By Eric Ralph
When someone finishes a work for the first time, usually a novel but it could certainly be a nonfiction book or short story, two impulses arise. The first impulse, a good one, is to show it to someone else to see what they think. The second impulse, a mind-bending, idiotic impulse we all have felt now and then, is that they dare not show it to anyone, lest that person steal their baby for themselves!
What should I do? Should I register the copyright? Should I mail it to myself? Should I have my readers sign a confidentiality agreement? Should I memorize my story, eat it, crap it out, then take the remains to the water treatment plant? No, no, and certainly no. Though if you do the last one, record it and upload it to YouTube because everyone will want to see it (except the crapping part).
Someone reading your work is an unassailably good thing. The next author that tells me one of their critique (or beta) readers stole their story will be the first. There is, quite literally, nothing to worry about. No one steals from first-time authors for the same reason no one steals bread from the hardware store. When people plagiarise, it is from published (usually somewhat successful) authors.
The real fear of a first-time author should be obscurity. Getting a new reader should trump any other consideration. If someone wants to read your first draft and give feedback, you should kiss them full on the lips and offer to name your first child after them (unless that would scare them off). You don’t tell them, thanks, but could you sign this agreement saying you won’t steal my stuff?
Do not let this irrational fear get in the way of telling your story and sharing it with anyone who will read it. Getting readers is the hardest part of writing. Don’t make it harder on yourself by obsessing over things that don’t happen. Sure, someone could hypothetically make off with your manuscript, publish it themselves, and make a ton of money selling your work, but they won’t. Worrying about this is like staying inside your house for fear that someone will pull your pants down, point, and laugh the moment you walk outside. It could happen, but it won’t. No one worries about it because to do so would keep you from living your life.
Don’t let this fear keep you from living your writing life. Let it go. Give your baby to a stranger, knowing they will take care of it (and might even help it grow).