Thin-skinned need not attend

Authors: A close-knit group of women meets twice a month in Columbia to offer one another no-nonsense support on writing.

November 11, 1999|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF

The authors who make up the Columbia Writers Workshop want you to know one thing. They are serious about their craft. Therefore, a few rules are in order.

First, to be a part of the group, which gathers twice a month at the home of award-winning romance writer Ruth Glick, you have to be intensely committed to writing, to getting better, to helping others get published.

Next, you have to be female. Men tend to mess up the dynamic of the group, and real work just doesn't get done when they're around.

Third, you have to be able to listen to another writer read her work aloud. No hard copies are printed and handed out so you can follow along.

Last, you have to have the goods -- and the guts -- to stick it out in Glick's cozy Columbia living room. It's a tough, exacting crowd that values talent, smarts and determination above all else.

Writers bring whole chapters of their works in progress -- short stories, novels, magazine articles, cookbooks, plot lines, query letters or book proposals -- to each group meeting and bare their souls at the altar of Honest and Constructive Criticism.

It's like sitting before a panel of sharp-witted editors who're also your peers. And if you think you're not ready, you're probably right.

"I've been in lots of other critiquing groups over the years with a lot of writers who have been published," says Glick, who has written or co-written 19 romantic suspense novels under the pseudo- nym Rebecca York. "They'd probably come out of this group cut and bleeding. But people don't get more criticism than they can handle."

Best-selling cookbook author Nancy Baggett says the writers' group can be "pretty honest" and sometimes brutal. "If you don't have a certain level of confidence to begin with, you can really get eaten alive. This group is not for people who want to write really esoteric poetry or something," she says.

Nearly 25 years old, the Columbia Writers Workshop evolved from a creative writing course at Howard Community College. Glick is the group's undisputed head, and today most of the core group of eight or nine women are published writers.

Each meeting (or "class," as Glick likes to call it) has the air of a graduate-level writing seminar. After cups of tea and a bit of schmoozing, members sink into sofas and get down to the business of lending their ears to the reading.

The setting might be informal, but the mood is serious, professional and intense. Often, the only audible sound besides the voice of the reader comes from the crickets camped beyond Glick's front door.

Elkridge resident Randi Du- Fresne, a U.S. government attorney who writes Harlequin Superromance novels under the name Elizabeth Ashtree, reads excerpts from her latest work in progress, a historical novel based in England. Her chapters involve labyrinthine character and plot lines, and the other writers listen with trained ears for words, phrases or ideas that don't ring true.

" She didn't come to her senses again until she crossed through the portal and into the astounding place they'd come to see. The scent of knowledge wafted over her as she passed through a corridor and into the main portion of the wondrous building. Then her breath caught in her lungs as she gazed in awe at the sight before her. Thousands upon thousands of books stood in row upon row of elegantly curved shelves that arched through the gracefully circular room. Above there were more books lining more curved shelves on upper levels so that tomes rose from the floor all the way to the base of the enormous lighted dome. Sunshine streamed in through the many huge windows surrounding the rounded heights. "

After finishing her chapter, DuFresne lowers the pages to her lap and waits for the group's response.

"Make those sentences shorter," Baggett offers after the reading. "A couple fewer words never hurt anything."

"Also, there's a word in there that you've used a little too much," adds Baltimore writer and publicist Binnie Syril Braunstein, who suggests using the computer's search program for the offending term. "It's a wonderful thing, to be able to search on the computer for overused words. Tolstoy could write `War and Peace,' but he couldn't search for his repeats."

No topic is off-limits within the group. The writers offer recommendations on everything from balancing narrative and dialogue to character development. No detail is too niggling, no topic too broad to escape the group's antennae.

Terry Hurt, working on an horror novel, has another question about DuFresne's excerpt.

"OK, tell me again why you're making such a big deal out of this character being in the library." Hurt says. "I also think there's too much description of the library itself before you get to the action."

"Yeah, you should take some of that out," Baggett suggests, as DuFresne scrawls the suggestions in the paper's margins. "Hurry up and get to the dialogue more quickly."

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