I've blogged before about how to give feedback, and how you decide when it's time to stop revising. I've even suggested 16 Questions to ask a critique and a critiquer. But how do you decide when to share your draft? Some show their partner every day's work: the writerly equivalent of the cinema's dailies. Some don't show a soul their first or even their tenth draft. Most of us are somewhere in between, but the what and when and who are still worth thinking about:.
Are you thinking of sharing a crazy first draft? The plus is that you might get lots of pointers towards better and worse ways to develop it, including things you might never have thought of on your own. Early drafts are malleable, and not just in words and the shapes of things; the very idea and form of it is malleable. And if the project is fundamentally not working, or you realise that the amount of work it needs is more than your level of interest will sustain, then you haven't spent forever on it.
You're dying to ask, "Does this speak to you? Is it worth pursuing?", of course. But at these early stages you're still inside the bubble which is this story-world. The whole point of the crazy-first-draft is that you let go of self-consciousness, you don't start judging things yet, and instead follow your instincts for story and imagination. Is it time, yet, to step outside the bubble and see it from the outside? Maybe not: it can be very difficult to get back inside.
Have you got some of the book reasonably as you'd like it, but lots isn't written at all yet? If you're in the Thirty-Thousand Doldrums, then a blast of feedback can fill your sails again. And if there's stuff that isn't written, then it's no disaster if feedback prompts you to change your plans for it. But feeders-back can't read what's still in your head, not on the page. Their response can't have that context, and their judgements may threaten your still-insecure, feeling-your-way sense of what this project is.
Have you left paragraphing, grammar, punctuation and those pesky spellings till later? I know that it seems like a waste of time to polish things are going to be cut or re-written, but creative work is inherently wasteful, and if the grammar, syntax or spelling are wayward enough, then the effect of the piece will be blunted or blocked altogether. What's more, if the MS is full of trivial slips it does encourage commenters to stay at typo-level, when what you want to know is whether the tension increases properly or your MC is scary enough. So do give it a quick spit and polish before attaching it to an email.
Have you left it till you're on the third draft? Or the tenth? That early, malleable stuff has firmed up: it's become a more specific, boundaried project, and you've committed yourself to that version of it. The advantages of this are obvious: you know now what this project is trying to be and the story and plot are pretty fully developed and settled. You can weigh the usefulness of comments and ideas from that security, and change things within a solid machine that you know actually works.
But if a commenter's feedback questions the whole nature of the project, then it's a bit like asking someone to help train and feed your Dalmatian to win at Crufts, only for them to say that your pet would be cleverer, more beautiful and much more likely to win a medal if it was a Siamese Blue. But Pongo is never going to excel at tree-climbing and maiowing. In that sense, it's too late. And even if you do realise that the commenter is right - that the project needs to be set about, from scratch, in a completely different way - are you able to do it? Any creative piece which is solidly embodied in words comes to seem like an independent entity: it's very difficult to imagine beyond the firm form and substance of it.
How often are you sharing it? It can be a huge help that your writers' circle know what came before and, arguably, with a book-length project it can be essential, if you want to talk about larger issues of story and structure. But there comes a point where they know it too well: where they, like you, can't see beyond the boundaries of what it is at the moment. I think there's also a danger with this, as with long-term workshopping of a single project, of writing by committee: of the group, not you, making all the decisions. It's easy to feel that dealing with each thing they say will make the book work, as it will if you do all the corrections teacher tells you to. Whereas it's actually how well everything's integrated to make one, whole, coherent arch from beginning to end, which will make the book work.
How much are you sharing?
This is where the poets and short-short story writers have it so much easier. Someone has to love you very much - or need the money - to read your book-length project in manuscript, and a long short story is also quite a commitment. And though detailed feedback takes time on anything, on a book-length project your reader probably has to choose between a small chunk of close-up attention, and broader (less helpful?) comments on the overall effect. Which do you want at this stage? Which is your potential more likely to do?
And parts-of-books are an odd thing. We're wired to read a chunk of writing as a complete unit, even if we know it isn't. We know this is a slice out of the novel but the brain is bothered by these trailing threads. A lot of comments will be irrelevant, too: asking this section to contain stuff which is held perfectly well elsewhere. That may not matter (accept, adapt, ignore), but it may be confusing or confidence-denting to get feedback which really doesn't fit with what you - but not the commenter - know of the rest. Either way, I'd suggest you add in a rough synopsis, just to help the reader to a wider sense of the novel this chunk has been broken off.
Who are you sharing it with? It's very touching that your dad, who hasn't read a book for twenty-five years, wants to read your novel. It might be the affirmation you need, and you might want to take up his offer precisely because he's doing it from sheer love. Similarly, someone who never reads this genre might provide a brilliant light on some of your defaults which need challenging. Or they might just complain that your SF/F has too many spaceships, or your Romance too much about boy meeting girl. Are they right anyway, or just wired wrong for the genre? And you should feel free to exclude non-writers if you want. There lots of things that anyone can say about a book which are entirely correct, but entirely unhelpful to the writer trying to work out how to improve the book, and in that I'd include much that publishing professionals might say among themselves.
So it's perfectly fair to be ruthless about who reads your work: all opinions are not equal, in this, and it's you who gets to decide what you want and who might supply it. It helps to have faith in what style of feedback suits you, and not to be ashamed of steering clear of critiquers who are bullies in the name of "honesty" or bland in the name of "supportiveness".
In other words, who may be more important than when. Timing matters, but as I hope you've realised, there are pros and cons to sharing work at any stage. Most of us will find we have favourite times, but it's not always possible, and besides, different projects often need different processes. If you develop a feel for what the effect of sharing at each stage might be, then you can hope to exploit the differences, and make the most of the help you're offered.