Workshopping new writing is exciting. I was thrilled to share my first piece recently with my writers' workshop and a few friends. But, from that, I gained some insight into why writers isolate themselves and protect their stories before they are done.
They were not into all the things I had been thinking about and worrying over. Naively, I expected my early readers to help me evaluate if my characters felt real or seemed consistent throughout the story. I wanted them to be analytical about story structure. I had debated mightily over transitions and dialog and descriptions, and I wanted very much to know if others cared about them as much as I did or felt any kind of connection with what I created.
Generally, the comments were warm and supportive. I enjoyed where others picked up on a joke or appreciated a specific line. A few were insightful and pointed out inconsistencies that were helpful. I might have hoped for more depth, but I received enough encouragement to have more confidence in my story. It's the most you could expect, and I'm grateful.
But, there were two comments out of the two dozen that rankled me, and now I can't un-hear them. I find myself wishing that I hadn't gotten any comments if it meant I could have avoided these two.
One suggested that...
my emotionally deep and transformative story about the losses a family deals with on a very mature level "would be the beginning of a great children's story." This person only got to read the first three chapters and didn't have the benefit of a lot of context, but I'm guessing she thought it was a children's story because it involves an animal. So far, that is the #1 most tone-deaf comment I've heard. I'll see if I can get another handful, and publish a Top 5 List of "Readers Who Weren't Paying Attention."
The other comment must be a scourge of all writers down through the ages, and I'm sure most writers have sorted out defenses to this. I guess finding my own defenses will mark the start of my growth and maturity as a fiction writer. The second comment suggested an idea for the story. This beta-reader made a very specific and direct suggestion about what I could do within the story. It wasn't a bad idea. In fact, it has real merit. But now I can't use it without always feeling like a cheat and a thief. Now, I will not have written the whole thing.
As a lifelong people-pleaser and grade-getter, it occurs to me too late that I am not sure how to create something without expecting an appropriate amount of appreciation for it. Opening the door for appreciation seems to also leave me vulnerable to other people's ideas about what I've created. It seems impossible to filter one from the other. Is it realistic that I could say to one person "you can read this because you can be trusted to not give me more ideas" and to another "no, I'd rather you didn't read it."?
I worry that now I will never get that idea out of my mind or out of my story. It will likely sneak in while I'm not looking. If it was a really solid idea, then the success of the story will never truly be mine. If it turns out to be a cliche, a ham-handed and tired trope that the reader could see coming a mile away, then it could sully my story and the failure will be mine for not rejecting it.
I am not a perfect writer, but an hour ago, before I heard this idea, I owned the imperfections of the story and would be able to learn from them. Now the story has the threat of becoming a camel and the failures of it will be distributed so far and wide that I will not be able to determine if it failed because of my writing, or because I allowed someone else's idea into the process, which made it mediocre.
My day job is to write and sell radio advertising. I write ads all the time for clients who want to change and edit the radio ad so the script sounded like a 7th grade essay, or they want it to include every last word and detail from their press materials. The worst is when they want it to "sound more like a radio ad."
The first two are asking me to misuse the medium of radio, which also turns away the audience. The last one is asking for more cliches, which turns away the audience. There is no winning because the client, who made the suggestions, is paying me. I should do what they say. But the ad won't be as successful, so clearly I should not do what they say. I usually navigate this issue regularly without getting too upset.
I usually approach my writing projects analytically: I share the reasons for each line with the client and they either agree or I take it out. The ad is about a product that was never mine, and there was never much acclaim available from clients, so I'm much further away emotionally from those creations than I am with this story. I am so invested in this story that I am having trouble being objective.
The ideas from a reader, even a reader who really loves you, are often too pat and easy, or they do not dive as deeply as a novel needs to go. The casual reader is casual. There is some thinking since Malcolm Gladwell published Blink, that flashes of ideas and split-second gut reactions are really valuable and should be trusted--this was a "flash" of an idea so it is innately valuable. I'm tempted to give in because sometimes inspiration hits from an unlikely direction.
But they are wrong. The first thing that pops into one's mind is probably related to the last thing that mind heard. I'm learning that authors spend hundreds of hours thinking about the nuances and balancing the story and characters they're writing. I'm trying to thread a needle and pull together an event completely outside my key characters' control and reconcile it with how they are dealing with this experience internally. Will they rise to the challenge or fall apart?
I have been working on this story for three months now. A reader has had it for 20 minutes. No, you don't have "the best idea" for something to add. No, I don't what to know what you think I should do. No, you aren't going to make it better with a detailed and specific thought that just popped into your head. No, I'm not going to scrape all this work for an idea you will forget you had in an hour. I have a clear vision. I am the one who has to live with it. Novel writing is a solitary sport.
As a lifelong people-pleaser, it is really hard to draw that line and say 'no thank you.' If you're close enough to be an early reader, I feel close to you and am allowing myself to be vulnerable with you. Rejecting your ideas is really uncomfortable for me, just like asking for feedback was. I definitely want feedback so I'm not writing in isolation, but I don't want changes. I suppose I'll make another entry when my agent and my publisher both suggest changes, which might make me sound like a hypocrite. But at this stage, I need to be protective and treat the story like my precious.
I welcome questions, but not ideas, thank you. If I start a sentence with "I need some ideas for this one part of my story," then I'm looking for ideas. If I start with "what did you think?" then I am looking for overall comments and how you experienced the story. Very rarely am I looking for "you know what you should do..." That cheapens my work to swoop in and change it.
If someone asks you to read their story, they are hoping you will focus on the story that has already been written, and for you to continue in your role as a reader rather than a collaborator. Tell the author about how you experienced the big picture or major turns in the story. Tell the author if you think the story delivered on the themes effectively or where you wanted more from the story. If there is something that reminded you of your own experience, I would enjoy hearing how my story connected with you. Tell your author friend if something made you laugh or wasn't clear.
Recognizing that I will never be free of other people's ideas if I want people to read my work, I would still like to suggest to readers that writers don't want ideas. We are the people who are awash and burdened with too many ideas. Inspiration is everywhere and flows out of every grocery store checkout line and fender-bender and ironic twist in a day. The biggest challenge is in sorting out which ideas are worth writing about. I'm looking forward to that challenge.
Writers, resist! Trust that the world is a big place and you're pretty good at identifying ideas worth writing about. You don't have to be shamed or bullied into taking other people's ideas and your story will likely be better without regressing to the mediocre ideas of the moment. Keep true to your vision. Offering a unique and thoughtful view of the world in your stories is what only you can offer the world. If they want to offer their ideas, they should write their own books.