Monday, 23 November 2009


See, I haven't deserted you. I know that Pen2Publication launches today and you might think I should be drowning in virtual champagne, but a) virtual champagne has never rocked my soul and b) I take my blogging duties way too seriously for that. As you can see from this picture.

Sorry about that. A decadent scene, but entirely false, of course.


Let's talk about trust. And experts. And opinions. And trusting experts' opinions.

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...]
There are some things to note in that list, because they appear to contradict advice I've given about not using your children's, family's or friends' opinions to judge whether your work is good enough.

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?
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
Talking about better, I cannot better this excellent advice from Emma Darwin writing about How to Get the Most out of an Editorial Service. She's talking about taking paid-for advice but the same applies to any other forms of advice you might get. Regard any chance to get knowledgeable and honest advice as an opportunity not to be missed  -  it's what I didn't have during my years struggling to be published.

So, choose your advisors carefully but, once you have chosen them, trust them, though not necessarily slavishly. Ask yourself: if you trusted them, why should you ignore them when you don't like the answer? Was it that you didn't really want their honesty, just their adulation?


Pen said...

As always I love your wit! Great post. I wish I knew more people with the writing knowledge to give trusted feed back.

Titus said...

Excellent post.

lyuba said...

It is really difficult to get an opinion one can trust with regard to writing. For years, I was a member of various online writing sites and, though I went in originally assuming that everyone waas there for the same reasons (i.e to learn how to write work to a publishable standard) I was pretty quickly disabused of my misapprensions and learned a lot more about the infinite varieties of human nature than I did about the writing/getting published thing.

Amanda Acton said...

I like to do a ritual dancing under the full moon. (I may or may not be naked.) At this time, the Writing God's of awesomely infinite wisdom shower me with magical editorial suggestions. That, or they smite my ms down in disgust.

Sigh, it's really difficult to find those perfectly trustworthy persons. I find most people seem too afraid to actually say anything "mean." I recently joined and got a violent-tearing-apart-at-every-word kind of crit and wanted to cry out of happiness. Finally! Honesty!

Of course, whether or not to use the critter's advice is still up to my eternal filtering process. And who knows if I can trust that? :P

Elen Caldecott said...

Just wanted to say good luck on your launch day!

Bethany Wiggins said...

I'm lucky. My sister is a writer and her opinion is both honest and accurate. I have a few others I trust unerringly, also. Like my husband (who is one of my harshest critics ever--tells me when my stuff is crap). The funny thing is, no matter who gives a harsh opinion, it always hurts! And they're almost always right.

Rebecca Knight said...

I'm like Bethany--my husband is my honesty go-to guy. He has no problem both pointing out anachronisms in my fantasy novel, but also telling me when my scene straight up stinks. Bless him :).

I've also found wonderful writing/critiquing friends who are supportive but brutal over at If you haven't visited those forums, you really should. The people are knowledgeable, honest, and extremely cool.

Great post, Nicola!

Harry Markov said...

HAPPY LAUNCH DAY! :) YEY! Best of luck with your new endeavour and as always one hell of a post.

I actually two types of readers that I trust and use frequently. There is the serious feedback machine, who is always brutally honest, but always hits what needs to be fixed. At the same time I have my own cheerleader to boost my moods of how wonderful and brilliant my writing is. Isn't life splendid that way?

But yes for unpublished writers opinion that counts is like an UFO always spotted but oh so elusive when you want to see it with your own eyes. I am so glad I found that person to look up to and trust.

catdownunder said...

Please be careful of those shoes Ms Morgan. You might need wellies to protect you from the flood of words.

Anonymous said...

I would like to know why you lent Jane your leggings and shoes. That Smith woman is jeans and bulky sweaters all the way.

And happy launch day, dear Nicola. I will always trust you. Even if you didn't offer me champagne and choccies.

Sarah said...

You know, my writing group gives me great advice. They never spare my feelings, but they haven't ever been cutting.

Last year at a writer's conference, I had a chance to have an editor look at 10 pages of my MS. By the time I met with the editor, the Slushies had critiqued those pages as well. The editor ended up giving me feedback very similar to what I'd already heard from the Slushies.

I'd known they were good, but it was great to see they were on track with someone who worked in the industry.

Linda Strachan said...

Happy Launch Day, Nicola.
Wishing you every success!

Jemi Fraser said...

So true! I've been lucky to find a couple of crit buddies I trust. They're honest and funny and very, very helpful :)

Sharon Mayhew said...

Great post! You are right, It's really important to trust and respect your critiquer. My current critiquing buddies are all better writers than me. What's interesting is how each one of them picks up on different things in manuscripts. It's really a good mix. Have a great Thanksgiving.

steeleweed said...

Harry Truman said it best: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

That said, criticism can still hurt, however well-intentioned, however accurate. But then, it has usually been painful events that taught taught me the most important lessons of life - anything from "Don't jump off that 40-foot roof" to "Yes, that dress does make your butt look fat".


Marisa Birns said...

Oh. One more thing to add to list.

You are very amusing, as always and I keep enjoying your thoughts and advice.

GREAT picture! Red boots to die for!

Nicola Morgan said...

You all speak so much truth.

And thank you so much for the good wishes. I couldn't do it without you!

Lynn said...

Good Luck with Pen2Publication, Nicola

You are offering writers the opportunity to work one-to-one with an experienced editor who will get inside a piece of writing, who will be carefully honest, and who will offer constructive advice. From personal experience I know it is a relief to turn to someone whose advice you value and trust - especially in those black moments when you are about to press the D button on four years of' work and get a job in Tesco. Don't to it. Ask Nicola.