Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#20: Boundaries

by Seanan McGuire

All of us set boundaries every day, with everyone around us. They start when we wake up, and they continue from there. Even going to sleep involves setting boundaries, unless you regularly sleep with your house entirely unlocked and a big sign on the door saying 'why yes, you can totally come inside, touch all my stuff, and stare at me while I'm unconscious.' And if you do, please tell me, because I am never spending the night at your place. So let's talk about those boundaries. Our topic for today:

You are absolutely allowed to say 'this is new, I don't want opinions until it's ready.' You are absolutely allowed to refuse to discuss something until you feel you're prepared. You get to set the boundaries on your own work. That said, you do need to tell people where the boundaries are, especially if they're used to reading something of yours where the boundaries are different.

Boundaries can be tricky things, and almost all of us get upset when we feel that they're not being respected. The thing is, we also get upset when we feel that they're being unclear. So how do we get them straight, and how do we make sure that everybody knows where the lines are? That's what we're going to be talking about today.

Ready? Excellent. Let's get started.

New and raw.

New ideas are fresh and bright and shiny. New concepts haven't had all the sparkle rubbed off of them by repetition and critique and exposition and repetition. New characters are exciting and interesting. New projects are, in short, the fascinating strangers in our lives, and like all strangers, they have their pluses and their minuses. We're not as emotionally attached to them yet. We're probably still wrapped up in how strange and amazing they are, rather than realizing that they put their adjectives on one sentence at a time, just like everything else. This can make us resistant to critique -- after all, how could anybody have a problem with something so incredible? It can also make us a lot more sensitive to things we would normally weather without batting an eye -- this is the best time to walk away, before we're two hundred pages in and totally committed.

Let me be totally clear, here: both these things are normal. It is totally realistic and okay for you to be infatuated with a story that you've just dreamed up, and it's just as realistic and okay for you to be willing to abandon that story the first time someone says 'but what about...'. These are normal functions of the human condition, and normal parts of what it means to be a writer.

It can be very difficult to be objective about new things. They are either blessed or damned, perfect or poisoned, and there's very little room for anything in-between. New things are full of doted-upon darlings we would never even dream of killing, because they're so flawless that they don't deserve to die. New things are filled with exciting plot twists that aren't even a tiny little bit cliche -- or if they are, it's okay, because it's retro. At the very same time, new things are poorly-written claptrap filled with deus ex machina and illogical complications. They're over-plotted and under-edited, and they're probably going to reveal us the frauds that we are.

Sound familiar? Every new thing is Schrodinger's masterpiece: it's neither brilliant nor terrible until we open the box.

Your rights as the author.

Here are things that you, as an author, are totally entitled to where a new work is concerned:

* You are absolutely allowed to say 'this is new, I don't want opinions until it's ready.' You can say that to someone who's successfully begged you for a glimpse at the first typo-ridden pages; you can say it to someone who just wants to know why you won't talk about what you're working on. You are allowed to tell people when you're releasing something for critique.

* You are absolutely allowed to refuse to discuss something until you feel you're prepared. That means that even if you've given the first chapter of your precious new novel to your five closest friends, you're allowed to say that you don't want to hear any of their thoughts or opinions on the work. This also means that you can keep on telling your lunch buddies that you're not ready to talk about it yet. Again, you get to pick the point where a thing becomes a matter of discussion.

* You are absolutely allowed to have second thoughts about what you're doing. I realize that you may have legions of fans slavering to know what happens next to Dashing Adventurer and his sidekick, Gorgeous Dame, but at the end of the day, if you get two chapters into the new book and realize that it's just not working for you, you're allowed to stop. You don't owe it to anyone but yourself and the work. And maybe your agent, but that's a topic for another day.

Your rights as a reader.

If you're reading something new, you, as a reader, are totally entitled to the following:

* You are absolutely allowed to form your own opinions, based both on what you see on the page and on what you feel the potential of the work is. No one gets to tell you that you can't form your own impressions of a work just because it's new. You are not, however, entitled to share those opinions with the author if he or she has asked you not to. If you were asked to do a spelling-and-grammar pass, do exactly that, and don't editorialize. That will come later, I promise.

* You are absolutely allowed to give feedback and critique to the limit of what has been requested by the author. Again, if you've been asked to do a spelling-and-grammar pass, do exactly that, and don't editorialize. This increases the chances of you being allowed to read more (assuming you'd want to). You can always save your editorial commentary until the author is ready to lower the blast shields and let you start firing.

* If the author has not given you new guidelines for the amount of critique they want, you are allowed to ask. If the author still does not give you new guidelines, you are allowed to give critique according to the last set of guidelines you received from that author. In short, if you come out with guns blazing and the author wanted cotton and bunnies, it's their fault, not yours.

Rights you don't get as a reader or a writer.

Here are things no party is entitled to:

* Nobody is a mind reader here. If you want a certain type of critique, you have to tell your readers what that type of critique is. If you don't tell, you're probably not going to get what you're expecting.

* If you set the standards too high and get nothing back, you are not allowed to be angry with your readers for failure to have anything to say. If you set the standards too low and get savaged, again, that's your fault, not theirs.

* The writer sets the writing schedule, not the reader. You do not have the right to beg, plead, whine, needle, antagonize, or annoy the writer to get the next chapter faster. In fact, doing any of these things will probably get you dropped off that particular writer's critique list.

* You are not entitled to enjoy what you are given. As a reader, you may not like the project. As a writer, you may not like the critique you get back, even if it suits your agreed-upon standards. That's just how it goes.

In conclusion...

Everybody has boundaries. As writers, as readers, and as people who don't like to be stared at while they're sleeping. Boundaries are actually good things. But, just as you legally need to post 'NO TRESPASSING' signs before you can shoot those damn kids for walking on your lawn, you need to tell people where the boundaries are. When those boundaries are related to your writing, you need to make them as clear and easy to understand as possible.

You'll be happier if you do. Trust me. And don't come around after dark, because you are not invited to watch me sleeping.
© 2010 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and her fantasy novel Rosmary and Rue was published by DAW in September of 2009. A sequel, A Local Habitation, was released in March 2010.

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