In a recent piece for The Author (the Society of Author’s quarterly magazine) Terence Blacker asked ‘what makes an author?’ and then listed what he sees as the criteria for ‘authorliness’. While I agree with a great deal of what he said (it’s a great piece – read it here: Terenceblacker.com ) I wasn’t sure how I felt about this item in the list:
– You never, if you write fiction, talk about your work in progress. You learn quite early that, once the steam is let out of a story through talk, it can never be recovered. When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it.
Is this absolutely true, I wonder? Over the years, I have found talking about my work to be quite useful. In fact, I encourage my students to talk about their work, too, and one of the most popular sessions, both with undergrads and with community evening class students, is the one where everyone outlines their plot (it may be a short story or a novel) to the group and we brainstorm the possibilities for development. This works particularly well with short stories where the student may have come up with a striking image or an interesting character but is unsure where to go next. The very act of talking through the ideas with other writers often sparks possibilities that person may not have thought of if s/he had been all alone with a blank screen or notebook.
I have one friend in particular who I thrash out ideas with. She and I use each other as sounding boards and we both find it helps enormously to discuss any problems we encounter in our novels. It’s not necessarily that either of us will come up with a solution – although that does sometimes happen – it’s more that by discussing the work in detail, we’re often able to help each other to pin down and develop the ghost of an idea that’s been swirling around in our heads along with hundreds of others.
We authors are often so close to our own work that we may not see a solution that’s staring us in the face, whereas another writer can spot it instantly. Also, someone who is used to the exploring the world of fiction themselves may be able to help us to see aspects of our own stories that we’re too close to notice, and this can help us to see the whole thing in a different light.
My friend and I recently said that instead of just phoning each other to talk through difficulties with our work as they arise, perhaps we should plan a regular fortnightly session where we can chat about our novels on a regular basis, a sort of therapy session in which we can pour out our frustrations as well as possibly finding new directions for our work.
What I’m not sure about, is whether it’s a good idea to discuss your work-in-progress with non-writing friends. This is not because I’m worried that by outlining the story I’m going to somehow ‘let the steam out’, but because non-writers are less likely to understand what you’re trying to do with a particular piece and may come up with suggestions that are so far removed from what you had in mind that you end up saying, ‘no, I don’t think that’ll work’ so many times that your friend gets upset and stalks off in a huff.
On further reflection, I suppose Terence Blacker’s comment: ‘When a would-be writer tells you every turn of the novel they are planning, you know they will never write it.’ May carry some weight. First, he’s talking about a ‘would-be writer’ rather than a writer, and as we all know, there are many would-be writers who never get around to actually writing anything at all. Also, maybe talking about ‘every turn’ of a novel is not such a good idea – maybe that wouldmake it lose its steam. Although I’m not sure it’s even possible to discuss ‘every turn’ of a novel.
So for me, discussing my work-in-progress is not a problem – I’ve never had that experience of losing steam, of having ‘talked it out’. Showing it to anyone else when it’s still at an early stage can be a problem, but that’s a whole different blog post!
So I’m really interested to know what you think. Has it ever happened to you that you’ve talked about your story in such depth that you no longer felt able to write it? Or do you find discussing your work in progress a useful part of your writing life?
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