So, you've finished your first draft, eh? Ready to send it to agents, you think? Because it's free of grammatical errors? Eh? Should I write this entire post in questions? No?
Fine. But one more question...
What is the next step after you've written a whole, entire book?
If you haven't already, find some critique partners. Seriously. And in fact, if this is the point you're at, you should go to Natalie Whipple's excellent blog, where she's organizing a sort of critique partner classifieds. Hurry, though, because she's only accepting applicants through Saturday!
Now, I've heard many people balk at the idea of finding critique partners online. I get that. There is a certain creep-factor to it. How do you know who you're really talking to? Can you trust someone else to read your work without pirating it? Leaking it? Laughing at it??
Slow down, champ. You can.
First off, I would start by checking out other people who are reading and commenting on the same blogs as you. Read comments. See if something they say resonates with you, if they take the words out of you mouth, or seem like a cool person. Most people checking out writing blogs have their own blog, and you can usually click on over and check them out. This is how I found my first crit buddy. My second crit buddy found me the same way.
If you find someone who seems like they might be on the same page as you, or in the same stage of writing as you, speak up! Leave a comment on their blog. Contact them via email. You don't have to send a sample of your work, and in fact, I wouldn't. Get to know them. See if it would be a good fit. You should be able to tell after a conversation. If not, you still have a new writerly friend, and those are important, too.
If you both agree to try critiquing, send a sample of your writing and a summary of your plot. This is important, to make sure you feel a connection with their book. You don't have to fall completely, head-over-heels in love with the sample, but if all you think is, "Meh." then you probably won't be able to give them the kind of feedback they need. At this point, if things don't work out and one of you wants to back out, don't take it personally. There's lots of different genres for a reason. Not everyone likes to read the same things.
So, if things work out and you have a new, shiny crit buddy, what should you look for in a critique? That can vary, depending on what kind of critique you're looking for, but I'll share what I look for. I feel it's possible to get a tough critique that doesn't leave you feeling terrible about yourself.
In the first crit I got, my crit buddy actually hated my main character by the end of the chapter! She told me as much, but then she gave me very specific reasons and pointed out that it wasn't so much the character as it was her reactions to certain things. In my quest to make her seem flawed, I went a tad overboard, to say the least, and it didn't translate well. My crit partner didn't tell me what to change. She just showed me what wasn't working and trusted that I would know what to do about it. It was hard to swallow. I liked the character. I still like her. But seeing someone else's perspective on it was eye-opening, and now the character is better for it.
Also important is that they point out what does work. We all like to hear that the sentence we love to read over and over is as awesome as we thought, right? Or that certain character traits, subplots, plot twists, etc., are smashing? Crit buddies don't just have to be critical. They can ego boost, too.
I mentioned that my crit buddies point out what isn't working and trust me to know how to fix it. This is big. If you get a crit partner who tells you exactly how you should change your story and has a tantrum if you don't do it their way, run.
On the other hand, take their suggestions seriously. They like your story, but they didn't birth it, so they're able to give you a more objective point of view. And they can read it with fresh eyes, as someone who doesn't have the rest of the plot stuffed in their brain. If your crit partners are invested in your story, their feedback will be for the good of your story.
So, go! Find some critique partners! Your first draft will thank you.