"The first draft," says my friend Steven Savage, "is for nobody but yourself. The second draft is for your editor; the third draft is for your beta readers."
I read those words within a day or two of finishing the second draft of Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned. Then I scrolled to the words THE END in the document, hit Save, and reflected on some of the other things Steve and I had talked about in re sharing a work in progress.
Steve's only just now writing his first novel-length work in some time, A Bridge To The Quiet Planet. He's still tinkering with the exact process, but he's already exhibited some tendencies that stand in contrast to my own.
The most divergent one, I think, is the way Steve far more freely shares details about his work-in-progress than I do. By this I don't just mean that he drops plot summaries or details about characters, but actual lines, quotes, whole grafs. He's also been making the work available in draft form, chapter by chapter, for those who want to read it.
To me, all this is somewhat unthinkable. Not in the sense that I think Steve is making a mistake or doing something immoral; there are as many ways to write a book as there are writers. It's more that I'm in the habit of being very close-to-the-chest about my stories and what goes into them, especially in terms of the specific details of implementation.
I don't like the idea of sharing a draft in progress, for instance, partly out of the notions I have for respecting the reader. Who knows how much the final version will change from an earlier version. Most people don't like reading more than one version of a story, especially something that runs to hundreds of thousands of words. Offering them at most one draft to read is a courtesy, and it also encourages me to depend less on others for validation. (Note that I said validation and not advice. It's OK to allow others to give you advice; it's not OK to depend on them for approval.)
I also tend to keep story details close to my chest for the same reasons. Some of that is me not wanting to give away too much too soon, or to work people up into a froth of false expectations about the project. I just don't like to flaunt my work too much while it's still under wraps, as it feels misleading to do so.
That said, Steve has made some good points about how strategically sharing certain things, in the guise of being a clever promoter, can entice others to read early on in the process. Most of the enticement I've done has been by way of what amounts to the story's back-cover copy, refined and reworded until the book itself is baked.
The more I mull this over, the more I realize my approach seems born from the romantic vision of the artist as this guy who goes into a room somewhere, shuts the door, and comes out some time later with a finished something. This view persists in deliberate ignorance of how works of art don't come exclusively from some void deep within, but emerge as a collaborative process between that person and the world around them.
I knew all this, but I still hadn't completely confronted all the ways I continued to embody it. After all, I had what I thought were perfectly good reasons that had little to do with preserving mystery or esotericism. But they still have the same net-to-negative effect — perhaps they make the work seem not so much enticing as closed-off. Worse, they make it difficult for me to make a case for it, even after it's finished.
One thing I'm pretty sure that's not at work here is the impulse I see at work in many younger or amateur authors — the fear that if they talk about their work in detail, someone will rip them off. Okay, that's not totally untrue. I do feel like there are some pretty clever things about AONO that are worth keeping close to the chest until I'm done with it. But deep deep down inside, I know nobody is going to care enough about it to want to rip me off. Even if they did, they wouldn't tell this story with the one idea they filched from it. They'd use it to tell some other story. At the end of the day, you can't help but be original.
But on the whole, I have a very high threshold that has to be crossed before I feel comfortable with showing a project off or talking about it in detail. I just like to wait first until it's as baked as it is likely to get, in big part because I'm not crazy about exhausting other people about it. I want them to read it, not get fed up with me about it before it's even done. Perhaps I'm being hypersensitive. But given how small a pool of readers, beta and otherwise, I have to draw on, that's probably where that strategy came from.