My writing group partner and I are trading off partial drafts today. We're both around halfway through, so we're passing on the first part of our drafts while we work on the second.
This is sorta a stressful thing. I mean, it's the first time that anyone other than me sees this thing that I've been pouring hours, sometimes days, of effort into. Someone else will be leafing through a story that has alternately sparked my passion and left me frustratedly contemplating what must be a complete lack of talent, judging its form and content.
There's a very big part of me that hates this point in the process.
There's a bigger part of me that thinks that this is the best and most important thing I can do for my story.
I have been living in this story for a little over a month. I'll be here for another month or more, putting together the pieces.
I can't see it anymore.
It's like a fish in water. Water is the fish's day-to-day. It spends so much time in the water, surrounded by the water, that it doesn't even notice the water so much anymore.
Every draft needs critique--to be put under a microscope so that the writer can see how the little bits and pieces are working and figure out what parts are doing more harm than good.
But self-critique is pretty difficult.
Part of this, at least for me, is that my internal critic tends to hang out with that anxious, self-sabotaging part of my brain. Where a useful internal critic might say, "Y'know, this scene is dragging and doesn't really serve a plot purpose--let's toss it," mine says, "This is terrible, and there is no way to fix it; you should just stop before you embarrass yourself." One of those sees a problem and offers a possible solution. The other makes me want to crawl into my bed and never get out. It's sort of a crap shoot which critic I'll hear on any given day. I've gotten better at telling the difference between the two and at dismissing the second in favor of the first. Self-critique is still a difficult thing, though, and there's only so much that I, as the only person who knows the entire story can do.
Which brings me to the second issue with self-critique: I know the entire story. I have information that the reader doesn't. Which means that, if there's a gap in what's communicated to the reader, I probably won't see it.
It's the same reason that it's a bad idea for an actor to also direct a stage play. The actor is inside the play--they can't see all of the moving pieces from the audience's perspective. They can't tell, for instance, that all of the actors are bunched up on stage right for half of scene three or that they way they've placed on performer means that another can't be seen. It takes outside eyes to notice these sorts of issues.
I know the back story. I know why each character is saying the things they're saying and doing the things they're doing. I know how the world of the story works. And it's my job to make sure that all of that information gets communicated to the reader.
The best way to make sure that I've done that is to have someone else read it.
My writing group partner knows the bare-bones of the story and the characters. She doesn't know all of the ins and outs of the worlds or the details of the characters' backstories. If something is confusing to her or falls wrong, she'll notice, and she'll tell me.
This is never an easy thing. No writer ever really wants someone else to say that there's something wrong with the work that they've poured themselves into. And most friends of writers, the group of people likely to be asked to provide these initial reads, don't want to hurt their friend's feelings by saying that their pet project needs to go back to the drawing board.
In spite of the weird feelings that both parties may have about it, there is well and truly noting more useful to a writer than an honest and thorough critique. I may not want to hear that my opening chapter--my favorite chapter in the piece--is too long and ultimately unnecessary. But if I never hear that, then I never fix it. I send a slogging and unnecessary chapter out in my queries, and I get rejection after rejection.
Obviously, critique can go too far. A reader that sounds like my internal critic on the bad days, for example, is not terribly useful. Critic has to be honest, not devastating.
On the flip side, a critic that is all suns and roses isn't helpful, either. It's great that you loved the draft. But I know that the draft has problems, and "I loved it!," nice as it is to hear, doesn't help me fix them.
It's not too hard to make the difficult critiques easier to swallow. The sting of hearing that my favorite chapter needs to go is a little lessened by the statement that the environmental elements throughout the draft are spot on. This mix of "fix this" and "this is working" is, I've found, the most effective for getting me to go back through the draft and make the changes--even the ones that hurt a little.
Handing off a draft is a nerve-wracking process. When the feedback is good, though, there's nothing better for a story.