Caro talks us through the fiery challenge of sharing work with others
As kids, we get taught to share. We’re supposed to be generous and open and inclusive, and the world is probably a much happier place as a result.
But for a writer, the idea of “sharing” is one fraught with a little hope, and a lot of terror and insecurity. A recent Year of the Novel task was to write the opening lines of our novel, then share them with our tutor for feedback. Our tutor is award-winning sci-fi writer Alison Goodman, who eats the New York Times Bestseller list for breakfast, so the task was an understandingly daunting one. It brought up a lot of discussion on draft-sharing: Who should you show your work to? And when? Do you get a first draft down on your own terms before you trust anyone else with it, or is feedback along the way helpful in shaping what’s to come?
Because I write magical realism, at least half of the things I write sound commit-me-now crazy when I say them aloud. Even on paper after a couple of edits, I’m not always sure I’m pulling my more outlandish ideas off. So, as a general rule, I’m careful about who I say things like “I’m just working on a love story between an aquarium attendant and a profane talking dugong” or “my latest effort is the story of a prostitute who keeps ice-cream containers of loneliness in the linen cupboard” to. For me, part of the reason I write is to express things I can’t or don’t want to say so I’m generally fairly cagey about verbalising these things, and try to avoid sharing things before they’re ready.
It’s a lesson I learned the hard way, the day I watched a perfectly good idea die.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s Sunday morning, I’m drinking a cup of tea with my loved one, and on an unlikely whim I decide to tell him about the vaguest wisp of an idea I had for a story. It’s met with a serious of well-meaning questions, trying to make sense of the premise. I can’t answer them. The conversation gets tense.
Him: I’m just struggling to see how it all fits together.
Me: Don’t worry about it.
Him: I just want to understand –
Me: It’s only an idea.
(Silence. At this point the sky clouds over, my tea curdles and I begin avoiding eye contact)
Him: Are you mad at me?
Him: Your mouth said no, but the rest of you still seems mad.
Me: It’s fine.
Him: Well… I’d like you read it when you’re done?
Me: Well you can’t.
(I mumble mumble mumble.)
Him: What was that?
Me: Because you killed it, ok? You ruined it. It’s been trampled all over and now it’s dead, DEAD. It’s OVER. ARE YOU HAPPY NOW??
—– END SCENE —-
I admit I’ve been called melodramatic before, and I know this scene paints me an over-sensitive brat who takes criticism badly, but it actually wasn’t about me being precious. As an ex-journo, I’m used to showing people my work. I’m also very used to people hating it, and used to those haters being quite vocal and personal in their hatred. I cope as well as the next nerd with criticism, and I know how to stand by what I’ve written.
But this little idea didn’t stand up to the well-intentioned and curious questions of someone who wants the best for me. Why, I wonder?
Had I shared the idea a little later – after I’d turned it over in my mind and gotten to know it a little better – it would have survived the Sunday morning conversation. In fact, answering those questions would have made it stronger. But new ideas are like mangos and eyeballs and baby hedgehogs – they’re soft and delicate, and the smallest thing can crush them. It’s something I think about every time I go to hand over a new piece of work and is as good an excuse as any not to share at all. I thought about it when I sent the a short draft to Alison.
But, when the ideas are ready and you can bring to hand over the pieces of paper, sharing along the way can let you see your story through someone else’s eyes. It can raise possibilities you’d never imagined possible and help you correct terrible errors before they are too heavily integrated into your story. And most importantly, if the other person actually likes it, that validation and the enthusiasm it re-ignites for the idea is the single best writing-fuel I’ve ever come across.