It's not uncommon for writers to call their WIP their "baby" or treat their characters like their children. It makes sense. After all, we're nurturing these stories and watching them grow from vague concepts floating around our heads to deep and meaningful stories that evoke emotions in our readers. It's a long, strenuous, rewarding process.
Writers hold their projects close. We pour ourselves onto the page, opening old wounds as we heal. Cherished memories, secrets buried in our chests, regrets and mistakes, mislaid feelings, things we so desperately wish we could do over or take back, the second chances we long for, recollections that bring smiles to our faces—everything that makes us who we are or has led us to this particular moment. That's what shapes our stories. It's tremendously personal, to the point it can be hard to let go. As much as we want to share our stories with readers, to put our work out there, we know we may be putting ourselves in a peculiar state of vulnerability.
And we are bound to be judged for it in some capacity. Every word picked apart be it a mission to uncover the "real" meaning of the work. Readers finding the characters unrelatable. Choices made based on our personal experiences somehow not being, well, whatever enough to be believed or taken seriously. Whether it's a review published online or a recommendation spread by word of mouth, opinions are being formed and shared.
But this fear of vulnerability may not be inspired by what our books become after publication. Relinquishing our sense of control over them and sending them into the wild.
Setting them free.
Books go on journeys starting in the author's mind, evolving from a mere thought to a complex narrative. Once published, however, the author's role is done. As Samuel Johnson once said, "A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it."
The direction of that story falls into the hands of its readers, who envision the characters as they see them and connect to the events as they are able based on their experiences, not those of the author. The sentiments can be similar, like sharing in a protagonist's heartache after a breakup with their love interest in the third act. However, while the author may have been drawing inspiration a college flame, the reader might be thinking about their high school crush.
When we share our writing with others at any stage of the process, we step back and allow others to take the reins. And for some writers, myself included, this can be daunting.
There's one piece of creative advice I've clung to a little more lately: Let the baby walk.
Longtime readers of the blog may recall this phrase from my post about my experience writing a murder mystery dinner.
I had gone into this having very little experience with what was essentially playwrighting and having never had a piece of mine performed outside of a one-scene workshop in the playwriting class I did take. It was the first time apart from the blog that anything of mine had been released into the wild, so to speak.
Once asked to devise a storyline and characters, I had developed backstories for each suspect and the victim, reasons each could have committed the crime, and a script.
It didn't take long for these to become irrelevant.
In the first cast meeting, our volunteer director, Patrick walked the cast through exercises to help them get into character and practice the kind of improv they would be engaging in with dinner guests.
Improv, when you have a full script, is not what you want to hear.
It was a weird sensation. I wasn't offended, per se, but definitely thrown through a loop. And that's when Patrick gave me what has become the best piece of writing advice I have tucked away in memory: let the baby walk.
Essentially, letting the baby walk refers to loosening up your grip on something you've created. Giving it space to toddle about and explore while you step back and let it do its thing.
Because holding on to your ideas too tightly can become holding them back from their true potential. Everything that they can be.
In the case of this murder mystery dinner, that meant our actors making the characters their own as long as they stayed consistent with the details concerning the murder and motives.
Letting this baby walk was hard, but the best possible thing that could have happened. So many good tidbits came out of my relinquishing control, like rockstar and soon-to-be-murder-victim Rod Sterling's first name being Leslie or Jenny, his ex-fling suddenly revealing her pregnancy for added drama. Things I would never have come up with on my own that made the whole production better.
On the night of the event, I got dolled up in my custom Pacific Cutlass t-shirt, took on my role of a "Lassie" fangirl of Rod Sterling's band, and just watched everything unfold.
It was a blast.
Had I not been willing to let the baby walk, it probably wouldn't have been as fun.
I've always been hesitant to put my fiction out there. To this day, only a handful of people have ever read my writing, most of whom were classmates in college during workshop days where we handed over a set number of pages over to our peers for feedback. Aside from a few friends and a critique partner who's read a shelved-for-now story and betas who got a glimpse of Bound to the Heart in 2020-ish, that's it.
Feedback is always intimidating for me. Whether at work in an employee review or getting comments back on something I've written, there's something about it that gets my heart pounding not of excitement but dread. Even though I have confidence in my writing and have specifically asked for this feedback and for the crew to point out any issues or flaws they encounter so I can fix them, something about it all sends a not-so-good feeling coursing through me.
This trepidation may very well also be the result of releasing control of my story. That even though I created these characters and wove the narrative, they will no longer be entirely mine. That they will, even if only for a brief time, exist in someone else's head.
And through their feedback, I will no longer be the only one who's had a say in the story's direction.
Letting the baby walk is something I need to start getting used to. Regardless of the path to publication you choose, your WIP is going to experience many changes in hand. Beta readers, editors, an agent if you take the traditional route, and others will read your work before it's published—and will also likely have suggestions for improvements.
This input is not designed to steal away creative control from you as the author. Rather, it's there to make your story stronger so it truly can stand on its own.
But in order to get that feedback, you have to give a little.
That sometimes means stepping back, taking your hands off the keyboard, and letting the baby walk. Entrusting your story to others doesn't make it not yours or partially theirs. Instead, it finds the opportunity to grow and continue to develop with help from those you trust.
Let your story toddle about and fall a bit. Ask those questions. Make those mistakes. Get messy in drafts and tidy them up in edits. Take those chances and let the baby walk.
It takes a village to raise a child, and a team to bring a novel to life.