The immortal Stephen King once advised writing the first draft of a new novel with the door shut, and writing the second with the door open.
Writing with the door shut is one of the most difficult things for me to do. As a social person, I miss the company of other people. I also get excited about what I’m working on and want to share it. Sometimes a piece of writing has me stumped and talking through it with someone helps me resolve the problem.
As much as that last point has been invaluable over the last couple of days, it’s been made clear to me over and over again how right King is, and how important it is to keep the door shut. Here’s why: new drafts are fragile. Undue influence from others while you’re still in the crafting phase can kill a novel altogether, or can take away from your own voice. It’s hard to get anyone who is not a writer to understand this–they’ll just think they’re helping.
“The great thing about writing with the door shut is that you find yourself forced to concentrate on story to the exclusion of practically everything else. No one can ask you ‘What were you trying to express with Garfield’s dying words?’ or ‘What’s the significance of the green dress?’ You may not have been trying to express anything with Garfield’s dying words, and Maura could be wearing green only because that’s what you saw when she came into sight in your mind’s eye. On the other hand, perhaps those things do mean something. Either way, the first draft is the wrong place to think about it.” – Stephen King, On Writing
King says that we need to let our hope of success and fears of failure carry us through the first draft, as difficult as that may be. I find it plenty difficult, especially during the times when I’m stuck. Sometimes it helps to have someone to ruminate with, but only if they’re very careful about what they say. Usually it’s best to say nothing at all.
But even that is dangerous. I’ve been able to tell by a person’s expressions whether they think something is a great idea or not, and when you’re in the honeymoon of a first draft, excited to death about all those new words, the slightest curl of the lip or crinkle of the nose can be devastating. It’s kind of like being unpublished, in a way. As long as you never show your work to the world, you could be the best goddamn writer who ever lived–who’s to tell you different? When you’re hard at work on your first draft and thinking it’s the most brilliant thing in existence, the last thing you need or want is the suggestion that it’s not. Keep the door closed.
If you must have external validation, create it. Do as King does, and imagine your “Ideal Reader”. King’s is based on his wife, but I think that’s dangerous, too–not to mention potentially treacherous for the relationship. What happens if you finish the book, only to find your real spouse doesn’t act anywhere near as thrilled as your imaginary version? How could you not be disappointed? And how can you avoid intentionally adding things you’ll know will please them?
The most important person to please in the early stages is yourself. No one else’s opinions matter. Writing is a lonely business, but it’s lonely for a reason. Trust me, the one who had to keep learning the hard way. Trust King. Trust the guy from my writing group who ended up throwing his first draft in the garbage.
Keep the damn door closed. You’ll be doing yourself a favor.