Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Admitting to Writing

A few weeks ago Miss Snark had this to say Don't ever talk about your novel socially until it's published. Ever. here. She followed it up with this post in which she expanded upon her thesis.

In general I'm in complete agreement with Miss Snark, but I just don't buy this one for a number of reasons, some of which may be genre specific.

1. I'm an F&SF author, and making the rounds of cons and talking about your work in progress is a big part of career development.

2. I wrote full time for a while before selling a novel. If I hadn't talked about the novels I was writing I'd have had an awfully hard time explaining what I did during those years, since most people you meet will at some point ask you what you do.

3. Much of my social circle is now made up of professional and aspiring novelists and English professors. Talking about unpublished novels is a huge part of the normal conversation. It was not always this way, but developed in part because of a willingness on my part to both talk about my work and to welcome other writers into my life.

My life wouldn't be nearly as rich if I hadn't always been willing to talk about my writing. Further, those aspiring novelist connections really helped me get through some rough times on the way to publication.

On the other hand, I don't think I talked about my first novel socially before it was finished, and that I would highly recommend.

It's an interesting topic, and one made more so by the massive amounts of support her pronouncement generated in the comments thread. I'm wondering whether that's about her audience, genre, or what.

So, if you're a writer, are you open about it? Do you hide it? Or perhaps only discuss it with friends? If you're not a writer, are you interested in knowing whether other people are? If not, do you attach a social stigma to such an admission? Or, do you simply not care?


Sean M. Murphy said...

I'm going to defend Miss Snark's point just a wee bit here, if only because I want to clarify that you are (generally) contesting her general point from inside one of her argument's caveat/exception bubbles.

In her second post, Miss Snark said:

The only place it is ok to discuss your unpublished novel is in a business setting such as a writer's conference, a pitch meeting or a workshop.

I think Miss Snark is talking somewhat specifically about being in a social situation, i.e., out with friends at a bar for drinks, a benefit barbeque, etc. In those situations, it is inappropriate to ask a lawyer for their advice on a legal matter, or a doctor for their thoughts on a malady from which your cousin is suffering, and, I would argue, that while we can put out there that we are writers, the only time to throw a pitch to an agent is if they self-identify as such, already knowing that you are a writer and that you are working on a project, and if they then ask you to tell them about it.

We attend conferences in part because those are quite purposefully the breeding grounds of author/agent relationships. I think Miss Snark recognizes that agents attending a conference are "at work" and that it is reasonable to approach them.

I think she was too broad in her statement of this rule, though. She should have specified that this was about talking to agents about your unpublished novel in a social situation. And even then, this is somewhat different if you're talking about a previously published author or not.

lydamorehouse said...

I've heard that some people are suspicious about talking about thier ideas before they're completely done with them.

I'm not.

My ideas are fairly mutable, so if I talk about them and someone suggests ideas, I can roll with that. I'm also not easily shot down, as I suspect some people might feel they are.

I haven't read Miss Snark, though... so maybe I should shut up about it and go read what she says.

Anonymous said...

I try to find a way to describe a work in progress that protects the piece in my mind somewhat from meddling and criticism. Where someone can respond to the ideas or themes or general concept more than to the details (that I'm still trying to work out). I usually know my theme and big picture of the plot up front, though, so this is easier to do.

Like, posing the 'what if' or the philosophical or scientific question the story deals with. So someone could pontificate in response and not touch on the piece itself.

Also, trying to describe the piece in a way that's focused on the firmest (and most 'sellable') elements, and not get into the details too much. Maybe fudging some elements to avoid direct contact of their true content with potential criticism - the elements I feel more sensitive about.

Good pitching kind of does this anyway - condenses to give the big picture, the 'high concept,' more than all the details. Focusing on the beginning and ending points and without all the turning points, etc. Also, figuring out what people really want to hear and want to be able to talk about - delivering a form of entertainment that's about them, not my piece.

Half of what I write is screenplays anyway, and that's all about pitching - and lack of ownership of ideas and even the finished product. But I find pitching useful with fiction too - I like to know what people are going to bring to the experience of receiving the material that I would never have anticipated. Spurs more ideas, for me, and brings up good questions.


Kelly McCullough said...


If you read the whole comment thread and the surrounding context it becomes pretty clear that she's not just talking about pitches to agents in inappropriate places (which is not just rude, it's stupid and actively counterproductive to boot). She's pretty clearly talking about discussing your writing to anyone anywhere outside of a business setting. Later she says this:

"It's rude. It's rude to talk about something no one else knows about or can read. Like showing your vacation slides...the only person really interested in how good a time you had is ...that's right: you."

and this:

"I don't care if you think it's ok to do this. It's not. Not ever. If you think you're the exception, you're not."

I will concede that my first point falls into one of her exceptions. However, 2 and 3 are very clearly outside her aceptable window.

The comparison to asking for legal advice or medical advice only holds for the instance of the innapropriate pitch, which I won't defend. A more appropriate comparison would be to say that a doctor may never talk about medicine at that bar or barbeque or whatever. Likewise the lawyer may never talk about the law.

I find this simply silly as I have discussed medicine, med-school and medical issues with doctor friends at any number of social settings. Likewise, I regularly talk about writing and works in progress at social events. The idea that one would exclude the possibility of talking about one's work at any social setting is frankly ridiculous.

Kelly McCullough said...

Oh, and though I'll concede the point on cons as business events, they're also social events and its the social side that is much more likely to see me talking about my writing--as opposed to panels where I'm mostly talking about the specifics of the panel topic.

Sean M. Murphy said...


All right, I'll give you all of that, excepting that Snark isn't the one talking in the comment threads, so I don't attribute people's interpretations of her words to her argument.

I'll also concede that in both of the later examples, she does throw the net too wide, leave a little too much unsaid.

That said, I think the primary departure in the conversation between your argument and hers is that you are talking about discussing things with friends (your "I have discussed medicine, med-school and medical issues with doctor friends at any number of social settings."), and that hers reads as though these are maybe acquaintances, and more likely strangers.

Also, I want to more finely tune that metaphor we're using. It's not that "a doctor may never talk about medicine at that bar or barbeque or whatever. Likewise the lawyer may never talk about the law", but that the doctor shouldn't start selling his services to someone he finds out is sick, and that the lawyer shouldn't, upon discovering that someone is getting a divorce, try to talk that person into using her law firm. That's more what Snark is talking about.

My main problem with Snark's text, though, is that it is written as a black-and-white issue, and it isn't. There are shades of magenta and chartreuse in there.

Kelly McCullough said...


In the bottom of your second to last paragraph here you say, "That's more what Snark is talking about."

No, it's not, at least as far as I can tell. It's what she should be talking about, and, if it was what she was talking about I would flat out agree with her.

If for example she said: "You should never pitch an editor or agent that you happen upon in a social setting. Never." I'd be right there with her. As I said above, it's not just rude, it's also stupid and will almost certainly close a door forever.

But she very specifically says don't tell anyone, not just don't pitch agents. Four of six points are pretty clearly addressed to the idea of telling no one, not just not telling publishing professionals. This is made clear by the fact that she explicitly names publishing professionals in points 5 and 6.

Oh, and I do make at least a few assumptions based on the overall trends of the comment threads because I've seen her step into them to correct misunderstandings of what she said or intended to say and she does not do this here. I may be wrong here, I certainly have been before, but I don't think it's an unreasonable assumption.

Sean M. Murphy said...

Okay, given those last two points, I'm pretty happy agreeing with you, then. As I said, I think she throws the net too wide. And since I don't follow her postings on a regular basis, I'm in no position to contest her responses to threads.

And I do have to say that the barb she threw in: Like showing your vacation slides...the only person really interested in how good a time you had is ...that's right: you. It ain't a good metaphor, and the inaccuracy irks, intentionally, I think.

Also, her higly inaccurate "There are no exceptions to this rule. The people who think, no who KNOW they are the exception, or that I'm just wrong wrong wrong, are the EXACT reason agents do not tell people what they do when they are out amongst real people." is clearly intended to stick a sharpness into people and get them offended from the get-go. I think there are a fair few social situations we could posit where most people (excepting Miss Snark, obviously) would agree it was okay to talk about your unfinished, unpublished novel.

Kelly McCullough said...


Thanks for the note on the vacation slides it reminds me that I should note here that Miss Snark's style is deliberately abrasive and pretty much designed to draw the maximum of fire from anyone who disagrees with her on anything. She practically begs to be argued with, and if she weren't so right so much of the time, I'd probably find her very hard to read.

Bill Henry said...

Wow, you guys totally need a stuffed monkey.