How To Close an Open Book
I’m an open book.
Ask the people who know me best, and that’s what they’ll tell you. I’m not secretive. No one has ever described me as “aloof.” I’ve never answered an invitation with the phrase “I have other plans,” because I’m fine just telling you what my other plans are. If you ask me something about my personal life, chances are I’ll give you the answer, even if I don’t know you that well. There is nothing enigmatic about me, and I’ve always been comfortable with that.
Except now that I’m working on my second novel, I wish I knew how to be a little more mysterious. Now, for the first time ever, I’m beginning to realize the importance of keeping my thoughts to myself.
Part of why I’m having such a difficult time keeping silent about my second book is because of the way my first one developed. That story had been in my head for over a decade before I wrote a word, and I lived with the characters for almost as long. They were part of my life, so I spoke about them with my husband and friends. Their saga became part of my conversational repertoire. I never cared about keeping it secret, because I had no expectations. Even when I began to write the words on paper, the idea of publishing a book was just a far-away dream. And after the dream turned into reality – after the book was out in the world – it was even more fun to talk about.
With my next novel, I’m finding that talking isn’t such a good idea.
First of all, I’m not sure what to say. Even general questions like “What are you working on?” have begun to confuse me. When I started writing this second book, I thought I knew my story. I thought I knew my characters. But in the process of researching, another path began to show itself, a path with richer history and more compelling people. My ideas began to shift, my priorities changed, and now, my story is not the same. Answering questions prematurely has made me a little bit of a liar, and there is no guarantee that it won’t happen again. I have learned that ambiguity can be more virtuous than honesty, and a lot less likely to generate regret.
The same is true for sharing excerpts of my unfinished story. I’m not saying I want to lock up my laptop until this novel is finished, but I have begun to understand that sharing incomplete work is a risky endeavor. What if a friend wants me to keep a character I’ve eliminated? What if a necessary plot point is somehow unpopular? Even if I do away with it in the end, the act of writing it might still be necessary in order for another aspect of the story to emerge.
I love my writing group friends and I adore my classmates. But right now, I’m not ready to share too much. Even the thought of it makes me feel vulnerable – like I’m letting go of something that isn’t mine to give away.
Because she is so wise and generous, and because this isn’t her first second novel, my agent instinctively understands my position. Mine was a single book deal, and though the publisher has asked about my next novel, my agent knows me well enough to know that I’m not yet ready to pitch the manuscript. She knows that my story is still developing, and that adding outside voices or deadlines at this point will only muddy my thinking.
Imagine watching someone learn to ride a bike. The rider hits bumps and falls down. The process is messy and it’s easy to criticize technique. There are plenty of moments where you might want to cover your eyes rather than watch the rider swerve around with no apparent control of where she is going.
If I speak too much about my second novel, or if I give too much of it away in advance, it feels like the people listening or reading are watching me learn how to ride a bike. I want them to trust that I am capable enough not to crash, but the fact is, until the words are printed, there are an infinite number of choices and mistakes to be made. I think it’s best if I make those in private.
So I’m going to try to close the book. I’m going to try to hold my cards a little closer to my chest. I’m going to try, as much as possible, to offer the literary equivalent of “I have other plans” when people ask questions. I suspect that most other authors have already mastered this practice, but for me, it’s something new.
If I happen to meet you sometime soon, I hope we don’t talk about my next novel. You already know my weakness – if you ask, I’ll probably tell you everything. I might even confess that I never learned how to ride a bike.
Damn. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that.
Tips To Avoid Discussing Your Novel-in-Progress
Tip #1: Blame Research
When someone asks: What’s your new novel about?
Answer this: I’m still in the middle of my research.
If the follow-up question is asked: What is the subject of your research?
Answer this: My research takes me in so many different directions. It’s difficult to describe.
If there is additional follow-up: Your research sounds so interesting. Tell me more about it.
Look for the nearest exit and say this: I’m sorry, but I have to go. I need to get back to my research.
Tip #2 Feign Ignorance
When someone asks: When will your next novel be published?
Answer this: I don’t know.
If the follow-up question is asked: When will you be done writing it?
Answer this: I don’t know.
If there is additional follow-up: How long does it usually take you to finish a novel?
Look for the nearest exit and say this: I don’t know.
Tip #3 Keep Your Answers As Short As Possible
When someone asks: Are you working on another novel?
Look for the nearest exit and say this: Yes.
In all seriousness, only you can decide how comfortable you are sharing the different phases your unfinished work. You might be a person who benefits from brainstorming with others, or you might be secure enough in your abilities that you are easily able to ignore unwelcome comments or advice that is inconsistent with your vision. But if you are like me, too many outside voices might make you doubt your original path or, even worse, trigger you to stop writing altogether.
Of course, we all need to share our work eventually – whether it happens in class, in a workshop or with early readers. I will welcome that point in the process, but first I need to reach a place of critical mass with my story. Despite all my insecurities, I trust my instincts enough to know that I will recognize that place when I get there. I can’t wait to see what it looks like.
How about you? How do you avoid this dreaded subject? Please share with us!
Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, MA. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a J.D. from Columbia Law School. She is a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives with her husband and two children in Chappaqua, New York. She is a failure at enforcing reasonable bedtimes. THE TWO-FAMILY HOUSE is her first novel.
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I have learned this lesson well over the past five years! I have only a handful of IRL/non-writer types who know anything about my third book coming out next year. I find it easier to share bits online in memes and blog posts because it's completely controlled. It's revised and edited by me. With the fourth novel that I've just started writing I have also shared online, and will continue to do so in ways that it helps my novel-writing process. In person I usually will just tell someone where I'm setting this story -- if they ask anything -- because then they go away feeling like they have the inside scoop. Unlike you, I am more one to think "none of your business" when someone asks me anything. I appear to be an open book, but really, am not. I have also learned at book events to say "I will answer any questions about the book, writing, or publishing" so it's clear what I'm willing to address. When I didn't do that with my debut, too many personal none-of-your-business questions came flying at me. Oh, this is a novel isn't it. Oops. Great post, Lynda! xo
Hi Amy! I think I will get better at it as time goes by. But since this is my first sophomore effort, I'm finding it hard. But I'm going to try to clam up! Thanks for reading!!
Lynda, you've penned my very words! This is me. But I have learned the hard way not to be so open about my plot. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm glad to know it's not just me. 🙂
It is definitely not just you! Thanks for reading!
I love this post, Lynda. I'm always struggling with talking about my WIP or sharing parts of it. I made the mistake once of talking and sharing a baby idea and the feedback received from critique partners totally derailed my story. Learned that lesson the hard way. Now I do my best to protect my words and characters until they're ready for the world - without training wheels. 🙂
Hi Orly! Protect is a really good word. I think that's what I'm trying to do. There's something so fragile about new ideas and new characters, and I feel like if you say too much, they lose some of their magic. Thanks so much for commenting!
I've found this to be true - for yet another reason. Someone I hadn't spoken to in a long time asked me what I was working on...I roughed out the plot a bit (I know, but I can't stop!), and they said, "Oh yes, that's the one you were working on the last time we spoke." Oh wow. I could have lived without the reminder I've been playing with a proposal for over a year.
Don't do it, people!
I'm in the same boat, Laura. I started my second Bible study a few years ago. I spoke to it about several people at a writers conference. Then life got in the way - being a caretaker, a big move... and I haven't finished it. I'm so uncomfortable with the "Oh, that's the same one you talked about before" comment. I feel like I'm being judged. I've started replying, "God has other plans for me right now. I work on it as He guides me." That seems to close the subject.
I think it's great that you have a reply that works. I guess we just can't let people get to us as we work. We have to stay strong, which is so so hard to do. But you are doing it better than I am! Thank you so much for reading!
That sounds like something I would do! I just got so used to talking about my first book all the time. But I think that was because it wasn’t a book! Also, maybe I just have some sort of weird brain where I have a hard time being in the moment. I spend way too much time thinking about stories, even stories I have no intention ever of writing. And then I just talk about them. I need a support group!! Thank you so much for having me on the blog Laura!
I just finished The Two-Family House. (Loved) After spending more than a decade with those families, I'm wondering if you miss them now.
People keep asking if I'm writing a sequel to my first novel, because they want to read more about those characters.But I don't think I write sequels. They are more like spin-offs. So I just respond that my next book might have a returning character or two. That seems to satisfy both of us in the conversation.
Thanks so much! I'm so glad you liked the book. I do miss the characters, but even though I miss them, I don't want to write a sequel. I feel like The Two-Family House is definitely character-driven, but there's also this main plot point - the decision that Rose and Helen make - and I think that without something like that to hang the next story on, it would be flat. I love your idea of having a recurring character. That's a really fun thought. I don't think I could do it with a main character in my next book, but maybe a side character. It's a really neat idea!
If I may humbly suggest something: You seem like someone who is comfortable being a straight shooter in other things; why not do the same here?
If someone asks about your WIP, thank them profusely for being interested in your book. Then say something along the lines of, "You know, the book is at such an early stage there really isn't much to talk about yet." Then thank them again. It lets people know you appreciate their interest while still staying true to your nature and also keeps you from having to say too much.
I really enjoyed your post and would love some live links to your book. Thank you for sharing!
Thanks so much for posting! You're absolutely right - and I like your suggestion of what to say a lot. I'm trying to do that now, but I'm just not used to it. I think it's a combination of being really flattered that anyone even cares enough to ask about the next book, my own insecurity about not answering a question & my own need to kind of think out loud. All things I really need to work on as I move forward. 🙂
I usually only share the plot of my WIP with one or two people. (As things develop it's too hard not to have a trusted friend to share my excitement with.) However, I don't want to ruin the surprises for anyone else! So my typical response is to smile (wickedly), give them a juicy tidbit to peak their interest, and then tell them they'll have to read it when it comes out.
Hi Mary Ellen,
It sounds like you are REALLY good at this! I think I need some lessons from you! Especially on how to produce a wicked smile. I love that! I just usually end up looking like I'm about to sneeze...
Thanks so much for reading and posting!!
First, I love your sample answers!
I'm also one who shares openly, and I tend to talk about plots too much. My first (Through the Shimmer of Time) was like yours, the work of 10+ years, but I was fine telling people that characters had shifted or I had to find the "something" that wasn't quite working right. It wasn't a problem - nobody but my crit group had read it. But I made the very unfortunate mistake of telling people when my second book would be ready. Continuing characters, plot figured out, and I knew what i was doing, right? Wrong. I had structure problems that I hopefully have figured out now, but I'm *really* tired of people asking when they can read it. I shouldn't be - that means they're eager - but I'm frustrated with myself.
However, as much as I can relate to everything you said, the gold in your post was the line, "Even if I do away with it in the end, the act of writing it might still be necessary in order for another aspect of the story to emerge." I need to internalize that more so I"m going to plaster it on my wall.
Thanks for reading and posting! I'm really glad that line resonated with you. It's something I didn't learn for a long time. I used to get very frustrated with myself when I realized I had spent weeks working on chapters that didn't move my story or that I needed to cut. I felt like I was wasting so much time. But I don't think that way any more. When I don't write, THEN I'm wasting time. Any time spent actually writing is always helpful in some way. It gets you closer somehow. I really saw that as I edited my first book. (the editing before I sent it to my agent). Even when I cut sections, I felt happy because I saw that they helped me find the voice I wanted, or the backstory for a character I needed to know before I could write about them genuinely. 🙂
Great post and discussion. Thank you for sharing. @sheilamgood at Cow Pasture Chronicles
Thank you for reading Sheila!!!
One thing an author doesn't want to do is talk out his/her book before the story's written. It can interfere with creativity. Best to keep the details bottled up inside and let the plot spill out on paper!
Thanks for the tips, Lynda. Pinned & shared.
Thanks so much Linda! I'm learning! (slowly, but hopefully I'll get there!)
Great post. I too am struggling over what to say to people when they ask about my second book. When i wrote the first one, I needed so much reassurance that I was on the right track, and that my writing was readable, that I shared with too many people. And in the end, people that would have bought the book didn't: People that would have written complementary reviews didn't bother. So, I too, learned the hard way not to share too much.
Thank you so much for your comment. I am very glad that I am not alone in all of this. 🙂
one of my beta readers wanted me to change a very critical character behaviour, claimed it wasn't realistic. but it is classic victim behaviour and if i had change it the whole story would have unravelled! le sigh
Hi Robin! It sounds like you stood firm and didn't let the reader change your mind. Bravo!
Yeah, it's often not helpful to have someone whispering--or shouting--in your ear when your story hasn't gelled yet. Some people are persistent, though, in which case I say, "I'm writing about YOU." That usually quiets them.
Best of luck with the new project, whatever it's about!
Hi Sonja! That is really funny! I might have to try that sometime! Thanks for posting!
I found I would share the first few pages I had written asking opinions. I got critiques. I totally have quit sharing except in critique groups. I would go back start over and rewrite based on all these suggestions. Funny I never reached the end of the story. I would focus so hard on the beginning that I got lost trying to get down the yellow brick road to OZ. I might tell someone, a fellow writer, oh I might have killed this guy off, not sure if he's gonna live or die yet. Her answer "Cool" makes me smile and I forge ahead.
I love this: "I might tell someone, a fellow writer, oh I might have killed this guy off, not sure if he’s gonna live or die yet. Her answer “Cool” makes me smile and I forge ahead."
🙂 Yes - sharing to much can really impact confidence! I never told anyone about killing any characters. I think they would have wanted to kill ME!
I always blame research. Hazard of writing historical fiction. And the truth. LOL.
I think blaming research is my new favorite way to avoid the question! Thanks so much for reading!
It's taken me several books to understand the value of not sharing my WIP until it is fully gestated in my head. I love your example responses. I may make a cheat-sheet to carry in my pocket.
Ha! We should make keychains! 🙂
I find even in writing short stories that if I tell the plot, I lose interest in writing the story because the mystery is gone. (Yes, I'm a pantser.) I will talk about completed work, but never works in progress. (I have too many of them languishing in drawers with little hope of ever being finished.) Maybe someone can write a blog about solving my hang up, so those poor manuscripts will finally have some closure.
I also write short stories and for the same reasons, I don't discuss them. I could wallpaper my house with languishing stories unfinished. Love that idea, when folks tried to read them and wanted the end, I'd just say, 'don't know, never finished that one.'
I'm part of a writers' group that meets every Saturday afternoon. Sometimes members bring first drafts of their work asking for suggestions, recommendations, sometimes just comments. I've done that and it helps immensely. No one criticizes if suggestions aren't taken, if the author goes in a different direction and characters get thrown out, killed, or lost in a fog. And we love seeing finished products - novels, poems, or short stories. It's a safe group in which we get wonderful assistance. This group is part of the Snake Nation Review in south Ga. if you'd like to look it up. They even print a few books annually, and have contests. The writers' group has been operating for over twenty years, and I'm sure that's why it runs so smoothly.
I find that, whether I'm writing an article or a story, if I let it out of my mouth, it won't come out of my fingers. I think my wiring is wonky.