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Letting Your Guard Down

May 3, 2012

One of the scariest things about the process of writing is showing your work to others. Whether for purposes of critique, or for the enjoyment of readers after publication, the minute you allow your writing to be seen by others, you’ll have to learn to live with (and hopefully, learn from) their responses.

Like many writers, I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. I still have the spiral notebooks I wrote in as a little girl. But it wasn’t until I began writing seriously that I had to confront the feelings that come with letting others read my work.

I’d been in a few workshops where the leaders read my work and returned it to me with written comments. I didn’t find that too painful. I’d had a chance to revise and polish the writing before turning it in, and anyway, I was so new that I assumed whatever I wrote was crap (and looking back, yeah, it was). It wasn’t until I joined a workshop while living inPhiladelphia that I learned just how fragile I could be. During the first half of our three hour workshop, the leader would give us a prompt and ask us to write for twenty-five minutes or so. Then, each participant would have the chance to read aloud what he’d written and receive positive feedback from the group. (The workshop leader used the Amherst Writers & Artists method, which uses only positive feedback for unrevised, brand-new writing.) Yet even knowing the other participants would tell me only nice things about my writing, I simply couldn’t bring myself to read aloud what I’d written. I’m an extremely slow writer, and I revise as I go, so anything I wrote during each session in response to the prompt was (1) so short that I couldn’t imagine anyone could find something positive to say, and (2) very, very rough.

One night, after several weeks of everyone else in the room reading aloud except me, one of the other participants came up to me as we walked to our cars and said, “You know, Julie, you really should read next time. I think you’ll be surprised by how good the feedback will make you feel, even if it’s just a sentence or two.” His encouragement convinced me to give it a try, no matter how nervous I was.

You know what? He was right. I think I wrote a total of four sentences in response to the next week’s prompt, and yet my group managed to find some positive things to say about those four sentences. Was it a stretch for them? Probably, but I walked out of workshop that night feeling incredibly motivated and jazzed to go home and continue working on the piece I’d started. From that night forward, I forced myself to read my writing aloud, and the high I felt from the weekly feedback gave me the motivation to write my first novel over the next several years. More importantly, when time came to submit chapters to the workshop for critique (which is when I would receive both positive and critical feedback), I found the leap to that next step a bit easier to make. I already had a sense of what I did well, which made it easier to hear what needed work.

This isn’t to say I now find it easy to show my writing to others. Not a chance. I still get butterflies in my stomach when my critique group sits down to discuss my pages. I still even find it excruciating to read the first review that comes out for a published novel, despite knowing it’s been through numerous edits and rounds of vetting. (I usually make my husband read the review first and give me a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, so at least I know what to expect.) But I was lucky enough to find a group in Philly that eased me into the critique process and taught me to accept feedback without letting my spirit be crushed.

What about you? Do you show your work to others yet? How do you find the experience? Does your reaction vary depending upon the critiquing skills of the person giving you the feedback? For my next post, I’ll talk about finding the right critique group or partners, and learning how to raise the appropriate “shields” depending upon who is giving you the feedback.

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Julie Compton is the internationally published author of two novels, Tell No Lies and Rescuing Olivia, both from St. Martin’s Minotaur. She can be reached at julie@julie-compton.com.

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8 Comments
  1. May 3, 2012 11:35 am

    In person commentary is way too painful. Even after my books have been polished by an editor, validated and sold by the thousands, my own wife can’t bring herself to read them, let alone allow me to read a passage to her. No way.

    I’ll bet divorces have been caused by reading books out loud. Strangers at a writers conference? I’d have to be drunk.

  2. Julie Compton permalink
    May 3, 2012 4:57 pm

    Ah, interesting you mention that, Walter. Letting your spouse be one of your early readers is one of the things I plan to touch on in my next post . . . Stay tuned!

  3. Chris Hamilton permalink
    May 3, 2012 5:19 pm

    Walter…that’s why they have writers’ conferences at hotels that have bars. (Just kidding, mostly.)

    I think it’s refreshing to hear a published author admit to some of the fears a lot of people have. It means the fear is valid, and surmountable if you’re willing to take the risk.

  4. May 5, 2012 7:35 am

    I have been writing since grade school; I have kept everything I’ve written hidden away for fear of ridicule. The thought of showing my writing to friends or submitting it to strangers almost made me physically ill. It was so personal, yet it was mostly all fiction. My passion and need to write was all I needed. That’s the excuse I used until now. Thank you for sharing. It helps to know that I’m not alone in my fear. My writing group has been tremendously encouraging. Whether the feedback is good or bad, I will move forward and take the risk. Although I don’t understand how to get anyone to follow my blog, it has been a major step in helping me to let go.

  5. May 5, 2012 4:17 pm

    Hi Jeanette:

    Visiting other blogs is how you get people to visit your blog. People are curious. I visited your blog just now, and loved your story about Elvis, and left a post. Good job.

    You’re a member of a writing group? Support from peers is a great idea. My thoughts on not liking public speaking is, well, that’s why I write, so I won’t have to speak. But an inimate writer’s group might make it easier to read to a group, until I got to the human / alien sex scene. I try to write science fiction humor.

    A rule I try to follow is to avoid swear words and graphic sex in writing. I ask myself, would I be proud to show what I wrote to my neighbor, mother, or small town newspaper? If I can pass that test, maybe I could think about doing a reading at my hometown library.

    But nope, I still won’t do it. I’d still have to be drunk to get the courage, drunks aren’t allowed in the library, and I don’t drink anyway. Keep writing. Good job with your efforts.

    • May 6, 2012 1:34 pm

      Walter, thank you so much for your encouraging words. I am a member of the FWA and can’t blame them at all for my phobias. Just yesterday, I was asked to read something and totally froze. Suddenly, I couldn’t even read my own notes. I felt like a child in school. I will get over this. Do you have a blog? I will follow a “Knight”.

  6. May 5, 2012 4:41 pm

    Jeanette, you might want to find out if there are any AWA groups in your area. The method used by the leaders is wonderful and provides a very safe environment in which to share. I believe the AWA website (link above in actual blog post) has a page that lists all of the leaders certified in the method and their location.

  7. May 6, 2012 2:39 pm

    I applaud the Florida Writers Conference Blog for keeping up their daily informative posts. I do not have my own blog because it takes so much effort, even with partners, to keep up a blog. It’s hard enough trying to add to a manuscript every few dayz.

    The closest I have to a blog is the Penumbra Publishing blog at http://www.penumbrapublishing.com. It’s a good and honest little company, and growing. Of course I love to read the Joe Konrath blog to stay up to date with industry trends for new and indepentant authors.

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