I love my manuscript group, even when it hurts

September 22, 2013

Tags: manuscript group, critique, revision

I love my manuscript group. It has been going for over a decade. I am deeply grateful for the talent and insight of the members and the attention they pay to my work. Still, the process isn’t always smooth or easy.

Like last week. Because of a constellation of illness and travel, there were only three of us there, out of the usual seven. My 25 pages were up for discussion first. As usual, I read a paragraph aloud to begin the conversation, and then sat back to listen as my two colleagues – and good friends – began talking about what was working well in the excerpt, about 200 pages into the first draft of my fourth novel manuscript. When they started discussion of what was not working, what they suggested I consider in revision, it became uncomfortable, because I could not understand what they were saying.

You know that thing that can happen in critique groups – in any group, really – where individuals who don’t necessarily agree with each other can take on a unified position and it feels like they’re ganging up? Well, that was my feeling, except that I know these writers well, and they don’t gang up on people. Their unity was all the more confusing to me, because the content of their comments disagreed with each other – were the opposite of each other, in fact. My confusion must’ve showed on my face, because the discussion halted in concern. “What’s wrong, Elli?” “Are you okay?” “Is this making sense to you?”

No. It made no sense to me. And the more they tried to explain, the less sense it made. I went home, read their written comments, and felt no better. I admit it, I felt pretty discouraged. I had the kind of night where you lie awake and wonder if the manuscript you’ve already spent two years writing is a waste, if it totally sucks and will never go anywhere good.

I’ve never understood why some of my clearest epiphanies about my characters come when my body is working hard, freeing my brain in some way. But the next morning on the treadmill, I understood what my manuscript group friends were saying. No, they didn’t do a good job of pinpointing the problem, but they helped me accept that there was a problem. On that treadmill in the midst of a dozen other treadmills at the Holyoke Y, I saw what wasn’t working. And why. I understood what was missing in my main character’s motivation. Better yet, I knew how to begin reimagining the problematic area to fix the problem.

Writing groups are amazing organisms. They are imperfect and sometimes clumsy. But even when the feedback is limited, even when it’s painful or initially incomprehensible, the fact that other writers, writers who care about each other, are reading and thinking about your work…. Well, that’s priceless.