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.
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.
“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.