Writers are notoriously secretive. We use fake names. We like to play our cards close to the vest. Fellow writers are competitors as much as potential collaborators. Somewhere, deep in the recesses of every writer’s mind, lies the fear of idea theft. The hack peddling a knockoff version of our literary progeny. The common plagiarist. The blabbermouth partner. We protect our developing work with parental ferocity.
Intellectual property fears aren’t the only reason we hesitate to share. You’ll find plenty of advice telling you to keep your story a secret, with good reason. A few years ago, I shared a piece of writing with someone who had minor connections to an industry I was interested in working for. I got ripped apart and then some.
I wasn’t ready for that level of criticism. Nor was that person qualified to give it. That one bad review–more like a personal attack–not only permanently damaged my longtime friendship with that individual but also ended any serious attempts to break into that field. I was done.
Pursuing a writing career requires the ability to develop a cowhide-thick skin. There is a difference, however, between finding oneself on the un-fun end of a tough critique from an industry expert and being subjected to a nasty dress down by someone who has no idea what he or she is talking about.
Much of the advice about keeping stories under wraps is aimed at protecting writers from those unprovoked attacks by typically well-meaning, occasionally jealous, but always ill-informed friends, relatives, and writing-world acquaintances. A budding story, entrusted to the wrong hands, can be shredded to the point of unrecognizability and shoved into a drawer. Although rescuing the world from one more terrible book could be construed as a public service, damage occurs whenever talented would-be creators are injured.
Yet telling writers they must go it alone until the story is a perfectly polished pearl is equally problematic. Nobody successfully walks the path to publication alone. There are teachers, sources, editors, agents, critics, layout experts, graphic designers, photographers, advertisers, illustrators, promoters, and countless others involved in every publishing medium. You won’t build a prominent writing career by yourself. Why would you expect to craft the Great American Novel (or anything else) without help?
Your novel will come to a screeching halt at some point in your writing process. If it doesn’t, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. You will find yourself contending with implausible story arcs, confusing characters, boring filler moments. You will question everything, and the temptation to throw it all into the nearest paper shredder, never to be seen again, will be palpably real. Perfectionists, recognize.
There are two things you could do next. You could follow the technique prescribed by NaNoWriMo coaches: Ignore your inner editor and push ahead. Get the words on the page. All systems go. Forget the mess, you’ll clean it up later.
Or, you could recognize that some problems are simpler to fix before you hit revisions. Keep writing, but make notes of the things you need to fix: this character’s behavior, that subplot, those research holes. And never underestimate the power of a good brainstorm session. You don’t have to share your ratty early drafts or adopt anyone else’s changes, but opening a conversation about a specific issue that is giving you pause can send a fresh jolt through your creative process.
Earlier this week, I went into a brainstorm session feeling that my protagonist and a secondary character didn’t go together. The story was morphing into two different books rather than main plot and subplot, and I needed to take back control. I came out of that conversation–-which naturally covered a ton of ridiculous, insane plot pitches–-with slightly more confidence and a few workable ideas. Also, by addressing the issue at the first opportunity, I didn’t let myself write my way into a corner, and I didn’t put myself in a position where several chapters would have to be heavily redlined or tossed out. Instead, I’m going back in with a game plan.
Have you tried brainstorming your way out of writer’s block?
*This post originally appeared in September 2016.*