I spent most of 2006 preparing to write The Rain Still Falls, a story about an apparently amnesiac young woman who is rescued by three very disparate friends during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Almost from the very beginning, this tale of mistaken identity, murder, and disappearing royalty had me bursting with excitement. I couldn’t wait to begin writing. In January 2007, having logged my customary months of research, outlining, and character sketching, I opened a new computer file and dove into what I was sure would be a wonderful story.
Peopled with intriguing, three-dimensional characters; set during the fascinating and suspenseful period of London’s bombardment at the beginning of World War II; and featuring a tense plot and exciting twists, this story had all the elements to make it one of my best works. And yet, not even two months later, the project came to crashing halt, due, in large part, to one mistake on my part.
I opened my big fat mouth.
It has long been my policy never to share my work with anyone before I’ve completed the first draft. But for this story, I decided to make an exception. I was struggling with the beginning, and I wanted a second opinion on the first several chapters. I showed them to someone who was not a writer—someone, in fact, who wasn’t even a reader of fiction—hoping merely that he would boost my confidence by telling me the passages were good enough to pass muster. Never mind the fact that, in my heart, I knew they were good enough; I still wanted confirmation.
Unfortunately, the only thing I got from him was the first three chapters of my story covered in red ink. Most of this person’s suggestions were laughably off-base, and I knew it. But I still couldn’t get his words from running circles in my head. As quick as that, I lost steam on the project. My confidence in the piece and my ability to write it fell apart like an undermined mountainside. I suffered months of utter burnout (something that had never happened to me before), and even after I found the energy to begin a new project, almost another year would pass before my confidence in my writing returned.
Had I refrained from showing off my uncompleted manuscript, had I forced myself to muscle through my problems on my own instead of seeking outside support, and had I protected my infant story from the criticism which I knew all too well it wasn’t yet good enough to face, The Rain Still Falls would most likely be a completed manuscript by this point in time. It would have gone through several rewrites, weathered the storm of my own demanding criticisms, and emerged to face the world in its fifth or sixth draft, having been pruned and polished to the best of my ability. In such a form, it (and more importantly, its writer) would have been much better prepared to face the criticisms—constructive or otherwise—that the world had to offer.
Writing, at its heart, is a solitary venture. Anybody who tries to tell you different obviously isn’t a novelist. Save for the relatively few books which are either co-written or ghost written, the first draft of a tale is the brain child of a single person. When a writer offers up his unfinished manuscript for criticism, he is risking that fatal discouragement which can prevent a story from ever reaching completion.
Sometimes just talking to others about a project can be fatal. Imagine your story is a bottle of precious perfume, and every time you talk about it or show it to someone else, you are taking off the lid and letting out some of the scent. If you let out too much scent, soon you won’t have any left at all.
Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Anne Tyler put it this way:
“It makes me uncomfortable for them [writers who talk about their story ideas]. If they’re talking about a plot idea, I feel the idea is probably going to evaporate. I want to almost physically reach over and cover their mouths and say, ‘You’ll lose it if you’re not careful.’”
In his book The Writer’s Idea Book, Jack Heffron adds:
“Writing is a private act. It is a way of communicating with our imaginations, our subconscious minds, our secret lives. Bringing in a third party is almost always a bad idea. The sense of intimacy and revelation are lost....”
I can’t make a blanket statement on the subject, of course. Just because sharing ideas and unfinished manuscripts is the kiss of death for myself doesn’t mean that it will be so for all writers. But I have noticed that most experienced authors tend to share my view on the matter. Usually, authors who are eager to share their work before they’ve brought it to completion (and, granted, the sense of “completion” varies from author to author; for some, completion may be the end of the first draft, while for others, such as myself, a work isn’t considered complete until several drafts further along) are young, inexperienced writers, who have yet to grow a sense of confidence in their own judgment of their work.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, some people need the encouragement of others in order to gain enough confidence to finish a project. But you should be aware that this is a slippery path. If you feel you must gain the opinion of someone else before you’ve finished a story, try to confine your readership to one or two people at most, and aim for readers who you know will be positive even in their criticism. There’s nothing worse than watching your beloved project come to a screeching halt because you offered it up for criticism that neither it nor you were ready yet to handle. Better to have to rewrite a completed project than to never finish it because someone bashed it early on.
The writing life is full of cold water in the face. Fiction is too subjective a subject matter for us to hope that we can please everyone who reads our work. Criticism in all its forms comes with the territory, and seeking and accepting constructive criticism is a vital facet of learning and growing as a writer. But, as I was reminded all too clearly during my early months of writing The Rain Still Falls, we must wait for the perfect moment to open the lid on that perfume bottle. If we leave the lid on as long as possible, waiting until the intoxicating aroma of our story is as pungent and powerful as we can make it, we not only avoid the risk of losing the scent altogether, we will also ensure that the scent is strong enough to linger through the strong wind of criticism.
For my own part, having gathered the shreds of my confidence, I have every intention of returning to The Rain Still Falls. It’s too good a story to leave on the shelf just because of some ill-timed criticism. But you had better believe that this time around I won’t be sharing it with anyone until it’s good and ready.
Story by K.M. Weiland