Thoughts on Writing
by Seanan McGuire
All of us set boundaries every day, with everyone around us. They start
when we wake up, and they continue from there. Even going to sleep
involves setting boundaries, unless you regularly sleep with your house
entirely unlocked and a big sign on the door saying 'why yes, you can
totally come inside, touch all my stuff, and stare at me while I'm
unconscious.' And if you do, please tell me, because I am never
spending the night at your place. So let's talk about those boundaries.
Our topic for today:
You are absolutely allowed to say 'this is new, I don't want
opinions until it's ready.' You are absolutely allowed to refuse to
discuss something until you feel you're prepared. You get to set the
boundaries on your own work. That said, you do need to tell people
where the boundaries are, especially if they're used to reading
something of yours where the boundaries are different.
Boundaries can be tricky things, and almost all of us get upset when we
feel that they're not being respected. The thing is, we also get upset
when we feel that they're being unclear. So how do we get them
straight, and how do we make sure that everybody knows where the lines
are? That's what we're going to be talking about today.
Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.
New and raw.
New ideas are fresh and bright and shiny. New concepts haven't had all
the sparkle rubbed off of them by repetition and critique and
exposition and repetition. New characters are exciting and interesting.
New projects are, in short, the fascinating strangers in our lives, and
like all strangers, they have their pluses and their minuses. We're not
as emotionally attached to them yet. We're probably still wrapped up in
how strange and amazing they are, rather than realizing that they put
their adjectives on one sentence at a time, just like everything else.
This can make us resistant to critique -- after all, how could anybody
have a problem with something so incredible? It can
also make us a lot more sensitive to things we would normally weather
without batting an eye -- this is the best time to walk away, before
we're two hundred pages in and totally committed.
Let me be totally clear, here: both these things are normal.
It is totally realistic and okay for you to be infatuated with a story
that you've just dreamed up, and it's just as realistic and okay for
you to be willing to abandon that story the first time someone says
'but what about...'. These are normal functions of the human condition,
and normal parts of what it means to be a writer.
It can be very difficult to be objective about new things. They are
either blessed or damned, perfect or poisoned, and there's very little
room for anything in-between. New things are full of doted-upon
darlings we would never even dream of killing,
because they're so flawless that they don't deserve to die. New things
are filled with exciting plot twists that aren't even a tiny little bit
cliche -- or if they are, it's okay, because it's retro. At the very
same time, new things are poorly-written claptrap filled with deus ex
machina and illogical complications. They're over-plotted and
under-edited, and they're probably going to reveal us the frauds that
Sound familiar? Every new thing is Schrodinger's masterpiece: it's
neither brilliant nor terrible until we open the box.
Your rights as the author.
Here are things that you, as an author, are totally entitled to where a
new work is concerned:
* You are absolutely allowed to say 'this is new, I don't want opinions
until it's ready.' You can say that to someone who's successfully
begged you for a glimpse at the first typo-ridden pages; you can say it
to someone who just wants to know why you won't talk about what you're
working on. You are allowed to tell people when you're releasing
something for critique.
* You are absolutely allowed to refuse to discuss something until you
feel you're prepared. That means that even if you've given the first
chapter of your precious new novel to your five closest friends, you're
allowed to say that you don't want to hear any of their thoughts or
opinions on the work. This also means that you can keep on telling your
lunch buddies that you're not ready to talk about it yet. Again, you
get to pick the point where a thing becomes a matter of discussion.
* You are absolutely allowed to have second thoughts about what you're
doing. I realize that you may have legions of fans slavering to know
what happens next to Dashing Adventurer and his sidekick, Gorgeous
Dame, but at the end of the day, if you get two chapters into the new
book and realize that it's just not working for you, you're allowed to
stop. You don't owe it to anyone but yourself and the work. And maybe
your agent, but that's a topic for another day.
Your rights as a reader.
If you're reading something new, you, as a reader, are totally entitled
to the following:
* You are absolutely allowed to form your own opinions, based both on
what you see on the page and on what you feel the potential of the work
is. No one gets to tell you that you can't form your own impressions of
a work just because it's new. You are not, however, entitled to share
those opinions with the author if he or she has asked you not to. If
you were asked to do a spelling-and-grammar pass, do exactly that, and
don't editorialize. That will come later, I promise.
* You are absolutely allowed to give feedback and critique to
the limit of what has been requested by the author. Again, if
you've been asked to do a spelling-and-grammar pass, do exactly that,
and don't editorialize. This increases the chances of you being allowed
to read more (assuming you'd want to). You can always save your
editorial commentary until the author is ready to lower the blast
shields and let you start firing.
* If the author has not given you new guidelines for the amount of
critique they want, you are allowed to ask. If the author still does
not give you new guidelines, you are allowed to give critique according
to the last set of guidelines you received from that author. In short,
if you come out with guns blazing and the author wanted cotton and
bunnies, it's their fault, not yours.
Rights you don't get as a reader or a writer.
Here are things no party is entitled to:
* Nobody is a mind reader here. If you want a certain type of critique,
you have to tell your readers what that type of critique is. If you
don't tell, you're probably not going to get what you're expecting.
* If you set the standards too high and get nothing back, you are not
allowed to be angry with your readers for failure to have anything to
say. If you set the standards too low and get savaged, again, that's
your fault, not theirs.
* The writer sets the writing schedule, not the reader. You do not have
the right to beg, plead, whine, needle, antagonize, or annoy the writer
to get the next chapter faster. In fact, doing any of these things will
probably get you dropped off that particular writer's critique list.
* You are not entitled to enjoy what you are given. As a reader, you
may not like the project. As a writer, you may not like the critique
you get back, even if it suits your agreed-upon standards. That's just
how it goes.
Everybody has boundaries. As writers, as readers, and as people who
don't like to be stared at while they're sleeping. Boundaries are
actually good things. But, just as you legally need to post 'NO
TRESPASSING' signs before you can shoot those damn kids for walking on
your lawn, you need to tell people where the boundaries are. When those
boundaries are related to your writing, you need to make them as clear
and easy to understand as possible.
You'll be happier if you do. Trust me. And don't come around after
dark, because you are not invited to watch me
© 2010 Seanan McGuire
Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.
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