Six impossible things

Talking about it

One of the persistent pieces of advice given to new and would-be writers is “Don’t talk about your work until it’s finished!” Some folks get incredibly passionate about it, running on for pages in their how-to-write manuals and blogs, or shouting and waving their arms if they’re talking to you face-to-face.

There are a lot of reasons for both the advice and the passion. Quite often, the advice-giver is one of those writers who found out the hard way that if they talk about anything they haven’t written yet (whether that’s a novel idea, a plot outline, an upcoming scene, a bit of dialog or character development), they lose all interest in writing it. If they force themselves to write anyway, what comes out is flat and lifeless, and eventually they have to abandon it.

Obviously, anyone who’s had this happen becomes quite rightly paranoid about never, ever letting that happen again. Where they go wrong is in the assumption that this is the way everyone’s creative process works, and that therefore it is a Very Good Thing to warn incoming writers most strictly against doing themselves.

I happen to be one of those writers over on the other side of things. Talking about my work energizes me and helps me work through sticky bits (though it is often extremely disconcerting to the friends who hear me babble through what looks to them like a novel outline, whole and complete, and then find me next day, babbling with equal enthusiasm about a new plot twist that will fix some problem I hadn’t even hinted at the day before). It took me a while to figure out that one of my best friends is a can’t-talk-about-it type, and that my cheerful inquiries about her plot problems ran a serious risk of giving her a bad case of writer’s block.

There are, however, other kinds of bad experiences that make some writers advise against talking about works-in-progress, or, in extreme cases, against revealing that one is a writer at all. If the person one is talking to has a negative reaction to one’s plot or characters, it can have a crushing effect on one’s desire to write. Sometimes even a reaction that’s merely unenthusiastic can be profoundly dampening, especially when an idea is in its very early stages.

Also, different people react negatively to different things. I tend to get very grumpy and dig in my heels when well-intentioned relatives and the occasional acquaintance try to be supportive of my writing as a job – that is, they ask questions about my production (and I don’t mean “Have you written your page today?”) and if they aren’t happy with my answers, they trot out all sorts of anti-writer’s-block exercises and techniques they think I may not have heard of over the past thirty years. I hate nearly all possible writing exercises, and I’m quite capable of managing my production and output myself, thanks much.

All this means, though, is that I am selective about who I talk about my writing with. I want listeners who’ll get me revved up about the fun parts – making stuff up and coming up with plot twists and so on – not folks who spend half an hour reminding me that I’m in the miserable middle and I just have to grind my way on through (I can figure that out just by sitting down and grinding for a bit). If it’s not fun, what’s the point?

In addition to the negatives, there’s a positive reason for not discussing ones WIP. For some people, keeping it a secret is like lighting the fuse on a rocket, or shaking up an unopened can of Coke – it creates an internal pressure that helps keep them writing. In other words, they react exactly the opposite of the way I do: what gets them revved up is wanting to talk, but having to wait until the story’s finished before they do.

I come down, once more, solidly in the “whatever works for you” corner, with a couple of caveats. If you know or suspect that talking about your work-in-process will end up with you not producing anything at all, don’t talk about it. If you know or suspect that keeping your WIP a deep, dark secret will get you to write more, or faster, don’t let your beta readers see it until you’re all the way through the first draft. If, however, you know that you are energized by telling stories in a way that makes you go home and write them down, find some trustworthy friends and talk yourself blue in the face. Just be sure you have objective evidence – that is, more pages getting produced. It’s not at all uncommon for someone to think they’re energized and encouraged to write by talking, when in fact they merely enjoy telling the story a whole lot and the talk does not lead to actual pages produced.

If you’re going to talk, however, there are two classes of people for whom I advise extreme caution in discussing one’s writing at all. First, there’s one’s boss, if one has a day job (as most would-be and new writers do). I’ve known several people who, for one reason or another, explained to a supervisor that they were doing this writing thing, and in roughly three out of four cases, the reaction was negative (ranging from not getting that raise or promotion to forbidding the would-be author from working on the manuscript at the office on breaks or lunch hours). In at least two cases, the author in question fully expected the supervisor to be supportive, and was totally blind-sided by the negative impact it had on their second career. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying that you should be aware there’s a down side, and think carefully before you do.

The second class of people not to talk about writing with are those who are … “unsupportive” doesn’t begin to describe it. I’ve known writers whose families or friends have done everything from burning the would-be writer’s notebooks in an attempt to discourage them, to guilt-tripping (“Is it really fair to your children to spend so much time on this hobby of yours? You’re already away at the office all day…”) to deadly and destructive criticism to outright mocking. The only way to deal with such people is not to tell them you’re a writer at all. At least in this instance, it’s generally pretty obvious in advance that these folks are going to be toxic to one’s writing.

  1. I’ve had to find what works for me as well. For example, I can’t talk to my mom about my writing. I know she feels vaguely insulted and a little … depressed about it – but whenever she tries to “help” she points out everything that I’m doing wrong. The problem is, the things she points out aren’t ever wrong. She likes to read historical fiction or literary fiction. I write YA and middle grade. So, those genres are very different and she doesn’t understand that I have a different audience who won’t care about the things she cares about.

    I also have to keep some things a secret when I’m telling my husband – not because he isn’t supportive (he is the BEST at being supportive of my writing) but because I want to use him as a guinea pig. “Did that work?” “Do you understand what I am meaning there?” “Did that come out of left field?” I’ll give him general ideas and let him read my rough draft, but I try not to tell him what is going to happen in the future of the novel.

    I second the whole thing about telling your boss though – I’ve only had one supportive boss, and I still think he was a little weirded out by it – but at least he didn’t tell me I couldn’t work on it at breaks!

  2. I can’t talk about my writing to anyone at all until I have at least finished the first draft. It has the same effect on me that writing a very detailed outline has – I start to feel that there, I’ve gotten the story off my chest, and now writing it would only be redundant.

    However, after that first draft? I will talk until I’m hoarse to anyone who will listen. Which usually is my long-suffering husband (it’s okay, though, he retaliates by telling me all about whatever obscure theological concept he is currently studying). And then it does energize me and inspire me!

  3. This telling people thing is a topic I’ve been struggling with lately. My day job boss knows generally, because I had to get a Permission to Pursue Secondary Employment legal form signed by a vice president when I got my first check for a short story. Now that full blown novels are likely to be published, I’m not sure whether or not to tell. I’ve gone with answering in full if asked, and not providing any unsolicited detail when things change. The one boss-level person who asked wanted to know when I was quitting. It was definitely not what I expected.

    On non-dayjob people, I would like to tell more people to recruit a group of first readers. I haven’t figured out what kinds of feedback I need from readers or how to find people who like my stuff enough to read it in unfinished form. I also don’t know how to identify people who will give useful feedback or coach people to do that. Maybe that could be a blog topic one day?

  4. I am definitely in the telling-people camp — although only specific people. (They, however, get a huge amount of it. I am deeply, deeply grateful to them for listening and encouraging and occasionally giving helpful suggestions.) I don’t talk about it much at work, except to those at the same level as me, partly because my job is contract and finishing next year and when they ask me what I am doing next I have started to tell them the truth, that I’m not pursuing an academic career because I want to be a writer and I have discovered I can’t do both seriously at the same time.

    I don’t think I’d tell my boss in other circumstances. I didn’t tell my doctoral advisers until very late in the process (again, the whole not-applying-for-tenure-track-jobs), and although I mentioned I wrote as a hobby earlier in this job I didn’t talk about it seriously. And really until I have published something it’s hard for others to take it as anything more than a hobby — though it’s not a hobby any more for me.

    I haven’t had any great naysayers, thankfully. Just people who doubt my practical abilities at ever making a living at it, who want to know why I can’t just keep writing on the side of my academic career, which are both questions I’ve been struggling with myself for a couple of years.

  5. I am definitely a talker. It gets me so excited to finish telling the story, that I often go home and write one or two thousand words just running on enthusiasm. Everyone who knows me even a little bit, knows that I am a writer. That’s probably because I’m always scribbling in a notebook that I carry everywhere with me, or I have my nose in a book.

    I find that talking about my current project almost never dampens the creative process for me, mostly because of the way I write. I almost never have the whole story when I begin writing, so there isn’t any future to keep from them.

    As far as being choosy about who I let read my projects, and who I talk about them with, I have to say that I pick them according to two guidelines.

    1. I talk to the people who already accept me for who I am. I think that being a writer can be very weird to some people, especially the way I do it. So I go to the people who are already aware of my inner freakishness and still love me, and all the more for it.

    2. I often take the project to friends who already fit into number one, but also might fit into the audience I am aiming at. They usually have good insight, maybe not on the technique or the art of the thing, but they definitely have things to say on how the writing comes off, i.e. what is actually there vs. what I intended to say.

    Thanks Miss Wrede, I really enjoy reading your blog.

  6. For me, the way I talk about the project is important. While it’s in progress, I can’t talk about specifics. I need to keep the nitty gritty to myself or I’ll start to doubt everything. But I can talk about the big picture – how I want the book to be, what style and theme. And if I’m talking to someone who understands writing fiction – my style of fiction, and is supportive, I can use shorthand to talk about certain problems I’m running into. Having people able to talk about the big picture helps me write the little pictures – to make the big picture work, since now I know what I want out of it.

  7. I’ve found that I have a foot on both sides of the fence (ouch). Talking about a story in general terms, or talking about the back-story or side issues, energizes me. However, not talking about the specifics of an upcoming scene gives me the shaken-Coke effect, where I have to hurry up and write it so I can share it.

    Also, it makes my alpha-reader happier, because she doesn’t get authorial spoilers.

    (The current NaNo project is giving me a lot of shaken-Coke effect, because I’m actually writing it faster than my alpha-reader can find time to read it — which is unprecedented and very bizarre, for me. So every night, I’m halfway through another scene I can’t say anything about until I finish it!)

  8. I’m in the not talking camp for the first draft.

    I need to keep upcoming details a secret from myself or the project goes flat. And I need to encounter wow surprises while I write. I do outline, but only very sketchily, and the outline is always subject to change.

    I also need the shaken coke effect to power me forward, not so I can talk about it after I write it, but just so I’ll keep a full head of steam while I’m writing.

    Once I’ve written the first draft (which is usually within close striking distance of the final draft), I love to talk about the story, both as a whole and in detail, with my first reader. It energizes me and motivates me to get on with those revisions. (Without the talking I tend to feel like I’m done, and I’m not.) My first reader has great insight, helps me understand more deeply what I’ve written, and is really good at spotting where not enough of the story made it out of my head onto paper. (I’m a leaver-outer when I err, not a tell-too-mucher.)

    That’s the point where I’m tempted to talk about the story with my husband, and I must not! Because I want him reading with fresh, new eyes after I’ve done the first round of revisions.

  9. @ Victoria Scribens
    I could be a first-reader if you want.

    A) I read extremely fast: 1K+ pages per day fast

    B) Because of that speed I tend to run out of books so I’ve read pretty much….. everything.

    C) I’m not interested in being a writer myself (prefer video for my creative efforts) so no competition or tit-for-tat necessary.

    D)I’ve read more then 30 volumes of a Google-translated Korean novel just because I wanted to find out what happened next. If you have ever suffered through a Google translate then you know that proves I don’t mind reading unpolished writing.

  10. The shaken Coke effect? I wonder what you folk would do with Diet Coke and Mentos.

  11. I bounce world-building ideas off my girlfriend, because she’s got a degree in anthropology. She keeps me grounded when my invented cultures start getting unrealistic. Oddly enough, I almost never use her ideas on other aspects, but just talking about it with her gets my brain moving in the right direction. I never talk plot; it feels weird, like I’m now not allowed to change anything from what I said.

    I guess I’m lucky that my day-job boss is supportive. Outside employment requires a form signed by the boss and the head of HR. When I told my boss, she seemed to think it was really cool. I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that this might compete for my time.

  12. I can talk about world-building (if I’m careful), and even get useful ideas out of it, but otherwise, I’m a poster-child for both “if I talk about it, it dies” and “if I don’t talk about it, the pressure to Tell The Story builds up in a useful way.” (Not to mention, “If I outline it, it dies.” *sigh*)

    Y’all “talk about it” people are very alien to me, and I’m always a little terrified about “enabling” it, because of my own mindset — and they sound like such wonderful books!

  13. @Esther – 30+ volumes of Google Translate? Wow, that’s dedication!

  14. Hi Patricia,

    I read your blog occasionally (I am not a writer but I find the process interesting). But I noticed that in this blog you mentioned that you like talking about work-in-progress but… haven’t mentioned what you are working on now! I just finished the Frontier Magic Trilogy (truly magic, it was fantastic!!). So are you writing something else for us to look forward to?

  15. miserable middle-you mention these words so briefly, but I was feeling pretty bad for myself today about it, thinking that my writing must suck because the part of the story I’m writing, well, bores me to tears.

    Just this hint that other writers experience this moment, helps me alot. Thank you!

    By the way, someone from Baen’s Bar sent me your way. 🙂

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