Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Protect The Work - Even the Early Stuff

I’ve talked to two newish writers in the last couple of weeks, and have been strongly reminded of how important it is to protect your early writing efforts from too much feedback and too many rules. Both can be deadly.

Just as you don’t take newborns out too early to expose them to gawd-knows-what kind of germs and contagions in crowded public places, so should you protect your work. Yes, even your early crappy work, because buried deep in there somewhere is the seed of the writer you’ll become. The tiny green shoot of your voice or your unique style. But the thing is, you might not recognize how precious it is yet, and the last thing you want to risk is ruining it before it’s had a chance to flower. (And honest-to-gawd, could I mix any more metaphors in there!)

Protecting means a number of different things. For one, it means being very careful of who you choose to show your work to, and even more importantly, how much to heart you take early feedback.

You always need to ask yourself if these readers/critiquers are really people whose opinion you value. Do your reading tastes align with theirs? Are you impressed by the work they share? Or is there some less tangible hook your hanging your respect on, such as they’re published, or got a personal rejection from a super star editor. Even if those things are true, that doesn’t mean they are the best person to give you feedback that will help your work become the best possible version of itself.

And you know what? The stronger and more unique your voice or artisitc vision, the more this applies to you. I shudder to think of all the critiquers I've personally worked with who would have told Audrey Niffenegger that time travel was dead, or that you 'weren't allowed' to jump around in time like that, or that the age difference was too icky. I've heard numerous editors speak at conferences, saying they can tell when a mss has been so heavily critiqued as to leech all the life out of it.

I do think there is a place for “hard truths” critiquing, but you need to be darn sure of the people handing out the critiques.

But protecting the work also means being mindful of whose advice you listen to, and maybe even more importantly, when you listen to it.

I have known writing teachers who give brutal feedback to their students, arguing that harsh critiques are nothing compared to the realities of rejection in the publishing world. Which is somewhat true, but I would also argue that teachers have a responsibility to encourage, rather than simply discourage, which is what we have market realities for. Other teachers have claimed that if writers are that easily discouraged, then they had too flimsy a dream to begin with.

I cannot fully express how much I disagree with that. No one has the right to stomp on your dreams. Dreams are fragile things, more fragile even that newborns, and to expose them to overly harsh eyes too soon is the creative equivalent of infanticide.

So don’t do it. Protect the work.

Even from me.

Oh sure, all this stuff I talk about here is shared with the best of intentions, but it is only my opinion and my process; it is not (by any means) holy writ. Many, many brilliant writers write their brilliant books without doing a single thing I’ve ever talked about. The stuff I share here is simply what I’ve found helps me write the kind of books I like to read, and nothing else.

If I wrote different kinds of books, adult books, say, or literary books, or memoir, I'd have an entirely different set of guidelines and craft tools that I used. So please take all my advice with a grain of salt.

Better yet, only embrace the stuff that resonates with you; that sparks some faint aha! deep within, or gives you the sensation of a puzzle piece falling into place.

Please, please, please don't clutch all these rules and suggestions in your hot little hand as you try to write your first or even second discovery draft. Hell, I can barely even spell when I'm writing a discovery draft, let alone juggle all the things I talk about here. If the stuff I talk about makes you doubt yourself or your story, or begins to take away some of the pleasure you get from writing, then stop now! This simply means that these are not the lesson your process needs right at the moment.

So be gentle with yourself and the demands you place on your early work, okay? Once you feel you’ve hit the wall of your own limitations, then it’s a good time to seek out other input.


Katy Cooper said...

Thank you for saying this, Robin. I've been writing seriously since the end of '96, and this is a lesson I've only recently taken to heart, and taken action on. I think it's really helping my work become itself, and that's key.

PJ Hoover said...

Great post, Robin! It takes a while to build that thick skin, and the wrong critique at the wrong time can destroy years of effort.

Story Weaver said...

I almost quit being a writer when I showed my sister something that she rather *tactfully* crituqued. I learned not to do that anymore.

Lori W. said...

Good stuff. I agree w/Katy, too. I joined some trusted critique groups, but realized I just don't have material to bring every month. I'm four months into a discovery draft that changes dramatically every few weeks. There would be no point in anyone seeing it yet. I believe your posts re: delving deeper into the characters and the story are what's needed in the early stages, and that's usually not a group process.

Aspiring Author said...

Notice that two of the lovely books are Yours. :) congrats.

Robin L said...

Katy, it's taken me a while to be able to assimilate this lesson, too. In fact, I think the last three years have involved a lot of unlearning as I tried to shed that which didn't work for me.

PJ, so true about the thick skin. Which is funny because on the whole, writers are by nature some of the thinnest skinned creatures around. What a conundrum.

SW, I think siblings can be the worst about that, what with the whole sibling rivalry and all that. Luckily, my sibs haven't ever shown much interest except for when the book is finished and in print, and then there's no point in input! Phew!

L.A. you bring up another excellent point. Especially early on in the process, so much of what we get down on paper is subject to change. And yeah, going deeper is most often NOT a group process. :-)

And thanks for bringing that link to my attention, AA! Very cool indeed!