French composer Eric Satie (1866-1925) once (probably more than once, actually) said, “Before I compose a piece, I like to walk around it several times, accompanied by myself.” The quote, like lots of other things, made me think of writing, and more specifically, the stage of being fairly early in the process of writing a novel.
When I’m in the raw stages of the process (anywhere from brainstorming to putting together a synopsis to creating a scene outline to writing the first draft to the first few attempts at revision), I like to keep things to myself. Not because I think someone is going to “steal” my brilliant idea, but because that idea and all the words that flowed from it aren’t yet ready for prime time. They’re unfinished, unpolished, and subject to change, and besides all that I have this weird feeling that letting the story out too early is going to jinx it.
So if somebody asks me what I’m working on, I’ll keep it vague, like “Lots of things,” or “It’s this middle grade or maybe YA story with a girl protagonist and speculative elements set in contemporary times.” If the person persists, I might say something like, “No vampires, werewolves, zombies, or angels, good or bad, no romance, no teen angst, no misfits, no cancer, no dead mothers or abusive fathers, none of that stuff, so it probably won’t sell, but I like it, so I hope to have it in reasonable shape someday and then I’ll for sure be able to tell you more.”
I also avoid giving anything to my critique group until the manuscript is pretty far along. If I’m still in the broad-strokes stage, still murdering the lines I spent so much time on, I’m not ready for second and third opinions. I haven’t yet sorted out even my own opinions. Also, I don’t want the group wasting their time critiquing something that’s still in a state of flux. By the time I give it to them I want to be maybe 90% satisfied with what I have.
At the risk of comparing myself to a genius painter, I doubt that Monet ever showed an unfinished painting to an art buyer or critic and asked for money or an opinion. Because he was well respected, he might’ve heard something like, “Well, Monsieur Monet, once you fill in all the white space you left at the edges, and add a few more lilies, and give that woman some eyes, and the oil dries, we’ll take another look at it and let you know what we think.” If he’d been a lesser artist, he wouldn’t have gotten his foot in the door.
So I’m with Eric Satie, and I go even further. Before I write my story, and while I’m writing it, and while the additions and subtractions are still coming fast, “I like to walk around it several times, accompanied by myself.”