That’s W-I-P, Work In Progress, not WHIP (Wicked Handled Instrument of Punishment?), and I don’t talk about work in progress. I used to, a long time back, but not anymore. Why? Well, that’s something I will talk about.
First of all, I must say that the temptation to talk about a work in progress is strong. Writing is fun. It’s the grown-up equivalent of playing make-believe. You know what’s even more fun? Talking about fun stuff with other people, and I used to indulge myself in it quite a bit. However, after a while, talking about it stopped being fun and started to become frustrating – so frustrating, in fact, that not only did I stop talking about writing, but I stopped writing.
I started up again, eventually, but I rarely spoke of it. Very specifically, I never talked about the thing I was writing, but it wasn’t until about five years ago that I really nailed down my reasons for it. So here they are:
Reason #1: It’s my story, not yours.
This was one of the most annoying things that would happen when I talked about a story I was writing. I would be describing the basic setup or plot, and the person I was talking to would jump in with some suggestion. “Wouldn’t it be cool if that character had some kind of superpower?” Or maybe, “That would work really well if it turns out to be a big government conspiracy.” And of course, “We should later find out that the bad guy is really his father!”
I appreciate the energy. Really, I do. I hear ideas, and I go spinning off in my own direction. I see little situations and start twisting them into epic struggles and ancient prophecies. I know what’s going on in your head when you come back with that twist on the story I’m talking about. I get it, ok?
But no, it would not be cool if that character had a superpower, or was part of a government conspiracy, or turned out to be the hero’s father. It’s not that those are bad ideas. I’m sure they could be turned into great stories, but they’re not MY story. In MY story, that character is our heroes trusted sidekick, and the government is generally clueless and unable to help, and our hero’s father died tragically in his son’s arms in chapter 1.
THAT is the story I’m trying to tell. THAT is the story I have passion for. If you have the same passion for your father and son team of superhero conspiracy fighters, I say go for it. Put your butt in the chair and crank that puppy out. It’s fun. Really.
Unfortunately, most people didn’t actually want to do that. They wanted me to do that, and when I wouldn’t produce “Jorel and Superman vs. the Trilateral Commission”, they got kind of pissy with me. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was NOT fun.
Reason #2: No, it’s not just like that other thing you read.
This was not as frustrating as that first one, but it was much more disheartening. I would describe an idea, and people would say, “Yeah, that’s just like this book I read last spring.” Sometimes it would be something I’d never heard of, and sometimes it would be something I was already familiar with.
If I’d never heard of it, I would often get sidetracked for a while as I chased down that other story and read it, only to discover that no, it was not the same as my idea. Yes, both stories had dirigibles, but yours is a steampunk romance, while mine refights the battle of Troy by time-travelling aeronauts in a NASA project gone awry.
And if it was something I had heard of, then the conversation immediately segued into an argument about how it was different. “Sure, it’s Troy instead of Paris, but there was a guy named Paris in Troy, and we all know about the romance between Paris and Helen. And of course, the dirigible is the key!”
But they’re not the same. I’ve heard arguments that there are only N plots or conflicts, ranging from one to twenty-seven. (FWIW, the “one story” is kind of two: local boy goes off to have adventure, or a stranger comes to town. It’s just a choice of which side of the story you’re on.) And, so these arguments go, the only thing authors can do is bring their particular voice to the tale.Maybe, but that particular voice makes all the difference in the world.
Compare the two takes on Battlestar Galactica, one from the 1970’s and one from the 2000’s. Look at all they had in common: the same genesis of holocaust, the same goal to find Earth, most of the same characters, ships, and so on. But in execution they were so incredibly different. I look at that as proof that you could give two authors the same idea – hell, maybe even the same outline – and get two radically different stories.
And yet, every comparison came as a nasty jab in my side telling me, “You have no original ideas. You should just give up.” And so, eventually, I did.
Reason #3: I can only tell the story once.
That’s an exaggeration, but there’s an element of truth. For me, once a story takes root in my mind, it burns with an all-consuming passion until I can get it out. It’s always there, demanding to be let loose. People sometimes talk about gifts from their muse, but for me, my muse is a torturous bitch keeping me awake at night and haunting my days.
Now, I can tell someone about the idea, and that lets the idea out some. It gives me a bit of relief. If I do it often enough, the fire is quenched, and the burning passion to write the story goes away. But then I don’t have a story.
This was crystallized for me when watching the movie Grand Canyon. Steve Martin’s character has had a life-changing revelation, but he doesn’t want to tell his friend about it. When pressured to tell him, he replies, “No, I don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes I think people talk about doing things as a substitute for actually doing them.”
Yep, he nailed it. Instead of writing the stories, I was talking about them, and every time I opened my mouth about a story, I was spending my passion for it until eventually there was no passion left. This, more than any other reason, was why I stopped talking about work in progress. Now, instead of talking about stories, I write them.
So, what do I say when someone asks what the story is about?
In most situations, it’s not feasible to quote this essay at them. Sometimes I’ll throw the Grand Canyon quote at them and go on from there, but usually it’s just a mild inquiry. They’re not prepared for me open the fire hose of creative theory on them.
So instead, I’ve developed a series of uninformative and somewhat off-putting code phrases. The first novel I used this technique with was “about lesbian robots.” It raised a few eyebrows, but I never got any follow-up questions.
You might think the answer is a lie, but it has core element of truth to it. It was really a Pinocchio story about an android trying to become sufficiently self-aware and independent so as to be the android equivalent of “a real boy.” It just so happened that she was styled as a female android, and her initial act of becoming self-aware was the realization that she had been in love with her former owner, a woman. Hence, lesbian robots.
The story that became my novel Beneath the Sky was described to friends as “about the Mayflower vs. a 747.” Certainly there were no pilgrim sailing ships or jumbo jets in the book, but it was true enough to show up (in modified form) in the blurb on the back cover.
Some other projects in the pipeline include, “a boy playing with Daddy’s ships,” “a reporter who goes to Hell,” and “learning chess from a dead man.” Later in the year, I hope to get started on “falling rocks”.
So if you ever hear one of these, it’s not me disrespecting you. It’s me making sure that the story gets onto the page and into your hands.
Great post. (Sorry I’m so late in reading it!) I agree completely — although I probably do a bit more talking about my WIP than you do. (I find it difficult to not have conversations about it with my husband, but he’s so excited and supportive that it’s quite energising. And since he generally reads each chapter as I write it, it’s some nice “instant feedback”.)
Point #3 is key for me. I can’t even count the number of ideas I “used up” by telling all and sundry about the intricacies of the plot. And, leading on from that, #4: The demoralising moment when, after having talked incessantly about a story that you’ve then chosen not to start/finish, one of your friends asks, “What ever happened to that story you were writing about the psychadelic starfish experiment?”
Yep. I’ve got a whole 17-book future history that I more or less used up writing and talking ABOUT it rather than actually writing it. (Though it’s probably not that big a loss. This was when my writing skills were, um… less honed than they are now.)
Strangely, though, I’m often ecstatic about a scene I just wrote and eager to talk about, because now at last it’s out there in concrete, or at least the magnetic storage equivalent. I still try to hold off, though, because once I get started, I want to talk about what comes next, and that’s often something I haven’t written yet.