Monday, 19 November 2007

What’s Your New Book About?

About 75 pages. About half-done. About finished. About to drive me crazy. Ask at different points and you might get any of these evasive replies from me. What you won’t get is a straight answer.

We’ve already discussed, at various times, how we plan (or don’t plan) our novels. But here’s a follow-on question: How much of your story do you reveal to folks who ask about the story and where it’s headed?

Much of the time I couldn’t answer the “what’s it about?” question even if I wanted to. But when I finally know where the story is headed with some degree of certainty (usually around the middle of the book, by which time I usually know what the ultimate conflict scene will be but don’t necessarily know how it will turn out), I still don’t tell anyone the story. For me, telling the story relieves the pressure to write it down. And quite a few writers—from Hemingway to King—have an iron-clad rule (or some would say superstition) against talking about their work until at least a first draft is finished.

This attitude has not stood me in good stead with some members of writing groups, who wish to critique chapters in light of where the story is headed. I think this is silly. My reasoning is that the reader of a novel can’t make me answer questions as they read. I care about reader reactions. Sure, I’m interested in what questions the readers might have in their minds, of course, but I refuse to discuss the story. That’s a chat, not a book.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve met a few writers who talk endlessly about their story and where it’s headed, and the new ideas they’ve had, and how they’ve changed bits they told you about last week, and whether they’re using a proportionately spaced font. (It’s reminiscent of listening to a new mother rattle on about her baby, and I suppose there’s a good reason for the similarity.) I can see the attraction. Keeping it all to yourself is lonely, sort of like being a secret agent.

On the other hand, I note that a disproportionate number of people who talk their stories to you over coffee or wine never seem to finish writing them.

Or perhaps I just notice them more than the ones who don’t finish, but also don’t talk.

5 comments:

Matt Curran said...

Hi David

Usually I will only offer a “taste” of the plot when I’m making small-talk, but if someone is really interested (and I’ve had enough to drink) I’m sometimes more generous in revealing details about a work in progress. In 2001, I spent several hours going through the whole 12 book history of The Secret War series to my friend, Annaliese, in a pub. At the end, I found I had sobered up and she looked at me as though I’d grown another head.
(I think it surprised her that my imagination was that wild and detailed.)

Generally speaking though, I try to tread a fine line between speculating whether the idea of the book is any good from the reactions of those listening, and not giving too much away - I believe that once a story is told, whether it is on paper or verbally, it looses some of its magic i.e. each retelling in whatever format, dilutes the initial storytelling.

As for publishing chapters on writing forums etc... I agree with you: "No thanks." That might be fine for a short-story, but having others suggesting changes to a novel-in-progress, is a piece-meal approach to editing and criticism, and can end in frustration and despair…

Tim Stretton said...

I have become more open about what I'm working on as I've got more confident as a writer. When I was writing The Dog of the North I did put some excerpts on my website as I went along, not for critique (when I'm writing a first draft I don't care what anyone else thinks) but to maintain interest among my readership.

I very rarely give much away about the wider story arc. Even now, if someone asks me what The Dog of the North is about, I can't really say. If I could have answered the question in 20 words, why would I have taken 130,000 words to answer it? Any attempt to summarise what a book work is about in a couple of sentences cannot do justice to the richness and subtlety of a novel.

David Isaak said...

Matt--there's a dozen of the these puppies? What is that, a, ummm, dodecatrology or some such?

I don't have trouble showing opening chapters to writers I know, and I'm interested to know if they like it. But I don't want to talk about it; and I think showing middle chapters, even to very accomplished writers, nets you zero information.

Tim--You pinned it down: if it's that easy to summarize, then why write a book. I mean, imagine a logline about "The Old Man and the Sea." BORRRR-ING.

David Isaak said...

PS "I have become more open about what I'm working on as I've got more confident as a writer."

I haven't become more open. Or more confident, now that I come to think of it!

Faye L. said...

I cringe whenever I'm asked that question, because I'm always forced to give the vaguest answers imaginable. I tend to fob people off by telling them that it's another historical novel (as it always is), set however many decades before or after Cover the Mirrors. I sometimes add that the WIP is a sequel to CTM as well, but beyond that you'd need a rack to get more out of me.