confessions / publishing / revising / writing

Finding Your Writing Confidantes

For the longest time after grad school, maybe in reaction to being workshopped so much I could hear twelve different responses to every line I put down on the page, I crawled into myself and stopped showing my writing to very many people. Friends would have to beg to read it, and even then, once I’d been persuaded to show them my mostly unpublished stories or certainly, definitely unpublished novels, I couldn’t be in a room and talk to my friends about what they read. It embarrassed me to have it floating there, off the page, where people could praise it or punch holes in it or whatever they chose to do. I didn’t want to face even compliments, and any talk of my writing made me painfully uncomfortable and fidgety, desperately seeking changes of subjects or any reason to run away. (Is that the phone ringing? Whoa, do you smell fire? Gotta go!)

The whole point of writing is to be published and have people read you, is it not? I did want to get published—I just felt so uncomfortable talking to people who read my stuff. (Yes, for years I called my writing “my stuff.” I still do sometimes.)

So much of it is about trust, you see. Not everyone is a good reader of fiction-in-progress. Some people can say an offhand thing that can crush you for months. Some people like everything and so you can never really know when something’s not working because everything works for them. Some people would never read your work in the real world—it’s just not to their taste, or interest—so why bother forcing them to be your audience today? Some people read your “stuff” and then months later show you their stuff and it’s so similar to your stuff in weird ways and you’re not sure what to say or how to say it or who influenced who. I could go on. It’s difficult to find a good reader for your work, someone who has the time to read when you need them to, and gives you the kind of feedback you need to move forward and not get you stalled in mud and self-loathing and despair. It’s a lot to ask of a person, too. I mean novels sure are long.

I’m thinking of this today because I have very few readers. Very, very few.

One of them is the person I share a bed with: E. Of all the novels I’ve written over the years, and the multiple drafts these novels have gone through, I think it’s safe to say he’s read my books dozens of times. Talk about patience. And generosity.

I’m revising 17 & Gone and coming up against a big question—like an enormous riddle my genius of an editor has set out for me, and I want to come back to her with a solution. I want her to like said solution. So inside me is this roar of questions and a battery of hammers telling me I’ll never get it right, and I keep coming up with this idea or that idea or this other one, but I realized, I can bounce these ideas off of E. We can talk it through. And I wanted to fall to my knees in gratitude for not being so alone in this.

A writing confidante will help you feel less alone.

The thing is, yes, I have an editor and yes I have an agent, but it’s not smart to show every little version of something to either. I want their fresh eyes on my strongest work. When I turn in this revision, I want them both to say I hit the mark… or I’m very close to the mark if I just move over a few feet to the left. I don’t want them to have seen five different choose-your-own adventures and a muddle of who-knows-what so they can’t even keep things straight anymore and they just want me to be done with it already so it can get off their desks. An editor or even an agent shouldn’t be treated like a critique partner… no matter how much you trust them.

I also think it’s important to find writing confidantes whose taste you trust. I showed the previous draft of 17 & Gone to two writers. I trust them—as people—and I also trust their taste. I like the books they like. And maybe more importantly I think they are amazing talents themselves. I believe in their vision. (Not to mention that they reached out to me to say they wanted to read my book; I’d never show someone if they didn’t ask me first.)

But even showing them was immensely difficult at first. In the past, feedback from others on a manuscript could cause me to give up on a book forever. Or just lead me off in a wrong direction until I’m left with a broken, crumpled mess of stilted words. In this way, it’s more me than you. Because timing is everything. I am now very careful to not show my writing too soon. I have to hold it close for as long as I need it to be cradled and only when I can read it back without cringing can I hit Send.

Thus ends today’s sensitive-creature confession.

Who are your writing confidantes? We all need at least one.

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17 thoughts on “Finding Your Writing Confidantes

  1. Wow! Thank you so much for writing this post. I have been led astray by well-meaning readers and haven’t found a critique group close to where I live. And, after receiving a critique from a published writer at a conference and then getting an email asking for research help on her new novel that sounded very similar to mine, I have been leery of letting anyone read my work. (That’s my term!) So, thank you for helping me feel like I’m not alone in my queasiness of sharing my work. Also, thank you for the insight about working with agents and editors–I don’t have either yet, but am working on obtaining both. I don’t know how to express how much your post has helped me in the point I’m in with my writing (had to revise from “my work”); thank you again.

  2. When I’m working on a novel I send it, chapter by chapter, to my two sisters. I always hope they won’t criticize it; really, what I’m looking for is an eager reader who wants to know when the next chapter will be coming. I too spent my graduate school years at the critique round table and then didn’t like writing for a long time. Once I’m done, I share the book with one or two close friends and my husband. Even then what I’m looking for is things that seem confusing or unclear, places they’d like to hear more. I try my very best to write the story I’d love to read, and then walk away from it before I screw it up too much with complicated revisions. Sharing “my stuff” (as I call it, too), is always scary.

  3. As I’ve learned to trust my own instincts more, I’ve cut back on the number of readers with whom I share my stuff to a handful of trusted friends.

  4. I totally feel you on a lot of this. Sometimes I still send stuff out when I know I should really hold it close for a while. But I do have two amazing crit partners who can read my work at any stage and tell me what needs to be fixed without crushing my enthusiasm for the story. They are absolutely precious to me.

    Great post! :)

  5. My sister is my writing confidante. Whenever I have a new version of something I read it to her because I know she will be honest with me and find at least a dozen holes for me to fix to make the story even better.

  6. SO glad to have seen this post! Your last sentence here, ” I have to hold it close for as long as I need it to be cradled and only when I can read it back without cringing can I hit Send.” – that is gorgeous and kind of made me teary.
    That is so cool that your “E” is one of your primary confidantes. My husband is the very last one I give my stuff to, because he doesn’t verbalize praise, and tries to turn something poetic into a law document. It really is scary and I have only very recently conquered the tendency to hide all my stuff in drawers, closets, under notebook covers where I’ve written, “Don’t read!” to anyone who sees the notebook.

    My confidantes are one of my cousins, who is an extremely sensitive person and an artist so knows how to be honest and helpful while treading lightly on my exposed soul. Another, every now and then, is my niece, someone whose writing I really admire. And then the third is my friend, Susan, who is just there, always, for support in anything.

  7. Thank you for this post. I’m not alone. I’ve been looking for a writing partner/critique/confidant for awhile now. It’s so hard for me to trust someone. It would be nice to be able to share my story with someone and not have to worry.

  8. I have two regular critique partners. I will often show the first 1-2 chapters to one of them as I start a book just for a “sanity check.” An “is this worth writing more” check? Then I always make sure this person reads the novel before it’s published too. And another critique partner reads everything before it goes to my agent or my editor. I am starting to hold onto work myself longer though…working through many more drafts, letting it sit, and so on before I show…I think that’s because I’m writing several books ahead now and I don’t feel that burning rush of a deadline and the need to get everything out there right away…The next book I want to show my agent, for instance, is the 11th draft of a book I finished a year ago and have let sit since then…(Though it’s been critted along the way)

  9. I’ve been lucky with readers. Most of them have given me great feedback that really helped. I know what it’s like to get a dud though, too. (Makes me wonder what I was thinking sharing my work with them.)

    My friend and I (both YA writers) read each others work. We also just put together a local critique group for people who write YA. It’s a new group, but I am excited to hear what they have to say about my work.

  10. Great post! I have two people that I show finished work to (one has already left a comment) and won’t ever submit anything to my editor or agent until they’ve seen it. My husband on the other hand, won’t read anything until it’s finished and in hard copy because it changes so much and it annoys him. The process has evolved over time from an organized long-distance crit group to the two trusted people I have now. They are kind but ruthless, which is exactly what you want. I also have several people that I will bounce ideas off of or work things out when I’m stuck and that is invaluable. I was totally stuck on a ‘who done it’ one time and in an offhanded comment at a dinner party, a writer friend solved the big problem. I was DMing with an east coast writer friend late the other night and she totally fixed a problem I was having with my WIP, saving me from a total rewrite. You need to have people who can absorb your panic and angst so it doesn’t bounce to the professionals who work with you. Writing is a solitary profession, but one that should never been done in a vacuum.

  11. Posts like this remind me how lucky I am to have found a small group of like-minded writers I can show my work to. It really is difficult to find that — and it took me years of attending some disastrous writing groups to get there.

  12. Wow, Nova! Thank you for sharing this very personal issue. This is a side of us that non-writers ever see. I am gratified to learn that I am not the only one that feels so sensitive about their works-in-progress.

    “Or just lead me off in a wrong direction until I’m left with a broken, crumpled mess of stilted words.” – This is a devastating feeling for a writer, but I wouldn’t have known it if I hadn’t dared to workshop an unfinished first draft last year. Thankfully this piece is now a finished first draft, but I still can’t get myself to revise it.

    But, as writers, we must keep moving forward, even if it’s to the next story. Thank you again for sharing this.

  13. I’m so glad you said this! I feel the same way, and I read so much about how essential it is to get critique partners. I have to overcome mountains of insecurity to get anyone but my husband to read what I write.

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