It’s becoming a running joke I tell while my heart is breaking that over the past three years I’ve written approximately 500,000 words of a novel and no-one has read a single one. They could all, so the joke goes, be the word ‘fish’, every single one of them. Hur hur hurrrrrr. They’re not, but they’re not the right words either, or in the right order. I have heard of people who write novels the whole of their lives and never finish them. Maybe that’s what I’m doing, I thought. Maybe this isn’t writing a novel at all. Maybe this is a nervous breakdown (it’s so hard to tell).
(Symptoms of a nervous breakdown: sitting for long hours in one position. Check. Agonising over tiny issues. Check. Unable to speak to other human beings normally. Check. Spending long portions of your day on your own. Check.)
Anyway. The point is this month someone read them. My words. Only 5,000 of them, a hundredth of the total I’d written, a 20th of the whole book.
Having someone read your work is a double-edged sword: their feedback can help you focus, and it can also confuse you. The latter meant that I was adamant that I didn’t want anyone reading it until I had a strong grasp of the story I wanted to tell and its characters. That sounds like Writing 101, but it’s really not. It’s taken me three years of copious writing to get there. The biggest mistake you can make as a writer is show it to someone too soon.
That said, writing on your own without feedback can get unwieldy. Over the course of six months, I restarted the redraft four times, seemingly unable to decide between different starting points, different voices, different perspectives and different ends. It got to the point where I had no idea what worked any more - and needed external input.
That input came and it was a revelation! Suddenly I was writing with a reader in mind, and not just some strange mixture of a desire simultaneously to express and punish myself. My ability to distinguish what was interesting and what was interesting only to me was renewed, and my redraft is going along swimmingly as a result.
That’s not to say I’m an advocate of early feedback now. There would have been no sense in getting feedback from my first draft: it was wrong, and I knew why, and what needed to change. It was also my first attempt at really long-form writing, and I needed to get better at it, train like an athlete does. The ability to write an opening chapter or scene is nothing like the endurance required in writing an 100,000-word novel. I can’t tell you how many debut novels I’ve read that start admirably and tail off toward the end, usually due to characters running out of steam or the plot being too obvious or both. My suspicion has always been that someone else read them too early on in the process.
The 5,000 words I got feedback on weren’t perfect, but they were in the right order, and they can get better.
Any later and I might have gone down the wrong road for too long, writing contemplative drivel that unravels some of life’s more difficult sensations but is 100% boring to other people. Having my work read reminded me that ACTION comes first, and through which sensations and character should be glimpsed, not the other way around. But any sooner, and I might have not developed the character sufficiently to make it generate action.
Contradictory much? I guess what I’m saying is be prepared to write for a very long time on your own and without feedback. Develop your own critical muscle, so that it starts to energise everything you write. Don’t rely on other people to tell you what’s working. Try ideas out for yourself: redraft, rewrite, realign. Ask for other people’s opinion when you have written a lot.
Feedback is great when you need focus, not direction.