And worse: I was not aware of this when I walked into my workshop. My classmates made sure I was aware when I walked out, though. (Not in a malicious way-- that's their job!)
One of the most helpful comments I received, though I didn't know it at the time, was pretty simple. My classmate had written a list of all the elements at work in the story. (Cancer! Affairs! Car accidents! Oh my!) He stripped the story down to its bare bones and read it back to me. And I laughed. How had I not known what my story was about, and how melodramatic and ridiculous it was? How had I not seen it before?
But of course, that's what happens after you write something: you lose sight of what it is. And before you can possibly understand any other critiques, you need someone to show you what it is that you made. What you need, if you're anything like me, is a Strictly Objective Critique Partner, or a SOCP.
The SOCP doesn't give you opinions about your story and how it could be improved. He or she doesn't even point out weak areas. All he or she does is tell you what you have. The SOCP just finishes these sentences:
"The main conflict of your story is..."
"A basic summary of your story is..."
"At its core, your story is really about..."
"The major characters of your story are..."
If at any point your trusted SOCP cannot finish those sentences, or has trouble finishing them, or gets them wrong, or gets confused, you know where the problem areas in your story are. And if what your SOCP says is correct but sounds ridiculous or nonsensical to you, you know that you need to rearrange a few things. But your defensive writer brain will be much less likely to get pissed at the SOCP or disregard what she says, because the SOCP hasn't really given you an opinion. (Obviously true objectivity is nearly impossible, but this is close.)
After you've gone through what's already there, you can have your SOCP share his or her questions with you, as in:
"The questions I had at the beginning of the story are..."
"The questions that were still unanswered at the end of the story are..."
This will help you figure out what you set the reader up to be interested in at the beginning, and whether you abandoned any of those things by the end. In a rough draft of one of my manuscripts I introduced a character named James. James was present for a few scenes but basically fell out of the story in the middle when I could no longer find a use for him. My critique partner said, "hey, what's going to happen with James? I can't wait for him to come back!" And I said, "Er..."
Sometimes we spend a lot of time on things that don't end up being relevant. And we might even love those things, the way I loved James. But the place for them is in the rough draft and the rough draft alone. Your SOCP, by merely being curious, can help you figure out what those things are. He or she can also help you figure out whether your ending is satisfying or not, and why. And if you wanted to leave a few things open-ended, you can at least make sure that you know what's open-ended.
Even if you are not particularly defensive about critique, the SOCP can be handy to have around, especially if you are getting conflicting advice from multiple sources. One beta reader might love X character, and another beta reader thinks X character is useless-- so what do you do? Ask your SOCP to tell you about X character-- who he is, and what role he plays in your story. Maybe it will help you figure out whether X character belongs there or not. By offering you no opinions, your SOCP can help you to see what you want to do with your story, or how you want to fix things, rather than confusing you with votes, as if writing is a democracy.
Basically, the job of the SOCP is to help you see what you are no longer able to see after finishing. If you're finding that you either aren't getting a lot out of your beta readers, or their critiques are overwhelming and possibly contradictory, or that you just can't find real beta readers and the only person who will read your stuff is your mother, the SOCP guidelines could be helpful to you.
How about you? Do you have special kinds of critique partners, or types of critique you find most helpful?