Years ago, in another life, I made my living doing dopey magic tricks and telling jokes. (Really.) I played some nice places (the Comedy & Magic Club of Hermosa Beach was one), and I played some awful places (insert the name of any smoky bar on the west coast where the customers are more interested in Budweisers, Camels, and the opposite sex). One thing I noticed about the venues: Even if the place was a dive, there were lessons to be learned. Being in front of a living, breathing audience forces you to change your act. You have to work really hard to get people to laugh. All the rehearsal in the world wasn’t going to cause me to perfect my act — for that, I had to be bad in front of people.
There’s a lesson for writers… A lot of potential authors are simply too sensitive. As a writer, you need a place to bad, so that you can learn to be good. So if your ego is too fragile to allow someone else to read your work, it’s time to learn this lesson. Allow yourself to be bad. Give somebody else (preferably not your mom, your spouse, or your best friend) the permission to be honest with you about your writing.
Yes, this takes courage. And it means you’re going to have to find a couple people you trust. If you get into a large crit group, chances are you’re going to have one person you don’t like, who always hammers you for something. Learn to live with it. Paste a smile on your face, say “thanks very much,” and move on to somebody whose opinion you actually care about. BUT somewhere, in the midst of all that fake niceness, be willing to at least hear what that individual has to say about your writing. A fresh set of eyes is exactly why you joined the group, so at least listen to the criticisms others have, even if you think they’re all morons and you’re above this sort of thing.
I remember there was this one magician I couldn’t stand. He was a twerp, made biting comments, and acted like a know-it-all. One day he mentioned something to me about my act — he said I mumbled on stage, and made wisecracks to the side that nobody heard. I hated what he said. I rolled my eyes. And then, as I thought about it, I realized he was completely right. Dang.
Scottish people have a saying: Learn to unpack a rebuke. In other words, don’t reject a criticism out of hand. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to agree with it. But give it a little time. Take it out and play with it. Be willing to at least examine the criticism and see if, just maybe, there’s an ounce of truth in it.
Of course, sometimes you’ll get a rebuke that’s wrong. Somebody will tell you “that idea will never sell” or “you shouldn’t do that novel in first person,” and your only response is to smile, say thanks, and ignore the dipstick. That’s okay. At least you got another perspective. But you gain an immense amount of wisdom when you allow other people you respect to look at your words.
So I want to suggest that handing around a bad first draft for people to read is EXACTLY the thing to be doing. Let others see what you’re writing and offer some direction. You may not agree with all of it, but the point is that you’re getting another set of eyes to review your work. I’ve seen thousands of pages of paper wasted on under-written book proposals. Sometimes these were good ideas, they just needed more work. But I rarely see an over-written book proposal — one the author simply over-designed, over-thought, and over-wrote. So my sense is that you probably need to spend more time on your project.
Having a critique group can help you move forward. Besides, having writing friends gives you somebody to share your success and failure with. When those rejections come in, they’ll pat you on the back and tell you that, yes, you’re a fine writer, you just need to stick with it. Maybe they’ll buy you a Guinness. (Another reason to like critique groups.)
By the way, if you want to really make this work, send the writings out one week and talk about them the next week. That keeps you from simply getting off-the-cuff reactions. And by all means ask people to WRITE their comments. It’s too easy to weasel out of a tough criticism when we’re all sitting around the living room, drinking tea and commenting on Daphne’s stupid prairie romance. (“Um…I don’t know…but since this is set in the 1830’s, maybe you shouldn’t have your heroine eaten by intergallactic space aliens.”) Instead, ask people to write their criticisms onto the page, then you can talk through them, before puling out (1) a kleenex to wipe your eyes, and (2) the number of a good suicide prevention counselor.
Look, don’t think about trying to make it perfect. Seeking perfection in writing is what freezes people and keeps them from writing (or even from participating). Look for progress, not perfection. You aren’t going to make it perfect. So try to make it “better than last week.”