How much should you talk about your work in progress?

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: ) 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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15 thoughts on “How much should you talk about your work in progress?

  1. Helen says:

    Great post Susan.
    I definitely benefit from talking about my WIP. If I'm stuck on a plot point, my first sounding board is my husband and although he might not always come up with a solution, the very act of talking it through usually helps me find a way forward. I also have a friend who is a published author and she acts as my unofficial mentor to support me through the writing process and often suggests a new approach to my WIP. For me personally, as the BT ad says, “It's good to talk”.

  2. JO says:

    I can't imagine how hard it must be NOT to talk about the WIP. I just think it's too great a story (not mine – it has it's roots in real history) to keep to myself, so blab happily whenever I'm asked. Which is probably silly, but I find I'm excited each time I talk about it. How can one keep secret over something that is so much part of who you are, when deep in the writing process?

  3. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Helen! Yes, husbands can be useful for this, too. As you say, it's the act of talking it through that is so productive. Sounds like you have a great 'unofficial mentor' too!

  4. Louise says:

    I hate talking about my WIP and I don't discuss it with anybody if I can help it. I find it really hard to articulate my thoughts and feelings and ideas. To me, writing is a totally private exercise and I like to keep it all inside rather than share, which makes me wonder how I will cope if I'm ever fortunate enough to get my WIPs published 🙂

  5. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    I wouldn't worry, Louise – the need to keep it inside is probably just the way you write best, and once the work is completed and published, you'll no longer need to keep it completely private. It's so interesting how we all work differently, isn't it?

  6. Emma Pass says:

    Great post! I only ever talk about my work-in-progress to a few people, and my husband always reads it as I go along. With his help, I've untangled some pretty tough plot problems, and it's great to have someone I can discuss the story and characters with in depth whenever I need to. However, I'm very secretive about it with everyone else! I once read a great quote from a writer that said something like if he talked about his WIP too much, to too many people, it lost its magic, like rubbing the shine off a butterfly's wings. That's exactly how I feel!

  7. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks, Emma. Yes, I think it's good to be selective, and possibly not to tell too many people. I'm currently trying to develop a friendly but non-committal response to the question 'what's it about?'!

  8. isabelcostello says:

    Very interesting post, Susan! Personally I tend to agree with your approach and disagree with Terence Blacker, but as you say it is down to everyone to handle this their own way. I am writing as part of a fantastic writers' workshop and have benefitted hugely from their input – I also went out of my way to get feedback from pure readers from an early stage, but I love these dynamics and find them very motivating. However, I never revealed anything from further up ahead in the manuscript even if I knew what was coming as that would have destroyed their ability to react naturally to it.

    When it comes to people asking'what the novel is about' I give the basic two line 'elevator pitch'. This happens all the time and I would feel awkward not saying (but again, that's just me.) At the party last week I even found myself doing this with the new manuscript – a potential reward is people saying they'd like to read it!

  9. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Thanks Isabel. Yes, I wrote my first novel with a great deal of support from a writers' group and I'm not sure what I'd have done without them. You make a really good point about discussing things with potential readers in advance of them reading it – that's something I didn't mention in the post!

  10. R J E Thomas says:

    I would go so far as to say talking about your WIP is essential (unless you're one of those rare geniuses who say at the ManBooker Awards ceremony: 'oh, the novel? Yes, I ran that off in a couple of hours last Tuesday. Do you like it?' And they, of course, are lying anyway. I would be nowhere near as far along as I am now if it weren't for the help and support of you like-minded scribblers. BUT that's the key – like-minded. Don't share with anyone else (except husbands). I dread that question 'what's it about?' The response to whatever answer you give invariably disappoints – 'So it's a modern Great Expectations, is it?' I wish! 'So it's Fifty Shades without the sex?' God help me!
    As to letting out the steam. I have to agree with Blacker. I have certainly had ideas that I've not written yet, that once I've talked about never made it to the page. I think you should always wait until you have something down on the page before you start talking about it.

  11. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    Yep, I'd agree with 'essential', but as you say, with the qualification that it's like-minded people only (with the possible exception of husbands!)

    Good point about having something down before you start talking about it. Though it may be tempting to 'try out' an idea by asking people what they think before you write it, the chances are you won't get round to exploring it on the page if you've already explored it fully in the pub!

  12. readthisandweep says:

    In the early stages, I tend to play my word cards pretty close to my chest. There is only so much I'm prepared to reveal – certainly on line. Names of characters; a sense of place; out of focus snapshots of the plot. A swirl of smoke here; a glitter of mirror there. The beta readers, if I'm lucky enough to find them, come much later. Too much disclosure too early in the process strikes me as unnecessary.

    You make a good point about would-be writers. If Mr Blacker is talking about 'writers,' the distinction is irrelevant. If he isn't, the point is a little superior imv, & a generalisation.

  13. Susan Elliot Wright says:

    You put it very poetically – a swirl of smoke here; a glitter of mirror there. Makes me want to read what you're writing already!! Yes, I think you're right that it's all about balance, finding the right level for yourself and your own way of working.

    I agree with what you say about Terence Blacker's point – a tad superior!

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