Today I was reading Chuck Sambuchino’s blog Guide to Literary Agents and came across this column, part of a series about writers at all stages of their careers sharing their tidbits of wisdom and knowledge.

Lara Ehrlich is as yet unpublished, but her advice rings true.  Check out her blog; it’s kinda neat.

She says not to share your early drafts, rough chapters and first pages.  She says “Get there, then share.”  Awesome.  That should be on a t-shirt, I commented.  She is so right.  I would add ideas to the list.  I agree because:

  • She says you don’t know in the earliest stages of a manuscript how it will turn out. It could be completely different from what you share.  I concur and expand:  early feedback, if positive, could lock you into a path that wouldn’t necessarily serve the story.  You must have the freedom to be flexible without outside influence dictating your narrative.
  • If they like the story, the premise or a character, people will bug you incessantly until you produce it. I made that mistake with my work-in-progress.  Now people I know are asking about it at intervals, making me feel pressured.  It doesn’t help because the story is in a structural tangle and I’m trying to work it out.  It’s my own fault.  I’ll never do that again.  Here’s my opportunity to explore ways to deal with deadline stress.  Always learn something from your stupid mistakes!
  • You can’t copyright ideas. As far as I’m aware, you can’t prevent someone from taking a vague suggestion you elaborated on over a beer, in a chat room / forum or even your critique group and running with it.  The only thing you can sue for is if someone steals your written, fixed and tangible work.  So I could say “I’d like to write a story about a living airplane that eats pollution” and someone could write it, and there’s nothing I can do.  If I actually write the story, published or not, and then someone steals it, there could be trouble.

Feel free to play with that one, if you like.  If you come up with a living airplane story that actually works, send me a link to it.  I’d love to read that!

Writers worry all the time about people stealing their ideas.  Although I haven’t seen it, there was even a kid’s movie about this, Big Fat Liar, with Frankie Muniz, Paul Giamatti and Amanda Bynes, where a smarmy Hollywood producer steals a brilliant homework assignment from an incorrigible kid.

Despite the movie, most of the time you don’t have to worry about this.  Reputable agents and publishers know that they won’t be in business long if they go around swiping every unpublished manuscript that isn’t screwed to the brick wall of copyright registration.  Under the law, once it’s in a tangible form, it’s yours.  If you want to sue, you’d have to register it formally, but that’s usually taken care of by your publisher if you’re fortunate enough to land one.  If you back up digital work regularly it’s easy to show when a file was created.

Just don’t talk about your embryonic nuggets of literary gold, and no one can take them from you.  Keep your big mouth shut.

Don’t share those first attempts, either, as Lara advises.  No one can implode your ethereal house of cards if they don’t see it.  Keep it close until it’s strong enough to withstand a poke or two.   Sometimes it’s better just to walk away, but a truly good story may be lost if the writer folds because of an early question or criticism.

Got any advice about sharing/not sharing?  Please post in the comments.

4 thoughts on “Tattletale!

  1. Oh I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a writer… BUT (that smelled like a but, ey?) I certainly know the feeling of telling someone about one of my projects before it was finished and *poof*, suddenly it’s not interesting to me anymore. So instead of finishing this picture, poem, whatever that I announced I lose interest in the project. The reasons that you’ve described certainly apply for me as well. With poetry I’m not forced to write at all, whenever it hits me between the eyes I pick up a piece of lose paper and start writing it down, but sometimes it never comes to an end, it is unfinished and disappears in a drawer for years. Trouble is, whenever I tell someone about what I planned (I’m going to write this and that) then the magic seems to be gone, I’m forced to write it, to finish it, and there’s no escape, no possibility to put it in the drawer. Pressure raises and *poof* I’m blocked… hoora…
    This way I’ve stolen myself some ideas already, till I noticed this habit of mine and now I try not to speak about what’s coming. Sometimes dream-buildings cannot be described by human words and everything falls apart as soon as they touch the coldness of air. The natural environment of plans and dreams is the inside of our head where it can brood and grow, mix with other silverstrings amidst that utter chaos just to give birth to a shooting star once in a while…and we shouldn’t listen to anything else than to this inner voice that tells us to keep it for ourselves. May you have the strength to keep it to yourself, sister.

    • Ooh, very well put. I think that happens to me sometimes too. If I tell about it, I get bored with it.

      And you made a lovely poem for leviathan. So yes, you are a poet/writer! :)

  2. Thanks for the shout-out Elizabeth! I love this post, and I totally agree with you. I shared my first, very messy draft with my family and close friends. Their feedback was very helpful, but at the same time, they became really invested in the book and started asking when it was going to be finished, why I was still working on such-and-such a chapter, when they thought it was perfect the way it was, and so on. It’s just too much pressure to put on yourself at the outset. Next time, I’m going to write the best possible book I can write, and send it to readers only when there’s nothing more I can possibly revise on my own, without feedback.

    • You’re welcome, Lara! :)

      I’ll finish the picked-on book one day. It’s coming a bit at a time, when people leave me alone about it.

      I just wrote the basic plotline for the *Rose’s Hostage* sequel and I am NOT going to tell anyone what it’s about!

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