Experienced writers will warn you, “don’t share your ideas.” Not because someone will steal them, although that could happen. But the reason to be careful about new ideas is because people have few qualms about crushing your most favored idea with a few choice words and walking away leaving you to salvage the remnants of your darling like a tattered party dress. Or worse, causing you to abandon the whole magical concept before it even had a real chance to live — like Cinderella refusing to don the ball gown and go to the ball at all.
Yes, well, we’ve all heard this warning at one point or another. I certainly have and yet, like a fool, I did it anyway. I shared, with another writer, the basic plot points of the novel I am currently crafting. She is someone I thought might be affirming and helpful, encouraging. Someone who might bolster me a little while I toiled away. Yeah, well, not so much!
Here’s how it went down:
I met a newish writer friend for lunch at a small cafe in the Village. We were talking about writing groups and how to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to all the opinions. I have always believed that you can’t let another’s opinion push you too far off track, but if something sticks with you, have a look at it.
Then she asked about my new book, the one I am working on when I’m not writing on Medium or procrastinating or sleeping or whatever. So, I told her about it. Yikes.
On the merest description of the basic idea of my new work, a little more than a log line, but less than a synopsis, this other writer decided that my main character was unsympathetic and then went on to suggest how I might change the character and the book to make the character more likable. All of which presumes A LOT that I won’t bore you with here except to say that characters who do shocking things aren’t necessarily unsympathetic (Raskolnikov anyone?), but are people who have reached a certain unknowable limit in themselves.
Her next suggestion was that I make the antagonist, and a character tangential to him, more sympathetic — which, of course, assumes that my antagonist and his cohort are one-dimensional characters. I tried to address some of both objections to the work, but there wasn’t a lot of listening going on from the other side of the table.
She carried on with her advice about what resources I should use to develop my characters, what else I needed to consider about them and something about a personality chart that a famous author uses. But honestly, at that point, it didn’t much matter what else she said because my mind had gone a little blank. I actually sort of felt the wind go out of my proverbial sails and I just watched her talk, her mind working overtime, her lips moving with certainty about how to fix my novel which is only a little over 40,000 words long at this point.
And while I was bummed out that she felt like she could take such liberties with my work. In the end, I gave up because I knew the whole conversation was my fault in the first place.
I’d made the cardinal mistake of the writer of a new work — don’t share until it’s done.
Like a cook who doesn’t let you taste the sauce until it might only need a dash of salt, I let my writer friend peer into my book when it was still in ingredient form. I hadn’t let the story cook and reduce, blend and meld into the beautiful, thrilling tale I know it will someday be. It was a huge mistake.
And, all I could think was, you know better than this, you really, really know better than this.
At that point, I just wanted the conversation to end, but she was pretty committed to her guidance. Eventually, she did get the vibe, maybe it was how my shoulders slumped practically down against the edge of the table. Or my glancing under the table with the idea that I might crawl underneath and right out of the restaurant while she “fixed” my book.
When she finally noticed something amiss, she said, “Oh, I’m sorry if I freaked you out.”
Riiiiight. Freaked me out. Because my book isn’t viable and I’ll probably have to trash it, according to her. Um, yeah, no. Pissed me off might be a better description of how I felt. And I wanted to say, “I’m not freaked out because I know where my work is, what my work is doing and who my characters are and maybe you could reserve judgement until you read it, instead of deciding for me what’s missing from essentially the germ of the idea.”
But that didn’t seem like a helpful rant to go on right then so I just said, “Well, I’m pretty comfortable with where my book is right now.” And I left it at that. Then she offered to read the manuscript for me. I thanked her but also made it clear that it was nowhere near reading form which might have served as another clue to her that she’d jumped the gun a little on the advice, but she didn’t seem to pick up on that either.
In the end, the whole stress-filled shebang is on me, and I know it.
I shouldn’t have succumbed to my egotistical wish for affirmation of a work-in-progress and instead said something about not wanting to talk the magic out of my idea, or something. But I guess I was a little giddy with it, a little too happy about what was in my head, if not fully on the page yet.
It’s a little like that first ultrasound when you are pregnant, it really looks more like a reptile or an alien creature than an actual baby, but as the parent you fall so in love with this very first picture of your child that you share it with everyone. Then some unprepared friend or relative offers a weak “yeah, wow, cool” reaction and you walk away sorry you even told them you were pregnant.
So, let this be a cautionary tale for all the diligent, aspiring and accomplished writers out there. Keep your ideas to yourself until they are fully formed, maybe even already books or blog posts or articles or whatever — because what you have in your brain is probably some kind of masterpiece, it just needs the time it needs to become real. And sharing it prematurely — even with other writer friends — injects all kinds of doubt and self-consciousness into the creative process — and no one, NO ONE needs that.