Jumping the Gun

When we first start writing (and for some of us, after we’ve been doing it for a good while) there’s a huge temptation to show our work. Don’t worry, it’s an entirely natural thing. After all, we’ve worked hard to birth our brainchild and it’s always nice to gain some sort of recognition.

So we show our family. Then our friends. If we’re lucky enough to have caring and supportive varieties of both, our egos will be stroked and we’ll need to be careful not to strut too obviously, for fear of being cut down and served up for the next Sunday roast. But until that happens, we’ll feel as if we’re invincible.

Unfortunately, unless we’re inhumanly gifted, we’re not immune to criticism – especially of the scathing kind.

Somewhere along the line, if you show too many people, the wrong person will see your work before it is ready. Sometimes it’s before you even know what you’re writing about.

I know. That sounds completely ludicrous. How can someone claim to be a writer if they don’t know what they’re writing about?

It happens all the time.

I used to plot meticulously and I would always know what my story themes were right from the get go. As a consequence, my writing fell flat. It was contrived and mechanical and basically, I sucked. Don’t get me wrong, that approach is highly successful for many people. It just so happens that I’m not one of them.

My point is that I am often unsure of what I’m writing about until I’ve read over my first draft, let it stew for a bit and reworked it several times. Sometimes I’ll have something pretty close to what I thought I’d have. But the majority of the time, I don’t. I’ll find things in there I never even suspected.

The temptation to show people my work, even those whose opinions I highly value, is often strong during that initial drafting process. It’s largely because I doubt myself all the time. Trouble is, by showing my work too early, I get many different viewpoints, all of which are valid, but none of which really help because they vary so much in the assumptions the readers have made.

I end up becoming so conflicted about what to do that I struggle to finish the piece to my own satisfaction.

Take the sketch above. This is something that took me about an hour to complete. Now I’m the first to admit it’s no masterpiece. But for someone who has never taken a drawing class and hasn’t done a sketch of any description for twenty, twenty-five years, I’m pretty pleased with it. But I couldn’t for the life of me get a second eye to work, and if I’d shown it to anyone who understood drawing at that point, it might have been ripped to shreds. Since this was drawn for my twelve-year-old daughter, it didn’t matter. She was delighted with the idea of the eye-patch and I had a heap of fun finishing it for her.

In my experience, it’s better to finish a piece, understand what it is you think you have, and work towards honing it as much as you can before you seek advice. Sometimes it might be friends or family that give you the confidence to keep chipping away, especially when you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. Eventually it will be peers and / or editors whose opinions will help.

If you’re lucky you’ll have found a supportive group of writers whose understanding of your work and the craft itself is sufficient to give you the kind of guidance you need. Just don’t fall into the trap of submitting work to magazines, competitions, etc. until you are convinced that you’ve done the best you possibly can. Because art is subjective, your best might not be enough, but at least you’ll have given yourself the best chance possible to succeed.

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