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.