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August 2022
 
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Thoughts on Writing

#10: Validate Yourself As Well As Your Parking

by Seanan McGuire


The topic of validation is a very touchy one, and we're going to be returning to it several times as this essay series goes on. Since this is our first time, we're basically going to validate the idea of validation -- that is, we're going to look at when it's not only okay to seek validation, it's practically required. So our thought for the day is:

When a book or an idea is new, it's okay to want validation. You're standing at the mouth of a tunnel that's probably thousands of pages long, once you calculate for discarded text and revisions, and that's scary. Ask people 'do you like my idea?'. Tell people you need to hear good things about what you're doing. It's okay to say 'it's my first time, be gentle.'

As a writer, you're going to hear a lot of things about validation. Some of those things will be good. Some of those things will be bad. None of those things will change the fact that, as human creatures, we will occasionally require positive feedback to encourage and motivate us, and to keep us moving forward. So when is it okay to go fishing for approval? What makes validation a good thing, and not a handicap?

Let's begin.

What Is Validation?

I'm pretty sure anyone who's reading this knows what validation is, but just to be sure, we're going to start by agreeing on a definition. Validation is, essentially, approval of what you're doing. It's the statement of 'good job,' it's the gold star, it's the person going 'wow, that sounds really neat.' According to Dictionary.com, validation is:

1. the act of validating; finding or testing the truth of something.
2. the cognitive process of establishing a valid proof.

Okay. So what does it mean to validate something? Again, Dictionary.com is here to help. It says...

1. to make valid; substantiate; confirm.
2. to give legal force to; legalize.
3. to give official sanction, confirmation, or approval to, as elected officials, election procedures, documents, etc.: to validate a passport.

So for our purposes, validation is that stage where we seek to confirm that our writing is good, that we are good writers, that our ideas are worth continuing to pursue. Validation is us standing up and saying "Why do I do this?" If you want a good example of validation in action, take a look at any large online fanfiction community. You'll almost certainly see stories where the author has said 'if I don't get more validation, I'm going to stop writing' -- in a world where your writing is a free commodity, validation may be the only pay that you receive.

Validation is a powerful thing. When someone says you look nice in what you're wearing, they've just validated your taste in clothes. When they say you made a lovely dinner, they've just validated your cooking. We can all practice self-validation, but for most people, it's the external 'you did good' that really seems to make a difference. No matter how much time we spend working on crafting the perfect turn of phrase, the most elegant idea, the best poetic line, it's the person who goes 'wow, that's cool' who makes it all worthwhile.

All writers crave validation. It's true! When I write something that people like, I sit at my keyboard with this giddy little grin, going 'wow, I done good.' When someone tells me one of my essays really worked for them, I clap my hands and beam. I am not unique. We all share ourselves when we write things down and put them out in front of the world, and nobody wants to hear that their thoughts, dreams, and ideas are boring, or badly constructed, or trite. We want validation.

Here's the first thing I want to make very clear: there is nothing wrong with wanting to be validated. It's a natural, reasonable, human desire. The best authors I know still want to hear that their work has value. Every time I send a book to my editor, I hope she'll like it...and I have the exact same hope every time I hand a book to someone for proofreading and revisions. I want to hear that it kept you up past your bedtime. I want to hear that it moved you. Because I am human, and humans want that sort of thing. You are entirely allowed to want to be validated. If you've ever questioned that right, well, don't. I give you full and blanket permission.

But.

Why Is There Always A 'But'?

Because I'm mean. Look: I crave validation. It's true. I also crave candy corn. If I allowed my cravings to dictate my diet, I would live entirely on candy corn (at least during the fall), and probably be very sick to my stomach, in addition to developing severe dental problems. This comparison isn't as off-the-wall as it may seem, because validation is very much like candy corn. It's sweet and it's sugary and it's good, and you may think that you want to eat a whole pound of it at once, but you probably don't.

(If you don't like candy corn, substitute the sweet treat of your choice.)

Want validation. Want validation constantly. Just remember to be careful.

I Thought We Were Talking About Validation Being Okay.

We are. I just wanted to get some foundations out there in the open. So now, let me spin you a scenario:

Bob and Mary are both writers. More importantly, they're both writers with a big new idea for a story -- something they're really excited about writing. Both Bob and Mary tell their best friends their ideas. Bob's best friend says 'I'm not so sure I like that, I think I read something like that already, are you really sure you're up for that?' Mary's best friend says 'oh, wow, how interesting, I can't wait to see what you do with it.'

Now you tell me: which author is actually going to maintain enthusiasm for their story long enough to write it? Maybe both. It's happened. But it's far more likely that Mary's story will be written, while Bob's story is left to sit idly on a shelf, wasting away into nothing.

When a thing is new, it needs to be nurtured. You don't tell a person who's just baked their first cake that it's horrific; you tell them it was a good try. (Mind you, there's a difference between nurturing and false praise, but that's a topic for another day.) As a writer, you need to remember to tell people when a thing is new, and more importantly, tell them what you want. My first response when presented with an idea is to look at it critically. Not to look for the flaws, necessarily, but to figure it out. If you hand me something and don't tell me it's still in its infancy, I may say things you're not ready to hear. You'll need to hear them someday...but that comes later, once you're secure.

It is entirely okay to say that you've just started working on something, and that you're looking for validation and constructive critique. I often tell people that I need them to be gentle with the first chapter or two of a book, because I'm still testing the waters. If those waters turn out to be absolutely full of sharks, well, I may not go swimming.

Don't feel bad about asking for what you need when a project is still young. And if someone asks you, don't feel bad about giving it to them. Remember, nurturing something small today gives you something big that you're allowed to hit with a mallet tomorrow. I give you permission to fish for compliments! The permission is yours, and cannot be taken back...but it applies only to new things, not to old ones.

We'll talk more about validation later. For now, consider what it means and what your limits are. Knowing them enables you to ask people to respect them, and that's going to make your life, and your writing, much more pleasant.
© 2009 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 will be published by DAW in September of 2009.

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