, and completing something and not being able to move the story because of markets or your current writing ability and therefore putting the novel aside.
She was seeing it as a safe place where she could be creative without fear. I was seeing it as putting herself down and not backing her work and her ability. Incompatible sides of the fence.
The idea of deliberately writing a trunk novel still winds me up.
At the time we were sharing regular sections of our first drafts for feedback and this was one of the conversations that changed that. Sharing our first drafts was partly causing the problem. First drafts need to be done start to finish on your own – Felicity was correct in arguing for this at the time. You can’t write your first draft with someone else commenting on things. “Your characterisation is off here” or “I don’t quite follow this” when it’s foreshadowing that could be made clearer in revisions isn’t really helpful feedback while you’re just trying to get the words on the page. It reinforces your own inadequacy. First drafts are fragile. Put another way, you need to be able to crap in private.
There’s a time and a place for showing people things, though. When do you open the door and let people see it?
There’s two stages to showing people your work. One is getting feedback, when you open the door and let a few people in to see it. The second stage is publishing it. Putting it “out there”. Trying to have it not be a trunk novel.
When you do these things is personal. My personal rule is “when I can’t see how else to fix it” or “when I need another set of eyes to see what I can’t.” When you can’t see the glaring holes yourself. When you don’t feel like you’re sending it out half-baked. When the feedback will be useful to you. When it’s in a working form, even if it’s still rough.
None of this is about whether you think it’s good or not. It’s about getting another pair of eyes to see your work and tell you what they think. To apply another perspective and highlight bits that are incomprehensible, or bits where characters did something dumb for plot reasons, or where you did something amazing. You need a new perspective. You need to see it through the reader’s eyes. I still fiercely maintain that showing people your stuff is part of the process of writing. The writing part is only one half of the communication medium – someone’s got to receive it. It’s got to be read to be alive and finished. You’ve got to transmit your work to someone else’s brain and spark something.
If you’ve had feedback? Let it go when it’s “done”. When you can’t make it better. When it’s as good as it’s going to get. When you’re proud of it. When you’re over it but you’ve given it all you’ve got. Show it to other people. You owe it to yourself and the work. I doubt I’m ever going to budge on that issue! Submit it somewhere. Send it off to an agent. Publish it online. Get it out into the world!
“When you’re afraid of someone’s judgment, you can’t connect with them. You’re too preoccupied with the task of impressing them” – Amanda Palmer
Showing people your work – either for feedback or to publish – is scary. No one wants to be told they suck. Especially if you’ve spent months or, more likely, years of your time and effort and emotional energy into creating a novel. You want it to be good. You want it all to be objectively “worth it”. Being told that someone didn’t like it, or that you screwed something up, or that you’re “doing it wrong” is terrifying. Suddenly even though you really want to show people your work you don’t because you’re equally terrified you’ll never be as good as you want to be.
The wariness, the drive to write a “trunk novel” that no-one sees, comes down to fear. If you screw up privately it’s fine, because no-one sees it. It doesn’t really exist. The situation isn’t “live”. I think there’s a time and place for this. I’m really, really glad not many people saw my first fan fiction attempts3even then I was putting it out there online. I’ve always been pro showing people my work when it’s “done”, even if that decision looks dumb a decade later!. However, I think there’s a risk of it being a crutch. The thinking is rooted in fear of inadequacy and it can paralyse.
“My stuff is crap so I’m not going to show it to anyone” is broken logic. The likelihood of it snowballing from “It’s not at a point where I can show people yet” to “it’s never good enough to show people” is large. You don’t want to end up at the hard end point of “I’m not going to be good enough, so I won’t write at all.”
I’m not immune to this trap, either. I’m worried about it in my current novel – some days it feels like I’m never, ever going to get it to a cohesive point I can show someone else. I don’t know if this means I’m making progress or I’m stuck in a loop.
The only way I’ve found to get over the fear of failure or success or what other people might think is to do it. Show them what you’ve got. Finish things. Put them out there for feedback or publication. Let the work go. Even if you think it’s not that good. Put out so much stuff that you don’t get scared anymore.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||Trunk novel – n. a novel that is put away in a drawer and is either not seen, or given up on|
|2.||↑||Felicity has since moved on from this idea. I’m currently beta reading the first draft of her latest novel. She had nothing to worry about.|
|3.||↑||even then I was putting it out there online. I’ve always been pro showing people my work when it’s “done”, even if that decision looks dumb a decade later!|