One of the persistent pieces of advice given to new and would-be writers is “Don’t talk about your work until it’s finished!” Some folks get incredibly passionate about it, running on for pages in their how-to-write manuals and blogs, or shouting and waving their arms if they’re talking to you face-to-face.
There are a lot of reasons for both the advice and the passion. Quite often, the advice-giver is one of those writers who found out the hard way that if they talk about anything they haven’t written yet (whether that’s a novel idea, a plot outline, an upcoming scene, a bit of dialog or character development), they lose all interest in writing it. If they force themselves to write anyway, what comes out is flat and lifeless, and eventually they have to abandon it.
Obviously, anyone who’s had this happen becomes quite rightly paranoid about never, ever letting that happen again. Where they go wrong is in the assumption that this is the way everyone’s creative process works, and that therefore it is a Very Good Thing to warn incoming writers most strictly against doing themselves.
I happen to be one of those writers over on the other side of things. Talking about my work energizes me and helps me work through sticky bits (though it is often extremely disconcerting to the friends who hear me babble through what looks to them like a novel outline, whole and complete, and then find me next day, babbling with equal enthusiasm about a new plot twist that will fix some problem I hadn’t even hinted at the day before). It took me a while to figure out that one of my best friends is a can’t-talk-about-it type, and that my cheerful inquiries about her plot problems ran a serious risk of giving her a bad case of writer’s block.
There are, however, other kinds of bad experiences that make some writers advise against talking about works-in-progress, or, in extreme cases, against revealing that one is a writer at all. If the person one is talking to has a negative reaction to one’s plot or characters, it can have a crushing effect on one’s desire to write. Sometimes even a reaction that’s merely unenthusiastic can be profoundly dampening, especially when an idea is in its very early stages.
Also, different people react negatively to different things. I tend to get very grumpy and dig in my heels when well-intentioned relatives and the occasional acquaintance try to be supportive of my writing as a job – that is, they ask questions about my production (and I don’t mean “Have you written your page today?”) and if they aren’t happy with my answers, they trot out all sorts of anti-writer’s-block exercises and techniques they think I may not have heard of over the past thirty years. I hate nearly all possible writing exercises, and I’m quite capable of managing my production and output myself, thanks much.
All this means, though, is that I am selective about who I talk about my writing with. I want listeners who’ll get me revved up about the fun parts – making stuff up and coming up with plot twists and so on – not folks who spend half an hour reminding me that I’m in the miserable middle and I just have to grind my way on through (I can figure that out just by sitting down and grinding for a bit). If it’s not fun, what’s the point?
In addition to the negatives, there’s a positive reason for not discussing ones WIP. For some people, keeping it a secret is like lighting the fuse on a rocket, or shaking up an unopened can of Coke – it creates an internal pressure that helps keep them writing. In other words, they react exactly the opposite of the way I do: what gets them revved up is wanting to talk, but having to wait until the story’s finished before they do.
I come down, once more, solidly in the “whatever works for you” corner, with a couple of caveats. If you know or suspect that talking about your work-in-process will end up with you not producing anything at all, don’t talk about it. If you know or suspect that keeping your WIP a deep, dark secret will get you to write more, or faster, don’t let your beta readers see it until you’re all the way through the first draft. If, however, you know that you are energized by telling stories in a way that makes you go home and write them down, find some trustworthy friends and talk yourself blue in the face. Just be sure you have objective evidence – that is, more pages getting produced. It’s not at all uncommon for someone to think they’re energized and encouraged to write by talking, when in fact they merely enjoy telling the story a whole lot and the talk does not lead to actual pages produced.
If you’re going to talk, however, there are two classes of people for whom I advise extreme caution in discussing one’s writing at all. First, there’s one’s boss, if one has a day job (as most would-be and new writers do). I’ve known several people who, for one reason or another, explained to a supervisor that they were doing this writing thing, and in roughly three out of four cases, the reaction was negative (ranging from not getting that raise or promotion to forbidding the would-be author from working on the manuscript at the office on breaks or lunch hours). In at least two cases, the author in question fully expected the supervisor to be supportive, and was totally blind-sided by the negative impact it had on their second career. I’m not saying don’t do it, I’m just saying that you should be aware there’s a down side, and think carefully before you do.
The second class of people not to talk about writing with are those who are … “unsupportive” doesn’t begin to describe it. I’ve known writers whose families or friends have done everything from burning the would-be writer’s notebooks in an attempt to discourage them, to guilt-tripping (“Is it really fair to your children to spend so much time on this hobby of yours? You’re already away at the office all day…”) to deadly and destructive criticism to outright mocking. The only way to deal with such people is not to tell them you’re a writer at all. At least in this instance, it’s generally pretty obvious in advance that these folks are going to be toxic to one’s writing.