Thursday, February 5, 2015

Exposing Your Work to the World

When I was in grad school, there was a writer in my class whose work I never read. While the rest of us exchanged pages, the closest he could come to revealing his stories was reading them aloud to the class.

No matter how long the story was, he held all the pages in his hands, inches from his face, and drawled out each sentence. (The tales, inevitably, took place in the US South.) His performances, nonetheless, captivated everyone. He did all the voices of the characters and told them with an inviting cadence that was only broken by his nervously shuffling pages. Despite these limits, he was one of the best storytellers I've ever met.

You've never heard of him, and you should have. If only he'd been able to let go of those pages, you'd know how cleverly he constructed stories around fatal flaws, original sins, and all the deadly sins with humor and charm.

He could not accept criticism. He could barely accept praise. And, under no circumstances would he put those pages into anyone else's hands. It was all too personal. Too risky.

I was reminded of this when a writer I know, who had finished a novel, went back for yet another rewrite. In my opinion, she should let it go find its own truth in the world and begin something else. That's what writers who hope to have careers do.

It isn't necessary to gather up everything in your trunk (or on your hard disk) and send it off to magazines and book publishers. Some stuff should remain hidden (or maybe be burned). But most writers get better when they begin to hear what others think of their work.

I've had to hear quite a lot. From teachers who responded with red ink. Friends who couldn't get past the first page. Crit groups that came back with diametrically opposed advice. "Not for us" form rejections from editors. Rejections with handwritten notes (yes, I'm that old) in the margins. Editors who asked for revisions. And readers who sent notes. Each of these people contributed to helping me to share my work, to weigh and balance comments, to distinguish good projects from mediocre ones, to write better, and to be a better writer.

This is not to say that I have not had ups and downs, moments of despair, trips down blind alleys, and doubts. Even though you tell yourself people are responding to the work and not judging you, it can be hard not to believe you are being attacked, maligned, and found wanting as a person. In some cases, the feelings are right. There are critics who just want to score points, and trolls who find your existence to be intolerable. Take the risk anyway.

  • Put your work into someone else's hands and let them read it.
  • Join a critique group.
  • Enter a contest.
  • Pitch to an agent or an editor.
  • Submit your work to a publication.

Do this when it is as good as you can make it (mostly). Don't wait until it's perfect before exposing it to the world.

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