I've been thinking about this a lot, because when I have my Pen2Publication hat on it matters to me very much that anyone reading my judgement on their work will know how to accept my words, even if they don't like them. Will they believe they're going to trust me because they're expecting me to say how brilliant their work is, and then when I imply that it's verging on the mildly crappy, will they say, "Pah! So much for her stupid advice! Anyway, it's just an opinion. I'll ignore her."
[By the way, for clarity, I will not use the phrase "mildly crappy". I promise. I will find a much more professional way to tell you.]
But this is my problem, isn't it? Why am I wasting blog space airing my fears? Simple: because all of us have to decide whose opinion we trust. Doesn't matter whether you're paying for something, or reading this blog, or showing work to your critique group, or asking the opinion of friends, agent or editor: you have to decide whose opinion is most likely to be right. And what to do when that trusted opinion tells you what you don't want to hear.
Take me. [Not in that sense, please.] Whom do I trust? It depends what I've written. There's no point in reading a piece of literary fiction to my dog, because my dog only appreciates food. Not only, therefore, is she not sufficiently knowledgeable about lit fic to give me a valid opinion, but also she is liable to give me a dishonest or over-positive opinion because she wants me to give her more food.
So, I have to decide who might be the best person for this piece of writing. I will show work to different people depending on what the writing is. Specifically:
- for non-fic articles for magazines, journals and newspapers - my husband, because he hates the idea of me exposing myself in public [not in that sense... well, yes, OK, in that sense, too] by making some silly mistake or seeming like an idiot, so his motive is to protect me.
- for letters ranting at companies that have not treated me with the respect I deserve - my husband, to protect me from legal action
- for an extract from a WiP - my editor if it's under contract; my agent at earlier stages (to protect me from my scary editor); whichever of my daughters (20 and 23) I think is more appropriate for the piece - because they all want the best for me and know what they're talking about.
- for a potentially controversial blog piece - Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works. [Though, as I write this, she's apparently sitting in a radio studio wearing 6 inch heels and leopard print leggings so I may have to knock her off the trusted list...]
First, I choose these people very very carefully, trusting their knowledge and knowing that they will be honest.
Second - and this is equally important - I have learnt how to listen to and what to take from a piece of criticism. I can now mediate the advice and filter it correctly. So, when my agent or editor [the two most trusted experts in my writing life] say something negative or suggest changes, I filter that through all the things I've learnt about my writing habits and the reactions I get from "real" readers, and I can work out whether and to what extent they're right. Because no one, however "expert", is right all the time. As a published author, I have plenty of public feedback against which to measure my writing; I'm not operating in a vacuum. Unpublished writers are very much in that vacuum. Horrible places, vaccuums - you can't breathe in them.
The problem for unpublished or new writers is that every piece of negative criticism feels raw, sometimes shocking, and often confusing because it contradicts that entrenched [and necessary] belief that one's work is wonderful.
So, what's the answer? If you're unpublished and so don't have the public "official" feedback, how do you know whose opinion to trust, whether from a paid-for service or a crit group, or whatever?
- First - the person must be Knowledgable and Honest. You will have to judge this very carefully and ask yourself why this person's view is worth listening to.
- Second - if you have decided that the person or group is knowledgeable and honest, you must work out how you are going to use the advice positively. This does not always mean slavishly following it but it does mean opening your heart to the possibility that they are right and that following the advice may make your book much, much better.