I like to think that I ask people to read my manuscript because I want to make it better. Of course, the part of me that loves the book, wants them to love it too and to just say, “oh, but it’s perfect the way it is”. That’s the part you have to let go of because your manuscript is not perfect. It is not perfect and you want to make it better. You have to remind yourself of that. If you’re going into a plastic surgeon’s office and hoping he’s going to tell you that “no, everything is flawless” then you’re going to be hurt when he ends up drawing little marks all over you and telling you about the six surgeries he sees in your future. The reality is that all people have flaws (I like that about them and try to write them that way) and so do all books. So, the first thing you have to do to make receiving a critique easier, is to remind yourself that it’s not about hearing how great the book is but it’s about making the book better.
After I thought I had finished my last novel, A Few Kinds of Wrong, I went to a retreat with some good friends, who happen to be writers as well. We decided to do some mini-critiques (because that’s how we roll) and I read two parts of my manuscript which I thought were pretty darn good. And then those sections of the MS (not I) got critiqued. Hard. We actually argued and it got to the point that one friend was trying to stop it all because she thought I needed a break. The next morning I had figured out that I needed to scrap the whole book and rewrite it all. A couple of them kindly told me that wasn’t necessary and that I just had to make some key changes and, more importantly, had to figure out why my main character was so messed up. Didn’t matter if that came out in the book or not but I had to know. And so I went through it again and found her motivation and even that of other characters and it made it a soooo much better book. It was a hard lesson to learn but a good one. They wanted to make the book better and their advice did exactly that, once I got past how bad that critique felt. My problem wasn’t what they said, it was the fact that I went into the critique thinking they would tell me how great my pieces were, and they did that too, but now I always receive critiques trying to remember it’s about making the book better.
The other part of making a critique not hurt so much is separating from your book. It is not you. When there are flaws in the work, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a terrible writer or that there is no hope. Everything can be fixed (at least up until it goes to print) and everything should be fixed. I know it came from you and you chose that word over the other one and you made the character too cookie-cutter or too unrealistic but if you really want to make your work better, you have to separate yourself. When someone you trust, who is kind and honest, looks at your work with a critical eye and tells you where things need to be improved, they are not telling you that you are awful. They are telling you that this particular part of this particular work is not as good as it possibly could be or that they question something about it.
Yes, it may sting a bit, no matter how much you separate from it. My husband is a mechanic and any day where the car he fixed the week before comes back in with a similar problem is a bad day. But he deals in the wonderful world of fixed and not fixed and you, if you’re a writer, live in a subjective world. And you better get used to it because this world is one where your character’s name will make a certain number of your readers angry just because their mean third grade teacher, or rotten boyfriend, or nasty cousin has that name. Your book will never please everyone. NEVER. Put that out of your mind and just make it the best book you can make. All you can do, is take the advice your trusted readers give you and make the best story you can.
And thank them. Trusted readers are so important.
Then take their critiques, haul out the manuscript again, pour yourself some wine to take the sting away a bit, or eat some chocolates or whatever soothes your hurts, and start making it better.