Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …so long as I get somewhere.
The Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

-Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland

This post is inspired by a friend of mine, who recently told me that she took a new project to a conference for critique. This project was unfinished, in the very early stages, yet she was very excited about it. However, after the conference she lost her passion and set it aside. This was my response. 
“Why on earth did you take an unfinished project to be critiqued!” I screamed into cyberspace.
No seriously. I can’t think of a better way to kill the passion of a project than to show it to people too soon. We don’t bring out our babies while growing in the womb so people can tell us they’re ugly and deformed and how to change them. Likewise our stories need a womb, a small and protective place for those earliest stages of growth and development. That womb is your own imagination.

Like an infant, there has to be a period where that story is just mine, shielded from the harshness of the outside world and all its varying methods and opinions. I go so far as to not even tell anyone what my current WIP is about, not because I’m afraid of people stealing my ideas, but because I’m afraid of killing the magic of it all. I need that magic to swirl inside of me, to expand and grow and take form and meaning in my own private world before I share it with anyone else. Because when I share it with others, it’s no longer totally mine. I’ve let other people in and they also start to take ownership and have an effect on the story. You must do this eventually, but do it too soon, and you can harm the story, or even kill it.

Stephen King said it this way in his memoir On Writing

“Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. Your stuff starts out being just for you, in other words, but then it goes out. Once you know what the story is and get it right — as right as you can, anyway — it belongs to anyone who wants to read it. Or criticize it.”

Now, I will say that this isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course. It’s simply my own rule and I obviously feel strongly about it for several reasons. However, there are some very skilled writers who really do find it helpful to share their work while it’s in progress and allow others to help steer them along the way. It probably works fine for those who heavily outline and stick to it, or for those who imagine the story so completely in their imagination, they only need help with the finer details along the way. I’m not much of a planner, and my ideas are certainly not born as fully formed stories, so sharing my work as I draft is totally pointless. Too much changes along the way, and my first drafts are rather wishy-washy and skeletal. The risk I see in sharing too early is that you’re not allowing your own instinct to develop how your story should go, but are listening to too many voices and opinions to tell you what to do, the result being a story that could feel somewhat contrived, and possibly lifeless, misleading, or off-key.

I have always thought of writing as an act of faith, and that faith should begin with yourself. Not your critique partners, agent, editor, whoever. You have to develop that faith in your story and your ability to make it grow, and then, when your story has developed a certain amount of shape, you must put faith in the right people to tell you where you took a wrong turn, not necessarily where to go, but at least pointing out where you got off track. When you seek criticism, you must listen especially for what is wrong, certainly take suggestions into consideration, but in the end the answers of where to go must come from you.

In short, it’s kind of pointless to stop and ask for directions when you still don’t know where you’re going. Didn’t you listen to the Cheshire Cat? He’s mad of course, but we’re all mad here. You can’t help that.


5 comments

  1. I love this! Especially the part about having faith in yourself which, when it comes to my own writing, is often lacking. Thanks for this! 🙂

  2. I totally agree, especially because faith keeps us going. When I took my first creative writing class many years ago, I brought a story that I was working on. Granted, the story wasn’t very good, but I stopped working on it because one of the other students accused me of plagiarizing a famous novel (which I definitely did NOT do). Several other students wrote negative comments on my story as well, and that discouraged me from writing for a long time. The irony was that I later discovered that someone else in the class actually had plagiarized a chapter from a famous novel and passed it off as a short story; I didn’t discover it until after the class ended, though, so it was too late to turn her in. I’m sure she would’ve gotten caught eventually, though, if she ever tried to get it published.

    • Suzi

    • April 3, 2012

    • 4:19 pm

    I just got ON WRITING and have to get going on it.

    I’ve never worked with a CP, only betas. And although i’d love to have someone to toss around ideas with, giving them any material at such an early stage doesn’t feel right. (Although I don’t mind looking at other people’s work at the early stages.) I would just feel that the quality of my writing isn’t there yet–skeletal, as you said, is a good word.

    Luckily I haven’t had any bad beta experiences. I’m sure I’ll have my turn at that some day though. I hope that if/when I do, I don’t let it affect my excitement over that project. Reading amazon book reviews shows me that everybody has an opinion, they often time conflict, and you can’t please everyone. How you let it affect you if probably the big thing.

  3. Great post, Liesl! I’ve been trying out crit groups, and have found them useful only when people share pieces that have been thought through and revised. I don’t know what to say when someone posts something that’s fresh off their very first draft. Perhaps I’ll point them to your post here, if I can find a polite way to do that!

  4. I agree, crit groups are only helpful if you yourself are already happy with the manuscript. Giving up an unfinished project for critique can destroy your motivation.

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