All of your friends are liars. So am I and–hopefully–so are you.
I mean this, of course, in the very best way. One of the great duties of friendship is to lie, lie well, and lie often.
We must like what our friends produce more than we would like the same thing produced by a stranger.
We must encourage what’s good in their efforts and support them when they take risks.
We must have trouble seeing their flaws and eagerly overestimate their virtues.
Indeed, one of the marks of good friends is that they go through life with a giant unexamined positive bias in your favor.
However, this makes our friends tremendously unreliable when it comes to critiquing what we do. Even the most honest and rigorous critics among them are not to be fully trusted. They will give us the benefit of the doubt and very actively seek ways to see the best in our work. And the closer our friends are to us, the more distorted their opinions will be.
Unfortunately, before you’re a fabulously acclaimed, widely recognized author, it’s going to be hard to get anyone but your friends to look at your work. This is one of the major reasons why finding a good critique group–one that includes distant acquaintances and even strangers–should be understood as an absolute necessity for anyone who wishes to take their development as a writer seriously.
(Of course, we should also keep in mind that many critique groups are riddled with lousy critics. Learning how to recognize and discount the bad ones will be the topic of another post.)
However, even if you do have a rigorous critique group, your friends will still be a very important early audience for your work and you should develop some strategies for sorting through their most lovely and alluring lies.
When is a dollar not worth a dime?
One of the first things you can do is recognize that critiques are like cash, but everyone pays in a different denomination. A stranger discovering and enjoying your work might offer you gold bullion, whereas a distant acquaintance dispenses euros, a close friend pays in pennies, and your mother buries you in monopoly money.
Your best friend loving your work might be equivalent to another close friend really liking your work, which would be equivalent to a mere acquaintance being entertained, and a stranger experiencing only the mildest of amusement.
And–of course–there’s the whole issue of tastes and preferences to be considered. People who read a lot in your genre have opinions that should trade at a much higher exchange rate than those who’ve never read anything like what you write.
And finally, one must allow for inflation. Specifically, how much is your evident desire to hear something positive shaping what your friends are saying? If you respond well to criticism and always reward your friends’ honesty, you’ve probably got a sound economy going. If you tend to clam up, get pissy, or overreact then you might be more like a military junta just after a coup. The good money’ll go running and you’ll be stuck in a hyperinflationary spiral of doom.
The point is, if you don’t apply the appropriate discounting to each of the reactions you receive, you’ll likely delude yourself into pushing junk on the world and being endlessly disappointed when it flops. By the same token, if you overly discount everything you’re told (as some writers are wont to do), you’ll never get your work out at all and lose the opportunity to make a positive impact on others.
So what’s the secret to developing an accurate accounting?
Two Keys to Interpretation
Perhaps the most reliable indicator of how much your friends like your work is not what they say to you, but how much they talk about your work, or share it when you’re not looking. Actions are gold, words are paper.
The other worthy medium of exchange is the unsolicited suggestion for improvement.
A well thought out suggestion shows engagement with your work and gives you an opportunity to directly evaluate the actual content of what your beloved critic is offering. If you can instantly recognize the rightness of their point, you’ve been given something of tremendous worth and should put it to use immediately. That said, even if you disagree with their suggestion, you can at least learn that your work isn’t quite where it needs to be, and judge based on the specifics of their suggestion how far off the mark you are and in what areas.
UPDATE: This post originally had a little example about the trials and travails of producing some videos to support a Kickstarter campaign. Ultimately, I pulled down the video from YouTube, so I’ve also edited this post. A future post will describe the whole merry adventure in further detail.