I've been getting my writing formally critiqued for twenty-some years. But I still remember the very first time: I was in a writing class, and I had to read aloud a personal essay I'd written as part of an assignment. As I sat there and read, my voice shook uncontrollably and I sweat right through my shirt. And even though all of that mortified me, it was nothing compared to the anguish I felt upon hearing my classmates' opinions on my work.
And they were gentle. Like, down-of-a-baby-duckling gentle.
I've had to keep right-on shaking and sweating these twenty-some years, of course, because the hard, cold truth about becoming a writer is that we all need regular feedback on our work. Depending on where we are in our career, it might be from a teacher or friend or it might be from a paid professional. But as sure as you're born, it's still going to be happening when you make it on the Best-Seller List. Because readers, editors, agents, critics, and even your grandmas and grandpas are going to assess and review your books during the course of a long career. So we'd all better get used to a little constructive criticism. Scratch that--a lot of criticism.
Unfortunately, the inevitability of all this feedback doesn't make it any easier to swallow. It's no secret that it feels terrible. It takes forever. (Seriously, why does it take forever?) It can even be confusing and contradictory. So to get through the long, iterative slog of writing, getting feedback, and revising your book, you're going to need to have "grit," as my friend Nicole says.
And who doesn't want to be described as having grit?
Many of us grew up believing in the stereotype of the solitary artist. We have a vision of her--struggling in front of a typewriter, alone in a room--and in our imaginations she eventually finds success and receives sole credit for the genius of her book, painting, or song.
But that's not how this works. That's not how any of this works, and it's time we stopped pretending that it is.
All creative work involves collaboration. It doesn't matter how famous or rich you are for it. I once heard the historical romance writer Eloisa James say on a panel how a group of fellow writers had given her feedback on an idea over lunch. And if the esteemed Eloisa James is still vetting ideas with her peers, the rest of us had better settle in for a lifetime of criticism and revision, type and delete, trial and error.
So take a class! Go on a writers' retreat! Find another writer in your genre and become their critique partner! And if you can afford it, hire a developmental editor. Enter contests, pitch to agents at pitching events (just to hear what they have to say), and attend conferences. Practice detaching your feelings from feedback so that you're better able to judge what makes a comment valuable and what makes one you can set aside. All these things will help you take your unrefined nugget of writing and begin chipping or molding it into something that people are drawn to--and can't bear to turn away from.
Bottom line: find a diverse set of people who will give you different, well-informed perspectives on your work and who can be available and thoughtful and clear. Heck, I once asked a stranger I met at a cocktail party to be my "beta reader," and she turned out to be a valuable early sounding board for my first draft.
And it's not all bad, this critiquing process. After all, if you don't get any feedback, how will you find out which parts of your book made your coworker snort milk through her nose? Which delightful turn-of-phrase made your classmates feel like they were really there, standing right next to your protagonist in a tense, climactic scene? It's through criticism that we learn what makes people think, laugh, gasp, fall in love, and pull their covers up a little tighter to their chin.
And that's part of what we're in this writing gig for, right?