But that's the thing. You're writing for readers, and readers are going to have opinions. So those idiots might know more than you - I know, crazy, right?
But while I'm telling you that, yes, you do have to listen to the idea that maybe your main character should fall in love in chapter 15 instead of chapter 2, there are also some steps you can take to help you through those nail-biting critiques.
1. Make sure your story is ready for critiquing. This doesn't mean you need a perfect, polished manuscript unless you're being officially critiqued by an editor or agent (more on this below). But you should have a solid selection to share. Which means you spell checked it; you confirmed action, descriptions and references are consistent; you double-check your word choices. The more self-editing you can do, the less time you'll spend hearing about errors you already know are present and the more time you can spend talking about something you might not have realized about your writing.
2. Try to come with a focus. Maybe you feel the dialogue is lacking in something, or you want to introduce a mannerism for your character but don't know what it should be. Use the critique as an opportunity to ask your readers for help with something specific and find stimulation in the solutions that crop up.
3. If you agree to share your writing so readers can review it prior to a critique group, be sure to share it within the deadline you set. Your readers are taking time out of their busy schedules to help you out. Respect that, and make sure you can capitalize on their willingness to read your manuscript by providing them with the longest possible window to read and respond to it.
4. Get that armor out. I remember one of the first critique groups I joined as a newby fiction writer. I sat in a room with a ridiculously large group of writers and read the short story I had meticulously put together. I was proud of it. By the end of the critique, I was completely deflated, disheartened, and looking to escape as quickly as possible. When I got home and reviewed what they said, I realized it was dead-on right. I returned for the next monthly meeting and two of the more seasoned members approached me, saying they were glad I came back because they thought they would never see me again. I had the advantage of experience in receiving criticism. After a stint as a news reporter, I was left with two skills: I can find the lead in any story, and I can receive criticism of my writing without taking it personally. This is a talent you just have to experience to perfect. But understand when someone suggests your character is boring, they're not calling you boring.
5. Take it or leave it. I talked about this a lot during my recent fiction class. When you're getting critiqued you should listen openly, take in all ideas because you never know which one will resonate with your characters. But at the end of the day, you go home and consider the suggestions. Then you decide what to do. After all, it's your story.
Now, as for those official critiques: A lot of workshops and conferences provide opportunities to have your manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent. Beginning writers often ask me if I think this is something they should do. In a nutshell: yes. You should take the opportunity for an official critique of your story by someone who works in the industry - it's an indispensable experience, which is why so many conferences offer it. Remember, though, that you're often paying extra for this experience so make sure you're sharing your best work that's ready to be read by an expert. Also remember this is still just one person's opinion. We've all heard of the famous books that were rejected over and over by editors before one person would say yes. A single poor review isn't the end of your hopes and dreams. It's an opportunity to dream a little more.
Some great places in Maine and beyond to find workshops where you can have your manuscript critiqued:
The Society of Children's Books Writers & Illustrators
Maine Publishers & Writers Alliance
Agent Query conferences listings
Grub Street Boston
What conferences or workshops have you attended that you would recommend?