I think we’re due for an analogy around here – maybe even past due – so here we go.
Many of you are aspiring writers, and many of you – as aspiring romance writers – belong to a writers’ group like RWA. Those writing groups tend to meet regularly, either formally or casually, and one of the activities that tends to happen at these meetings is critiquing and/or brainstorming. These sessions can be instructive and fun, with people learning from each other’s work, but one of the the things that only becomes evident over time is that many many (many) of the book ideas being discussed never make it to being finished book manuscripts, never mind published books.
Which brings us to perfume.
Imagine that you have a vial of perfume. It’s exotic and beautiful, possibly expensive, and you love it. You open the stopper and take a sniff and it fills your mind with images, changes your mood, makes you optimistic about the future. You love this perfume. And you have two choices with your precious perfume – the first is that you keep it closely stoppered and savour it once in a while, all by yourself. The other is that you leave the bottle open, letting it perfume the air around you with its sweet scent.
While the first option seems somewhat selfish, there are a number of problems with the second option that you might not immediately perceive. First of all, your nose becomes accustomed to scent and stops appreciating it after a while – you’ll notice this with strong scents, like vinegar. After five minutes, you can’t smell it anymore, even if it’s still present. So, you won’t smell your beautiful perfume after your nose gets used to it either.
The second is that leaving the bottle open releases the fragrance, and leaving it open permanently means that the scent will gradually dissipate and abandon the vehicle. You’ll have some expensive liquid in a month or a year, depending how volatile the scent is.
And finally, sharing that perfume with the world means that others around you will catch a whiff, maybe like it, maybe be inspired to use the same or similar perfume. That makes yours less special or unique.
What does this have to do with book ideas? I believe that the most destructive thing a writer can to do to her own ideas is to share them. You need to keep the stopper in the vial: you need to keep your idea between your own ears. The more you discuss your idea – or the specifics of it, the dialogue, the action, the characters and subplots – the more that you disperse your perfume. That diminishes its power.
It also looses your idea into the world. Most people aren’t active plagiarists, but a potent idea will seize many imaginations, infiltrate them, take root and blossom in an unexpected way. (Okay, so we have two analogies today.) So, your rose perfume might be admired universally and acknowledged by all of your critique partners to be your own – but one might buy a rose at the nursery the next week, another might wallpaper her bedroom with a floral print, another might suddenly find rosy pinks irresistible. Ideas are infectious – the best way to ensure that your idea remains exclusively your own is not to share it.
I also believe that this process of active discussion of works-in-process is why so many of the books that are openly discussed in writers’ groups never are finished, or they’re finished very slowly, or they’re not that compelling to read when they are finished. The potent perfume that led to their creation was dispersed too soon. It was shared around, providing fodder for discussion, instead of being the impetus for the writing of the book. It was wasted.
Just as a whiff of a beautiful and beloved perfume can perk you up, a carefully maintained spark of an idea can urge you to finish the work. There is a point in the creation of every book when it seems as if the story will not come together, as if the characters will never cooperate or find their HEA, as if the whole thing has been an exercise in futility. If you have taken care of your perfume, it will be as heady and strong at this point as it was when you first set your fingers on the keyboard. You can open the vial, take a long deep breath, and be filled with the need to finish the story. You might not know how to do it, but your passion for the story will be fed by the perfume, and the stronger it is, the more it will inspire you to carry on.
You need to hold your ideas tight, keep them potent and compelling. The best way to do that is by not discussing them. Not only will this help you to finish what you’ve started and keep your interest in the work, it can provide an invaluable source of energy to you. That’s why it’s your idea – it exists to provide an impetus to your writing. Sharing it is a gracious gesture, but one that will compromise your ability to create a book from that idea. Keep the stopper in the vial and your ideas between your ears – you might be surprised how much it affects your ability to finish a book.
And when the book is done, sold and printed? Well, the magic of that perfume will be preserved for all time because you protected it, and everyone will be able to enjoy it over and over again.