Thursday, September 29, 2011

the stages of sharing

A question I am often asked is at what point in the process a writer should share his/her writing with others. My answer is that it often depends on the writer, as well as the purpose for sharing at any particular stage.

There are some writers like myself who are quite wary of sharing their writing with anyone, regardless of what stage it's in, draftwise. Actually, I should clarify my own position on this. It's not that I'm reluctant to share my writing with anyone, it's that I'm reluctant to talk about it. With the exception of a small few, I don't even tell people the title of my work-in-progress, much less what it's about. Andre Dubus III likens this to opening the oven door too many times to check on the cookies baking. Imagine yourself showing your friends: "Look at these awesome cookies I'm baking!" as you explain each ingredient and how you measured them out and what you added and what you took out and perhaps you should've used pecans instead of walnuts and you hope they'll turn out chewy and not too crispy, etc. All the while that oven door is open, and the cookies aren't baking, to the point that they never get done. I tend to agree with this. Too much talking about your idea, your story, your character, etc. saps the energy and process of creation. If you've talked it all out, then what reason is there to write the thing?

When I do talk about the content, I'm usually consulting someone for insight or assistance (perhaps it's someone with an expertise that the character shares, or someone who can help me map out a cause-effect scenario), and I keep that inner circle to a bare minimum. Sometimes I just need to talk out character motivation and direction out loud -- just like therapy, the very act of my talking it out reveals the information that I need. My WILS co-author, Sarah Girrell, is a great person to talk to about such things since she has such a keen awareness of my writing style and approach to character, and she's a good listener.

At some point during the drafting process, however, a writer needs feedback. I know all too well how daunting it is to show someone an unfinished draft, especially in the early stages and especially when you know it's not working. You can't help but fear judgment from your peers, judgment that you're really not that good after all. But I also know how useful this feedback can be and how, when coming from the right person, can actually psyche you up to revise, do better, and enjoy it. Again what I show and at what stage, depends on the person and the purpose. I have no problem showing Sarah a rough draft of anything I'm working on (and yet, I still feel the need to apologize profusely to her for how bad it is). For others, I'm more comfortable showing drafts that have undergone some revision. Lately I've been sending a good friend chapters from my work-in-progress after I've revised them, and it's been good for my ego as well as my process--he gives me encouragement and praises me for what works (not having seen them in previous incarnations), and he also points out things I often don't notice, minor details that make a major difference. He's not a professional writer, but he knows me pretty well.

What about writers groups?

I've participated in several writer's groups over the years, and have had both positive and negative experiences with them. The right group will motivate you, keep you accountable, and provide constructive feedback on a regular basis while keeping your ego in check. Another great thing about groups is the aspect of getting to see other people's writing. Aside from the community aspect that is so important for writers (after all writing is, for the most part, a solitary act), seeing other people's drafts can almost always give you insight into your own. By seeing what works and needs work in someone else's draft, you return to your own with new eyes, seeing things you didn't see before, or perhaps seeing them with a fresh perspective, which can only aid the revision process.

And then, there are "beta-readers." A beta-reader reads your "finished" manuscript -- that is, you've revised and edited it considerably -- and provides you with specific feedback to determine what, if any, additional revision/editing needs to be completed before it's ready for submission or publication. This could be as simple as making sure you haven't changed a character's last name halfway through the story or keeping the timeline consistent, or it could be as challenging as re-examining a main character who isn't resonating with readers or eliminating a key scene that doesn't work. For me, beta-readers are crucial to the process, and it's important that you choose your beta-readers carefully. I go with a few people who are either well-read or well-written, people who might have a special expertise related to the story, and those who will give me honest, thoughtful, respectful feedback. It turns out these people are my close friends or my twin brother, but that's not to say you should only show your friends.

Do I take every suggestion and make every change suggested to me? No. Writing is a series of choices--you must be comfortable, confident, and accept the consequences of every choice you make. You'll never be able to please every reader, but you have to be satisfied at the end of the day, when your book is finished, printed, and published, and there are no more opportunities to revise.

And so, I invite you to reflect on these questions: Do you share too much of your work-in-progress, or too little? Are you choosy about with whom you share or talk about your writing? Should you be more choosy, or less? Are you afraid of criticism? Are you too controlling? Is a writer's group right for you? If you're currently in one, is it the right group of people for you? Are you one to provide feedback to others? If so, do you give the kind of feedback that you would want to receive?

I wish you well in all stages of your process.

No comments: