Thursday, May 9, 2013
On the Subject of Sharing Your Art, and Why It Sucks
Sometimes, friends who know that I write (which isn't all of them) ask to see my work. When they do this, they occasionally use a phrase like, "If you're comfortable," or "When you're ready."
This provokes two reactions in me. One is reeeaallly snotty: "Well, of course I'm comfortable sharing my stories with you, friend who has absolutely zero and zip to do with the publishing industry. I send queries on a daily basis to people whose job it is to tear into the tender belly of my novel with their enlarged meathooks of rejection. What do you think I am, a five-year old looking to hang her storybook on your fridge? Come on!"
The other reaction is a lot less bitchy and a lot more honest, and it's this: "Actually, I am terrified to show you my art. I fear you, and your offhand opinion, a lot more than the aforementioned meathooks."
I've thought long and hard about why I feel this way. I believe it's because I'm keenly aware of how people view unpublished authors.
Are you a published author? Swell! Have your books sold at least reasonably well? Even better! I'm delighted to shake your hand, ma'am.
Unpublished author? Face it--you might as well be writing an M-rated Farscape-Avengers crossover with Loki/Scorpius and Chianna/Black Widow pairings* for all the respect that you'll get.
External validation matters. It even influences the way we read.
For example, I recently read The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. I adored it. The whole story had this strange beauty and warmth that made me feel in love with the world again. There are very few authors who can make me feel that way, and Mr. Gaiman is one of them.
But after I read the book, I performed a little thought experiment. What if I hadn't known this was by Neil Gaiman? What if this same book had been dog-eared manuscript handed to me by a friend?
In all honesty, my reaction would have been something like this *SPOILERS*: "All right, I think this book has a lot of potential. The boy in the graveyard is great and I love how you never outright tell the reader that Silas is a vampire. But there's a lot of things that need fixing. The whole Honor Guard concept is really vague, and the scenes where they're battling the Jacks are confusing. The Jacks themselves are kind of all over the place--I never get a sense of what they want or why they are the bad guys. And though the ghost dance scene is nice, I feel like it gets in the way of the story. If you remove that chapter it would improve the overall flow of the book, and you could insert more necessary background for the Honor Guard. And..." Blah blah blah.
Here's what happened. When I read the published, highly-acclaimed book by an author I've enjoyed in the past, I saw the magic more than the flaws. But when I imagined the book was a work-in-progress by a total unknown, I saw the flaws a lot more than the magic.
Note here that I am not saying that The Graveyard Book is a bad book, or that Neil Gaiman is a hack, or anything remotely like that. Not at all--I love Neil Gaiman to bits. (Not literal bits, of course. That would be some sort of strange death threat, not the adulation I intend.)
My point is not that published authors get away with murder (though some of them do). My point is that we--myself included--read more kindly when a story has already been externally validated. It's as if we need the approval of the publishing company to relax and enjoy all the good points of the work. When that approval is missing, many readers--myself included again--feel the urge to act as a gatekeeper. Instead of experiencing the story for itself, we're constantly trying to judge the story. Is this good enough? What would make it better? Is it really worthy of published?
Which is why--to get back to the main point--I'm scared of showing my writing to my friends. Sometimes I'm afraid of even talking about my writing to my friends. Sure, I'm immensely proud of the fact that I've written two books, something I wasn't sure I would ever accomplish in my whole life. But I know that until I've gotten published, nobody but me gives a rat's fuzzy ass.
You may have noticed that I'm writing about all this on a blog. Am I more comfortable discussing my work on the Internet than with my friends? Hell no! I am terrified even as I type this. The Internet is a bad place filled with unfriendly people and trolls lurking under forums. Problem is, it's also the place where my potential readers are. (Hellooooo? You out there? The geeky ones who devoured books as children and wished somebody would come and take you away to another world and still sort of half-way believe in magic and spaceships? You are my people! Come find me!) So yes, I'm taking an emotional risk, but the pay-off might be worth it.
God, I hope it's worth it.
*If you are in fact writing this fanfic, no disrespect intended. Please send me a copy.