I’m 15.5k into my novel for this year, so I downed my tools and showed it around. I did this for no other reason than that I needed compliments, validation, a literary hug and push onward up the hill by a friendly hand. Sounds needy? It is. Deal with it.
Fifteen to twenty thousand words isn’t much for someone to read – it took Tim about twenty minutes, and my agent came back to me overnight. I wasn’t looking for a meticulous summation and reader’s report, and neither gave me that. Both said they felt compelled, hooked, and that’s all you really want out of the first little chunk of a novel. Both had cautionary advice about a couple of points. But I feel spurred on now. It’s a lonely and worrying business, this, and I feel like 100,000 words is too far to wander without knowing what I’m doing has any merit.
If you’re not writing crime fiction, the 15-20k mark might be an inappropriate time to stick your head up. At this point in most crime novels, however, you’ve got (should have) essential things in place for your validator to comment on. The case has been sketched out. The protagonist has been introduced. There had been a juicy catalyst on the first page to hook the tired, underpaid slush-pile scourer or one day, the wandering bookstore reader (hopefully). It’s also a good time for the validator to take a stab in the dark and tell you what they think’ll happen next (if they guess right, you should change it up). So 15-20k works for me for these reasons.
But how far is too far, and how far is not far enough to stop and get some much needed praise or criticism? It’s difficult to say. In the non-fiction world, editors will be able to tell you a book has no merit right off the bat, before you’ve written a single word, and you’ll go away with no writing time ‘wasted’ (although, no writing is ever wasted. See other posts for my opinion on that). In the fiction world, however, it’s near impossible to tell someone their idea is great or terrible if they haven’t written anything. I have writers tell me their ideas a lot, and some of them sound really whacked. But I never tell them their idea has no merit. I do this for three reasons; one, because it’s brave to tell someone (particularly a published author) your book idea to their face, and I don’t think I could ever bring myself to respond badly to someone’s face (I’m a coward). Two, because I’m not a publisher, and I don’t know what the hell publishers are going to take at any given time. And three, because a verbal explanation of a book idea over a couple of drinks is no way to judge a book. I’m thinking of The Great Gatsby. ‘Guy throws parties all the time because he wants his chick back. She turns up. There’s a car accident. Something about eggs.’
The only time sharing an idea with zero words written has worked for me, is when I told my brother about my idea for a novel about a kid who goes missing on a plane, and her mother has to both find the kid AND convince the passengers/flight attendants that there even was a kid in the first place. Turns out this not my stroke of genius at all, but a movie called ‘Flight Plan’, starring Jodie Foster. Godfuckingdamnit.
So ‘zero words written’ is too soon to get validation. But the end of the novel is too late, too, I think. Only because it would be a pretty self-assured badass who could go for a whole year (minimum) without telling or showing anyone anything about their work as it progresses. Maybe, by the end of it, this kind of grouch-pouch might have written the best thing since sliced bread. But I kind of feel like that’s sad and unnecessary, and the sort of thing those brooding cashmere-turtlenecked, mustachioed writers who are rude to the debuts at writer’s festivals might do. You can just hear them, can’t you. Eh! I don’t need validation! Validation is for little girls with self-esteem problems! Mmmmm, yairs! *discards cigarette with a flourish*
Don’t be an asshole. Don’t run the whole marathon without water, just because you can. You’re not a machine. Take a sip. It won’t kill you.
Who should you choose as your validator? I chose Tim and my agent, because they know how to criticize me gently without any bullshit. That should really be the guideline, if you ask me. Your mum shouldn’t be your validator. She’d let you go down the wrong path if it made you happy. Admit it.
Your validator should be someone who you know is tough enough to say ‘I hate this character/plot point’ if need be, but someone deep enough and caring enough to give you more detailed feedback if you ask for it/share their suggestions. They should also be someone you KNOW will not tear your work to shreds because they’re jealous of you, or because they think doing so will impress you with how much they know about the science of narrative, even if there’s nothing wrong with what you’ve written. Beware of other writers and editors. Someone who reads a lot of your genre, or is into the same stuff as you are, might be best.
So anyway, onward I go, with a little more spring in my step. Happy writing, everyone.