Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Discovering the truth

A good friend recently sent me recordings of songs written by him and his daughter and performed by her. He wanted my thoughts. I felt they were very good songs and her vocal performance was uniformly excellent. The musical backing on them was competent, but I felt it had some issues.

I gave him my honest opinions and discovered he really didn’t want to hear them — in some regards.

I wasn’t the only person he sent them to, but in discussing the recordings with him, I discovered that all the people were friends or at least acquaintances.

My response was that you then can’t trust what we tell you. Why is that? Because I know from past experience that it’s far too difficult to tell a friend what you truly feel — if it’s negative. How do you tell someone their darling bundle of joy looks more like a chimpanzee or a troll than the cooing, gurgling bundle of joy they see? It’s really impossible if you want to keep that person as a friend.

Fortunately, I had no issue with my friend’s music or his daughter’s performance, but I was frank about what I heard in the back-up musicians’ performance. When his defenses began, I knew I was fighting a losing battle. And in the end, it’s only my opinion, right? I’m not professing to be God here. Far from it.

When we create a novel or a piece of music or a painting, if we truly want to get the straight goods on what we’ve done, we have to solicit “honest” opinions — and I maintain you won’t get those from friends.

My wife is my most brutal critic, but we’re in a long relationship where we’ve learned to critique each other honestly. It’s often not fun to hear, but even so, I don’t completely trust her, and if I asked her — wait a minute, I will...

Back again. As I suspected she doesn’t completely trust me, either. It’s terribly difficult to tell a friend that what they’ve shown you is not good. Even if they ask you to be brutally honest, you still pull your punches. You don’t want to hurt them.

I told my friend to give the recordings to someone who will in turn pass them on to a qualified listener in order to get their impressions. By removing the critiquing from the “friend factor”, he will get a more honest appraisal. I also told him to do it a number of times. You need a good sample of comments in order to “average” them. If more than one person says the same thing, you must begin to think you've got a real problem and not just a quibble.

So what I’m saying is this: if you want your writing to be the very best it can be, you need to hear the unvarnished truth about it. How many of us have shown our “baby” to friends who make a few, small, negative comments and finish by telling you how much they enjoyed it, only to send the ms to an agent or publisher and be told it’s complete rubbish? I wouldn’t even trust a critique group for this. They can certainly be helpful along the way, but in the end, can you trust them completely?

Only strangers can be fearlessly honest.


Vicki Delany said...

True. But how do you find these strangers? Without paying? I once tried an online critique group. The experience might have driven me out of writing altogether. Some of them were so over-the-top negative, either be mean or because they didn't know what they were talking about.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

I use a crit group, and we try hard to use the "Oreo" technique--sandwich a negative criticism btw two positive ones. That's not a hard & fast rule, but it makes the critiquer look for things he/she likes, too. One rule we try to apply to ourselves as we're being critiqued is to keep our mouths shut--no defenses. Just listen.

Rick Blechta said...

Vicki -- You can find these people. Give your ms to a friend who has other friends who enjoy reading crime fiction -- and who you've never met. They can say, "I got sent this by someone I know vaguely and I thought you might like it. By the way, let me know what you think and I'll need it back." (This is important. You don't want mss floating around. I'd also put copyright info on it.)

Debby -- It sounds like a good system and it would certainly work to some extent. But I still maintain that it's hard to get that real hard-edged honesty from someone who's talking to you -- unless they have a really thick skin. I know I certainly couldn't do it.

The "no defenses" thing is a really good idea. You can't sit next to an editor reading your work on submission and defend any quibbles or problems he/she might have. That's the reason I want to hear any hard truths before it's submitted. Of course I never do, he says with tongue firmly stuck in cheek...

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