Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#11: Suffer For Your Art

by Seanan McGuire

This week's essay is a little different, because it depends rather heavily on having read essay number ten, which was on the topic of validation. If you've been skipping in and out of the series (totally understandable), please take a moment to go back and skim number ten before proceeding. It's okay. I can wait.

Back yet? All right, excellent. Here's our thought for the day:

Suffer For Your Art.

This is continuing to touch on the topic of validation, which, as we all know, really doesn't like to be touched. More importantly, it doesn't like to be disputed, and that's what we're about today. Where is the line between seeking validation and refusing to grow? How do we deal with the human desire to hear nice things, and the author's need for critique? It's hard, and that's why our thought for the day is:

Look: if you just want validation and sugar and sweetness, that's okay. But you need to admit it to yourself, and you need to admit that you don't actually want to sell anything. Thanks to the Internet, you can have a wide audience by opening a website, and that can be wonderful and fulfilling, and you won't ever have to listen to a single harsh word. There is nothing wrong with that. I post a lot of stuff online that I don't necessarily feel like being critiqued on. Those pieces say 'be gentle,' and their safe word is 'no.' If what you want is to improve as a writer, however, and if you're looking to publish someday, change 'be gentle' to 'bring it on,' and get ready to suffer for your art.

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.

I Thought You Said It Was Okay To Want Validation.

Yes. It is absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent okay to want validation. Everyone wants validation. The most popular, most famous authors in the world want validation, just like the first grader who just wrote her first 'What I Did On My Summer Vacation' wants validation. Now, by the time they become the most popular, most famous authors in the world, they've probably figured out ways to get what they want that aren't quite as blatant as they were in the first grade, but still. If you say you don't want validation, either you're a saint, or you're lying. I am not a saint. I want validation. I want validation all the time. Seriously, there are days where I just want to call the people who read for me and go 'tell me I'm capable of writing a coherent sentence,' because hello, still human. That's the first thing I want to make clear today:

Wanting validation does not make you wrong, bad, shallow, immature, or unprofessional. It just makes you human.

Congratulations. If you want to be validated, you're a person. Welcome to the party. As a person, you are allowed to feel insecure, uncertain, unconfident, and anything else you like. If anyone tries to tell you that wanting validation means you're not a real writer, well, I guess you can tell them to take it up with me. I have a stick.

Now, please be aware that while I am giving you full permission to seek validation, I am not giving you that same permission with regards to fishing for compliments or demanding adulation. Saying 'I'd really like to hear the positive first' is okay. Saying 'Oh, just tell me how much I suck' when you mean the exact opposite is not. Again, a certain degree of fishing is human nature, but that doesn't mean we have to give in to the urge. So that's our second point of clarification for the day:

Be honest when you ask for validation, and don't try to hide it by pretending that it's not what you want.

If you're honest when you go hunting for validation, not only will you find that you're likely to need it less, but the people around you will get better about giving it to you. Taking away the guessing game aspect -- 'Is she actually asking my opinion, or does she just want to hear how awesome she is?' -- resolves a lot of potential tension.

Okay, So The Point Here Is...

The point is that it's fine to want validation. That's natural, normal, and entirely okay. It's also normal to never want to hear a harsh word about your work. But the reality is that no matter how good you are or how many books you sell, you'll always have people criticizing what you do. If you want to improve, you're going to need to learn to take that critique.

Before I was able to get an agent to look at my first book, I had to subject it to the critique of more than twenty of my friends. Why did it take so many? Partially because all of them had encountered so many people who were really just fishing for validation that they'd been trained to sugar-coat everything that they said to me, and partially because I needed to learn to take criticism without getting upset. That was all before I went to an agent. When I finally did get an agent to look at it, I got -- wait for it -- more critique. Now, I have a very good agent, and she's very good at spotting the things I need to fix, but she really doesn't show me any mercy. If all I'd wanted was validation, I might have survived the harsh words of my friends, but the things my agent had to say to me would have put me under the couch for a week.

The agent was not the end of the critique path. After her came my editor, and it's my editor's job to say 'I love you, you're perfect, now change' about twenty times a manuscript. Note that there's inherent validation in this path (a book contract is possibly the most validating thing there is), but there's also a lot of criticism, and a lot of correction.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the 'Velveteen vs...' series of stories, which are available exclusively online. They're edited and proofread, but the process is me me and more me, from start to finish. One of them was banged out in a little over two hours. The single longest any of them has taken to write was a day. I get immediate feedback and validation on those, and since they're decently written and I'm not soliciting critique, pretty much everything I hear is positive.

There is nothing requiring any writer to move beyond the validation stage. If you're happy posting fiction on your private journal or website, not only will I not stop you, I won't tell you that you're wrong. Writing is not a profession made of sunshine and bunnies, and had I realized how much work it was going to be, I...well, I would probably still have done it, but I would have whined a whole lot more. If what you want is validation, validation, and more validation, that is absolutely okay.

You just need to admit that you're never going to sell anything. Because that's where the real critique begins. Everyone from your agent to the professional reviewers are going to get their cracks at you. The continuity errors that Kate and Vixy are politely pointing out to me right now (in a world where 'politely' means 'hey, dumb-ass') are the ones that people won't be asking me about at conventions...but you never catch them all, as any published author can tell you. Probably with a deeply pained expression on their face.

Validation is for self-publishing, happy playtime, and hanging out at home. Critique is for the rest of the world.

So You're Saying I Won't Get Any Validation If I Publish?

I'm saying that you'll need to change 'be gentle' to 'bring it on,' and let people tell you what they really think. I'll tell you a secret: I actually get more, and better, validation now that I take critique than I ever did previously. Part of it is that taking critique has made me a genuinely better writer, and part of it is that the validation I receive means more, because I know I earned it. It's like the difference between buying a tomato at the grocery store and growing one in your own garden. Sure, they're both tomatoes, but only one of them tastes like a little slice of heaven. The first time someone told me they stayed up past their bedtime to finish one of my books, I damn near cried.

Weaning yourself off validation and onto earning it is a long and painful process. People are going to say things that hurt your feelings; there will be times when you disagree, sometimes strongly, and maybe even times when you consider just giving up and becoming a firetruck instead. If you look at this process and don't think you can take it, then being a professional writer is not for you, and that's fine. If you look at this process and think it's going to be hard, you're right, but you can take it at your own pace. No one expects you to get over having a thin skin overnight. You just need to decide what's best for you, and do it.

Here's some validation: I believe that every one of us has the capability to decide what we can and can't face. And I believe that we can make the right decisions.

Just validate yourself by trusting your own needs, and validate your art by giving it the critique you feel it deserves to have.
© 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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