Who are the readers you rely on to give you honest critiques?
Are you ever afraid that the world is sugar coating the truth?
I'm a member of an online writers community, and two in-person writer's groups. I also have about a dozen other friends who write and read. Whenever I have the chance, usually only with stories that I consider to be more or less done, I call upon these people to give me feedback. I don't consider myself a literary master--shocking, I know--but I think that in my ten years of writing I have occasionally produced a story that people like. So, when I should happen to stumble upon these more successful pieces, my reviewers will give me compliments and tell me they are ready for me to submit. (Sometimes, of course, there are differences in opinion. My most recent example was when several of my reviewers said a story was ready to go while one said they thought I had Attention Deficit Disorder.) Still, I am much more likely to accept negative criticism than compliments. If someone says they think a story is successful and complete, my first internal thoughts are that A. They think the story is so bad they want me to give up on it, B. They liked it, but they didn't REALLY like it, or C. I'm so horrible that even though they hate this, they think it is the best thing I've ever produced. If someone is critical, only then will I accept that they are being totally honest with me. I realize this is wrong and sort of insane. On the other hand, I tell myself that there is something good about being skeptical and hard on myself, and I hope I'm right.
When I finished my novel in mid-January the first thing I did was call upon my people to read it and tell me what they think. Those kind souls were willing to read the entire book and give me thorough critiques on them. So far, I've gotten three reviews on the whole book and about a dozen reviews on the first fifty pages. People are suggesting small changes in wording, and they are catching a handful of typos. But, overall, they are agreeing with me that this thing is done. So, what do I do? I feel flattered for about a minute, and then I call them liars. I ask them more questions. I make them rank my book against Anna Karenina and Water For Elephants and The Road and Me and Orson Welles. I make them rank me as a person against Jhumpa Lahiri and Michael Chabon and Jonathan Safran Foer. I basically pester them until they get so fed up with me that they ignore my emails or tell me to go to bed. Thankfully, they are friends, so this anger is only temporary.
For the record, should any of them read these blog posts, I do sincerely thank them all for their time and effort and I'm sorry for being so paranoid.
In the end, I think it is up to the writer do decide when a story is done and whether or not it is good. One of my best stories, in my opinion, wasn't liked by any of my reviewers when I wrote it a few years ago. I ended up getting that one pubished in, Rosebud, my most prestigious journal at the time. The reviews I get end up being valuable whether they are complimentary or not because they help me see my book in a clearer way, which gives me the insight to revise it or not.