Being a writer is part of who I am, and I don’t want to hide it, so if someone asks me what I’m doing tonight, I’m not going to tell them that I’m watching TV all night when actually I’ll be working on my novel. This generally leads to the other person asking two questions: what’s it about, and can I read it? You’d think I’d enjoy hearing these two questions – hearing that people are interested in my book – (I know, me too) so here’s why I don’t.
What is it about?
So many things about this question make me nervous about answering. Firstly, I never know where to start. My head has been filled with the characters, settings and various plot points of this story for almost three years now. It has gone through many changes and will go through many more. This makes it kind of difficult to step back from all the tiny details of the project that I’m currently dealing with to summarise the book’s exposition for you. I always struggle with working out which bits are important and which bits you will understand without me explaining the entire history of my fictional world. As a result, my answer will either be short and vague and therefore rather disappointing (usually I just say “oh, it’s a fantasy”, and only elaborate with something like “it’s about a girl searching for her family” after a little more prompting, though that doesn’t do it justice), or you’ll have to hope you don’t have anything to do in the next few hours because I’m telling you everything. Secondly, as already mentioned, I hate oversimplifying it. It gives the wrong impression (I once told someone my book is about a revolution, which it is, but it lead him to think it’s a political book, which it isn’t) or makes it sound dull, or like I don’t want to talk about it (I do, I just don’t know how to without sounding silly – a pocket watch that gives you the ability to talk to ghosts, are you serious?). On the other hand, I also don’t want to end up boring the other person with all the inconsequential details, or messing up my explanation and just confusing them (which is very likely). I feel like this question puts pressure on the writer to have a good grasp of their book, which you would think they have, but in reality, (at least for me) it’s just a huge mess of ideas.
Can I read it (before it’s published)?
I hate this question, usually because I have to try and find a nice way to say no (“not yet” is my go-to reply). Before you ask it me, I want you to ask yourself a few questions first.
1. Why do you want to read my work?
If it’s for a ‘claim to fame’, then please don’t ask me if you can read my book. My neighbour is apparently convinced I’ll be the next JK Rowling and wants to be able to say he read my book before it was famous. This makes me uncomfortable partly because it’s highly doubtful I’ll be as successful as JK Rowling and he really shouldn’t expect me to be famous one day just because I’m writing a book, but mostly because it implies to me that he’s actually only interested in my book so that he can have something to boast about in a few years’ time. It also disregards the fact that right now, my novel is a hobby, and getting it published – never mind it being a bestseller – a far-off dream.
2. Are we good friends?
My book is incredibly personal to me. It isn’t just a story, it’s my imagination laid bare on the page for you to see. So I’m very self conscious about my work. If we’re not really good friends, then I’m not going to want you to read my novel. I’m also not going to want to disappoint you and tell you that I’ll only let you read it when the entire rest of the world can read it too, which puts me in a slightly awkward position. Basically, if I’m not comfortable enough to be myself around you in person, then I won’t be comfortable enough to let you read my book. If it was ready for you to read it, I’d have started querying literary agents already. So if we don’t know each other that well, don’t even ask.
3. Will you be able to give me hugely detailed feedback?
If you think that writing a book is easy, or that the books you see on the Waterstones bookshelves are word-for-word the same books that their authors wrote when they first sat down at their desks with a vague idea in their heads, you would be wrong. So lower your expectations of however good you think my novel is going to be, and then lower them some more. This is a work in progress and in need of a lot of improvements.
As the writer, I see my story from a completely unique angle. My position is all-seeing. I know everything that is, could be and could have been in my story. To me, it all makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, my readers will not have this viewpoint, so I have to make sure everything that is important is visible from their angle too, but I can’t see from their viewpoint either. This is where I need help. At this stage, I need readers willing to give me a huge amount of feedback to help me get across what I want to get across and not miss out anything important. If you’re not willing to tell me all of your opinions of my book – what you thought of every character in every scene, your theories on their plans, how much of their backstory you’ve worked out, what confused you, what bored you, what you thought was unnecessary, what you thought was supposed to be funny but really wasn’t and needs to be removed, and, of course, what you enjoyed – then you telling me that you want to read my book is just someone else waiting over my shoulder for me to finish writing, counting on me to come up with a spectacular bestseller all on my own (not going to happen, guys). Your answer to question 2 is also pretty vital here – if I’m not certain that I can trust your judgement and you’ll tell me nothing but the truth, it doesn’t matter if you’re willing to give me all the constructive criticism in the world.
The likelihood is, if your answers to these questions are the ones I’m looking for, you won’t even have to ask to read my book, because I’ll ask you – I wasn’t kidding when I said I will need help with writing my book. And if I’m happy with your answers to questions 2 and 3, I might even completely disregard your answer to 1, but not the other way around.
I’d like to add that these are only my views on this subject. I’m sure there are many writers who are very private about their writing and feel rather awkward when asked about it, like me, but I’m also sure there are many writers who are perfectly happy to talk about whatever project they’re currently working on, who don’t worry about mis-explaining their plot or sounding ridiculous, or who will let anyone who asks read their writing. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them.