Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Why You Shouldn't Talk About Your Novel

I was talking to a writer friend of mine recently and one of the many subjects we touched on was what happens when a writer talks about his/her work in progress.

Writers love to talk about their work. It's only natural, apart from the world, clacking away on a keyboard for hours on end makes us jumpy, chatty, a little nutso when we get out among people (or is it just me?), but there are very good reasons why you shouldn't talk about your the novel you're currently working on, and not one of them is the reason you're probably thinking.

You don't really know what you're talking about. A novel is a long process, and while the general subject matter might not change over the course of writing "Chapter 1" and "The End" the content will shift remarkably. Plan all you like (and I'm a planner), but the end product will be something different from what you started out to write.

You're boring people. Your flat out excitement about the minute details of your character's existential journey is non-transferable. No one cares about your characters. Why? Because they can't read the book yet. Don't ask your friends to get worked up about something they don't understand, can't envision, and aren't able to read because it's not written. Naughty, naughty.

You're wasting your creative energy. When the eddy of ideas swirl, and you're dying to tell someone all about it, you need to sit down and write instead. If you blab all the goodie details of your latest and greatest idea, that's where the energy flows--out your mouth, into someone's ear and goodbye. When you try to sit down later and recapture the perfectness of that moment, it will elude you.

Think of it this way. Creative energy runs in unreliable pipes. It pours out into you whenever it feels like it, and runs dry the rest of the time. When you stand under its flow, you want to be certain to direct that energy into your work. If you talk about your work to someone else, you mis-direct that energy into a place that does your work no good. You're wasting that energy because (see above) it's non-transferable.

And you thought I was going to say that you shouldn't talk about your work because someone might steal your idea. Nah. Truthfully, someone has already written a book about what you're writing a book about. But not the way you write it.

Carpe Annum by saving your creative energy for your work. Pour it into the pages and no where else. Future readers will thank you.

Siphoned your energy into the wrong places? Share your cautionary tale with us. Harnessed that fickle flow right onto the page? Share your victory dance so we can dance with you.


Denise Leora Madre said...

THANK YOU for your insight! I have often been guilty of pouring out my novel-based excitement in someone's ear instead of on the page where it could do me some good. After this post, I shan't make that mistake again.

So good I had to post it to my blog, Thanks again!!

Jade said...

Very true :) The more energy we spend talking, the less energy we have for the paper.

Now how far does this quietness go, in your opinion(s)? If someone asks about how our writing is going, is it best to just be vague?

I mean, for example, if someone asks if we're working on short stories, and we happen to be starting a novel, should we mention the word novel at all or just say we're working on stories?

Thanks for reaffirming something I've been thinking about a lot lately.

Beth Overmyer said...

Good advice. I am very, very guilty of blabbing about what I'm writing. The usual results? Blank stares, crippled ego, stifled flow. If I don't get the reaction I'm looking for, I start to think "Oh, what I'm writing is stupid," and we all know where it goes from there...

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes. This is a very true, very important post.

I would add another reason for not talking about the novel. Everyone has an opinion. And, if you open up and share about your WIP, they very well may tell you what you should do. And nothing kills my creative process more than being bossed about what I should and should not write.

That has happened to me many, many times.

Now, when asked about what I'm working on, I just say something pretty vague. Really, I just tell them the profession of my characters. That usually says enough.

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

You are so right that the whole book may change from your vision at Chapter 1 to the final version of 'the end'! Those characters have SUCH a way of taking over the WIP and making it their own.

Patti Hill said...

Rock-solid advice, my dear. "Creative energy runs in unreliable pipes." How true, how true. Thanks for the reminder. My lips are zipped.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Yes! Yes! "If you blab all the goodie details of your latest and greatest idea, that's where the energy flows--out your mouth, into someone's ear and goodbye. When you try to sit down later and recapture the perfectness of that moment, it will elude you."
Sometimes, I feel obligated to prove to inquirers that, yes, I really am working on my writing - I am doing something important. I need to stand with myself on my own two feet and just act mysterious.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Ditto what Beth said. What Susie said.

Bonnie Grove said...

Denise: Thanks so much for reposting--kind of you! Glad this article was helpful to you.

Jade: Vague is good. When someone asks what you're working on, answer them as you would a small child. "A novel about jewel thieves." That's enough. If they press for more, smile and say, "Patience."

Beth: The blank stare of death. Nasty. Now you know it wasn't your work--it's just that they weren't capable of responding well to work they couldn't read for themselves.

Susie: I can't even imagine someone trying to tell me what to write. That must have been very uncomfortable.

Bonnie Grove said...

Cynthia: True, dat.

Patti: You've always been good at keeping your work to yourself as you write. And excellent at sharing the process along the way, too.

Cherry: Acting mysterious is fun. Practice in front of a mirror.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Bonnie: Yup. And very annoying.

Lindy Moone said...

Excellent post... and now I just have to crow: "I harnessed the fickle flow! I harnessed the fickle flow!" Through no great insight of my own, I must add, since when I started my first novel I was living in the middle of nowhere, seldom used the Internet, and had a husband who never read fiction. I just pounded it out after dinner, night after night, giggling and snorting in glee while he snored on the couch.

This is definitely a problem I see in some budding writers over on Critique Circle. They post first drafts of first chapters, when they haven't even written chapter two yet, much less a whole first draft.(Madness!)

Bonnie Grove said...

Lindy: Excellent point about critique groups. Don't share stuff that isn't ready for public consumption (whatever that means to you), and make sure your critique group is qualified to give critique. And take everything they say with a grain (shaker?) of salt.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Great advice, Bonnie. "Creative energy runs in unreliable pipes. It pours out into you whenever it feels like it, and runs dry the rest of the time." Love that.

Maggie Amada said...

Good point. I'm personally very guilty of boring people with writing all the time, particularly during the beginning.

I've been writing for a couple of years now so I'm over the initial honeymoon where I must talk about it. Now I'm in the "this is work phase".

Megan Sayer said...

I must be the odd one out here, I hate talking about my work. I tend to fob off "so what do you do?" with "I'm a Mum" (which I am), and it's usually my husband who dobs me in with "she's also a writer". Then people ask me "what do you write?" and I get all vague and say "novels".
"What are they about?"
"Oh, stuff".
Great. Really helpful. I've found if you throw the word "literary" in they don't ask too many more questions, and that suits me fine.
Except now I'm planning a trip to the ACFW conference to sit through any number of interviews with agents who will ask me specific questions like "what is your book about?" which is kind of my idea of hell.
I wonder if I can twist your words around to come up with an answer to that: if, as you say, once you've talked it out it's not there to write it out, is that why that, now I've written it out, there are no words left for me to talk it out?

Peggy Nicholls said...

I'm new to this blog and this post is just perfect!
I take my laptop with me to work for my lunch break and to hockey practice because it's not a game. Inevitably, someone will notice me hammering away at the keys and asks what I'm working on.
I don't tell them that I did not drag the thing to work/practice to be interrupted by them. I politely tell them I'm working on the FINAL EDIT of my novel, hoping that will give them a clue that I'd rather be concentrating on my work.
They ask about the story. At first, I thought they were genuinely interested but they would interrupt me with "Oh, I could write a novel. I had this really interesting story in my head..." and they proceed to tell me THEIR story which, of course, is nowhere NEAR as interesting as mine, and they haven't even started writing!!
So if I'm interrupted, I just close the laptop and listen to them talk, or watch the kids practice crashing into each other.
However, I did have my best friend read it and I run ideas by her and now we chat about my imaginary friends as if they were hers!
You have to have at least one real person you can talk with about your wonderful story!
And yes, it has changed many times before I actually really and for true reached the final edit stage, and, as Cynthia Davis wrote above, it's the characters who took over without my help!

Katherine Scott Jones said...

Ah, exactly so! Thank you for putting it so succinctly. I think the best reason for staying mum about my WIP is the last one. Talking about it steals the magic.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: Thanks!

Maggie: It's both happy and harrowing to be in the "this is work" phase of being a writer. I find there are far fewer champagne celebrations now that writing is my job rather than my fondest hope.

Megan: I think your answers to the general public/family/friends are good. But I strongly suggest you have a polished paragraph ready when you sit down with an agent. That agent will not be charmed by uncertainty or playing it coy. But that whole pitch is different from what I'm talking about today, which is the creative process. You're approaching the business end of things, which means you have to switch hats completely.

Bonnie Grove said...

Peggy: Welcome to Novel Matters! We're so glad to have you here. I love the comparison you draw between sharing ideas with random people who ask about your work, and sharing the finished (albeit rough) manuscript with a wise friend.
Congrats on finally building the right playground for your characters to come to life in!

Katherine: Steals the magic. Exactly.

Megan Sayer said...

Thanks Bonnie :)
I do know that. I do very much know there's a difference. I've got six months. Three to figure out what to say, and three to practice. Think I'll need them!

Megan Sayer said...

...or more accurately five months and three weeks to figure out what to say and a week to practice. I'm looking forward to it. I like a challenge. I just find it highly amusing in contrast with my usual response.