Writing Groups: From Pass the Prozac to Eureka!

We’ve been discussing the pros and cons of writing groups, so what better time to share a story about the best, and the worst, they have to offer?  Thus without further ado, I’d like to introduce writer Christi Craig, who knows a thing or two about the subject.  Including how to find useful nuggets in experiences that might otherwise make you wonder why you wanted to write in the first place, and whether it’s really too late to get that degree in accounting after all.

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I’m not new to writing groups, nor am I a seasoned participant – not yet. But, I’ve sat around the tables enough times to encounter the quintessential worst and best feedback moments. And, while “worst” and “best” imply “different,” what I heard during both experiences was almost exactly the same.

The Worst (Or “Pass the Prozac”)

It was the second time I met with this particular group of writers and my first time in the hot seat of critique. My work-in-progress told the story of a quirky young woman – with an overbearing mother – on a path of self-discovery. I set the first twenty pages of my manuscript in front of me and opened a notebook to a clean sheet of paper. With pen poised and a coffee cup half-full (and still hot), I grinned from ear to ear, enthusiastic. Even giddy. I’d been itching to move forward with this manuscript and couldn’t wait to share the work with others and gather some guidance.

“Nice opening,” one person said. I nodded in silent thanks.

“I want to know where she got all that money from,” said another. I scribbled notes.

A different writer spoke up. “Your protagonist hides behind trees and peers into windows.”

I nodded.

“And her relationship with her mother…what’s wrong with her?” She asked. “She seems to have serious psychological problems.” The others agreed and a discussion ensued about possible reasons why my protagonist was so depressed and paralyzed by fear. My jaw dropped. They’d read only a small piece of the story, and the tone was already lost -- it was supposed to be funny, at least a little. The longer the critique wore on (a grueling hour and fifteen minutes), the more I worried that years of therapy and rewrites could not save my main character – or my story. I left that critique deflated.

The Best (Or “The Transcendental Moment”)

One year and a different work-in-progress later, I bounded the steps of an old convent to meet with a new group of writers. We were three weeks into our sessions together, and already I had learned much. This time I shared a story about a woman who struggles to regain her footing in life, after losing her mother in a tragic accident. The critique started out on a high note: what worked, what could be expanded, questions I might consider. Then, a woman, who fit my vision of the target audience for this novel, spoke on the main character. “She’s starting to bug me. She’s been dragging on for three chapters now. Give her some anti-depressants already.”

Those three words, “serious psychological problems” came back to haunt me. My heart sank. This protagonist had good reason to be depressed, but she stalled the story anyway. Then, I had a spiritual awakening: a hero isn’t a hero unless she takes action. With that, an ugly and recurring theme stuck out in my writing -- passive protagonists. In two separate novels, I’d created characters who sat around and waited for something to push them forward. While some characters do loiter in real life, nobody likes to read about that for too long. They’ll close the book. They’ll pick up another one with more action. Suddenly, my worst critique became my best critique.

I attribute my change in perspective to two things: a level of trust and a better sense of myself as a writer. In the first group, I barely had time to memorize names of the people around me before we dove into a serious critique of my work. Also, I was new to writing; I took their feedback personally. I couldn’t see past their words to the crux of the problem. With the second group, though, I had spent a few weeks at the table, experienced a successful critique of a short story, and seen how they offered encouraging, as well as suggestive, comments.  And, I was a different writer. I understood more about how to evaluate and incorporate feedback. I was more confident and more willing to listen.

I don’t advocate for soft critiques to save a writer’s pride. But, I will suggest spending time with peers in a writing group - getting to know them, their style, and their history – before diving into a major critique. And yes, sometimes a “worst” is just that – bad feedback. But other times, even good feedback sounds harsh. Either way, the experience is more telling when studied from a distance.

What about you? Have you ever found gold in what would otherwise be a "pass the Prozac" writers group moment?

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You can find more spot-on writing advice from Christi on her fabluous blog, Writing Under Pressure. You can also follow her on Twitter, and on her  Facebook page.