Or: I Am a Mass of Photosynthetic Cells.
If you're anything like me when I first started out, showing your junk to anyone is like willingly walking into a nightmare. I felt like I did when I sat down in my first lecture hall in college, absolutely sure I'd gotten in by mistake and either my name wouldn't be on the roll, or worse, my name the prof would call my name and yell "Impostor! Impostor!" and the wrath of all things holy and unholy would rain down on me and the hapless nerd sitting to my right.
Then, getting back your junk would be akin to the nightmare realized, eh? Red scratches – no, gouges! – across whole f*cking paragraphs, literally tearing the very soul of your creativity to shreds.
Not-so-Quick fix for this feeling:
If you have truly never critiqued/been critiqued before, and if you're like me (pretending to be braver than you are) online forums and writers' groups allow and often encourage you to observe before participating. Take advantage of this to learn how to take criticism, what constitutes valuable criticism, and how to give criticism.
Some tips on receiving the C word:
· It does NOT define you. In fact, it has pitifully little to do with you as a person. Especially on online forums, no one knows or cares what you look like or whether you're the CEO of some Forbes 500 company or a high school student. The criticism is about your message. One more time: the remarks are about yo' message! No one is saying you're a bad person. You won't find notes saying "I think you're ugly" or "I really like that floral print blouse; I wish you'd wear it more often". That second note is a sign that you should probably call the popo.
· Consider the source. Just like you probably won't take medical advice from a website that touts chocolate as the panacea to all communicable diseases (if only, right?), the same wariness can be applied to criticism. Does the dude who made the comments regularly contribute to the forum? Check out his critiques on other pieces. Were the pieces stronger for having implemented his suggested changes? Conversely, does he always have something to say but his comments are off topic, unnecessarily harsh, or simply written to make the writer feel bad?
Consider the source's background to the extent of how it affects your current story. For example, a person who regularly reads or has published stories and books in the genre of your piece may have comments contrary to what others (who don't or haven't) are saying.
· In a writers' group, you have the advantage of seeing people face to face. Usually this means people will exercise tact, soften their remarks. Still, hearing something is off with your junk can still sting. Again, remember that the comments are about your message, not about you, though comments may often start with "You're using that word wrong" or "You're storyline is so old, I saw it on a cave painting". Think of the "You" in those sentences as simply a word to differentiate you, the mass of cells named Hilda, sitting between the mass of cells named Tim and the mass of cells named Cathy. That "You" does not mean you, Hilda, neurosurgeon and mother of 2.5 children, dreaming of becoming the greatest writer of racehorse love stories of the twenty-third century. Here's a mantra to help overcome reservations about criticism: "I am a mass of photosynthetic cells. Criticism is like sunlight. It may burn sometimes but it will help me grow."
· Lastly, give the comments themselves fair consideration. You can usually trust a comment or critique from a proven, reliable source or beta reader to help make your piece stronger – that's what the critique process is all about, after all: making the piece stronger, making your message clearer. But trust yourself too. The source or beta reader may not have read all 310k words of your space opera, and the comment may not apply to the grander story arc in your head. Or, you may be experimenting with a new form or style or whatever. And even if 999 out of 1000 beta readers say the exact same thing, you may want to dig your heels in and refuse. Cool. It's your story, your choice (though if 999 out of 1000 people are saying the same thing, chances are your aim is missing your mark). If you believe, beyond any logical way of measuring doubt, that what you've written is exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, then hold your ground.