Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer. —Barbara Kingsolver
Writers have many ways of sabotaging themselves. One of the most insidious ones, in my opinion, is showing their work too early.
I advise writers not to seek feedback from a writers group, or even a professional editor, when they’re in the process of generating a first draft. I lose a lot of potential business this way, but here’s why I believe this so strongly.
When you’re generating new work, ideas are trying to happen and you’re discovering what your book is about.
Stephen King uses the metaphor of the “boys in the basement” to explain how a writer’s subconscious mind works. The “boys” are at work creating characters, conflicts, and scenes, when you’re out and about running errands, when you’re fixing a sandwich, when you’re working your day job, when you’re washing the dishes, and even when you’re asleep. When you sit down to write in an attentive manner, King says, the boys will send their messages up to you. The act of writing opens you up to receive the messages. Be patient. Listen. You’ll hear them. And when you hear them, you are hearing your own creative voice.
When your writing is still young and you seek comments on it from others, their voices can drown out yours.
You’ll be especially tempted to ask for help when you feel discouraged and frustrated. Know that all writers, even the professionals, reach points when they can’t see a way forward, hate everything they’ve written so far, and want to trash what they’ve done and start something new. Trust in the writing process, be patient with yourself, and push yourself forward. If you ask others for help at the point self-doubt has crept in, the beautiful novel that could have been uniquely yours might never happen—because you haven’t given your particular vision the opportunity to emerge.
Novices are particularly susceptible to being swayed and confused by the voices of others.
Fellow writers, and even some professionals, may have good intentions, but sometimes they tend to want to remake your work over in their own image. Some of the saddest sentences I’ve ever heard begin with: “My writers group told me to…” Although you may think you’re above it, you’re only human if it’s hard to shake off comments and perceived criticisms about your writing when it’s still a tender seedling, not completely formed. You can always get feedback later when the work has blossomed.
Although you may believe you’re looking for advice in the generative stage, I’m going to suggest that what you’re really looking for is encouragement.
During this very early stage, it’s understandable that you might feel wobbly, but fight the urge to seek approval in the guise of seeking feedback. If you absolutely must seek professional help, then engage a “writing coach” who is trained to work with writers during the generative process, someone who can elicit your ideas and motivate you to move forward—without imposing or suggesting her own ideas and blocking yours. Or use your writing group, but be upfront that you want no undue influence. Be honest about the embryonic stage your work is in and your need for encouragement and a boost to move forward. Sometimes having the opportunity to read your work out loud in front of a group will be enough to re-energize you.
You know, the opposite side of the coin from sharing your work too early is never sharing it—because it’s “not ready.” That’s another form of self-sabotage and perhaps a post for another day.
A version of this post appeared previously on the Florida Writers Association’s blog.