For a few years now I've been touting the merits of critique. My first critique experience in Dallas wasn't a great fit for me, but I was lucky enough to find the Lesser North Texas Writers—run by Benign Dictator, Carol Woods. Carol's been running her group for years, (Thursday nights at 7pm at B&N Park & Preston--you should go if you're in Dallas!), and it was here I truly learned the value of critique, not to mention I became part of a writing community that I cherish. Shame on me for waiting so long to ask Carol to join us here.
Lesser North Texas Writers' Mission Statement: To provide peer support, an information exchange, and informal self-education opportunities for published and non-yet-published writers of fiction and non-fiction.
WWW: What inspired you to form the Lesser North Texas Writers’ Critique Group?
CW: Actually, what I wanted to do was join a critique group so I put my name on an interest sheet at a local writing conference. Less than half of the signees showed up at the organization meeting and none of them wanted to be the leader, most had never written anything, some clearly thought a critique group would be a great place to "meet someone," and no one wanted to host the next meeting. So I took it on. The name came about because an opportunity for our information to be published in a directory of Texas writing groups.
WWW: How long has Lessers been in existence? After all these years, how do you stay motivated to keep the group going?
CW: Since October 1987. The group keeps itself going. New people bring their talent and stories; long-standing members start new stories. People disappear for a few years and then come back. It's a fluid group so from one Thursday to the next, I don't know what to expect. I always learn something, whether it's about writing, group dynamics, or the world around me. More than once, when members learn how old the group is, someone will comment that the group has lasted longer than his or her marriage (or marriages, in some cases).
WWW: How did you get the title “Benign Dictator?”
CW: I gave it to myself. I'd not met with any success in getting someone else to take on the leadership role, so I announced that if I were going to keep it, I'd be known as the Benign Dictator, and to watch out!
You give so much to the local Dallas writing community—can you share a success story or an instance where you noticed an exceptional growth in ability?
CW: Me. When I learned the difference between exposition and narration.
Manuscripts finished, polished, and sent out. Publication for some; I have a bookshelf dedicated to LNTW's authors. Writers who've had a difficult time grasping a concept such as point of view, finally getting it, then teaching it within the group. (We learn from each other.)
WWW: What’s your best memory of the group?
CW: The camaraderie (for the most part; some people thrive on divisiveness and LNTW has had its share of those).
WWW: I imagine over the years you’ve seen quite a few characters. Without naming names, what’s the most bizarre situation you encountered?
CW: The liars? The plagiarists? Writers who referred to the group as a therapy session and treated it as such? Thrown chairs? Thrown manuscripts? A pet tarantula carried in a shirt pocket? The writer who believed he'd been born in the caves of Mars? The pretty blonde who left the group to explore her sexuality? The writer who spoke like deep-country Texas yet wrote lyrical, erudite stories and lived in his pickup under a bridge in Plano?
WWW: Pet tarantula! I'm glad I missed that one. As an AWOL member of the Lessers, I know first hand how invaluable this group can be. What advice can you give others who are considering putting together a similar group?
CW: There's no one "right" way to develop or conduct a critique group. If you attend an existing group, and go home energized and eager to write more, that's a good group for you even if you received a lot more critique than praise. Conversely, if you go home in despair, that's not the group for you. If you can't find a group that satisfies your needs, grow your own. In the Lessers, each attendee, whether reading or not, is given an opportunity to critique; this is unusual for critique groups but I believe it's a fast-track learning curve opportunity (and remember, I'm the Benign Dictator).
WWW: (Readers, also see Carol's list of rules at the end). In addition to running Lessers, you are also a freelance editor. What type of work are you looking to take on and how can someone reach you to find out more about your services?
CW: My email is email@example.com. I prefer full-length men's fiction, but also work with other types of manuscripts. If I'm not right for the writer, I'll try to find an editor who is.
Thanks so much for stopping by, Carol. Readers, here's a list of rules Carol implemented after a few run-ins with troublemakers. This list might come in handy if you're thinking of starting your own group. And if you decide to join Lessers, tell them you heard about it here!
CRITIQUE GROUP RULES
1. Must play nice with others. No temper tantrums. No thrown chairs. No offensive language. No exceptions or excuses. You blow, you go. Permanently.
2. LNTW is a critique group. Period. It is not a discussion group; it is not a class; it is not a weekly therapy session.
3. A critique group critiques. If you do not know the difference between critique and criticism, find a dictionary.
4. When a writer is being critiqued, he/she does not respond, does not defend. (Remember, this is NOT a discussion group.)
5. A critique may suggest corrections or a re-write, but said corrections or re-writes are the original writer's job.
6. A critique focuses as much on what's right with a manuscript as on what still needs work.
7. If your turn to critique has passed, and you think of something else, either wait until all have had their turn and then ask to make a further comment, or write a note to the author.
8. If a writer provides copies, put your name on the first page, and mark up those copies. Most of the time, anything that can be written on the copy does NOT need to be brought to the attention of the group. (Incidentally, one of the most frequent complaints I get from writers is that they go to the expense of providing copies and when they get them back, many carry no marks at all.)
9. Not every member will love your story. Deal with that.
10. Whether you're reading or not, come prepared. That means bring a pen or pencil.
11. It is okay to pass if you don't have anything to say—just say, "I pass." This is a no-fault step; you don't have to have a reason, let alone give one.
12. It is bad form to re-read the same thing twice in a row unless it has been substantially re-written, and an insult to the group to bring it back a third time unless it is a complete revision.
13. If what is being read offends you or is something that you don't care to listen to, take a little walk, buy a book, whatever. Come back when that reader is finished.
14. Any time we have more than four (4) readers, expect critique time to be curtailed.
15. Not everyone will get to read every time. I try for a balance between newbies and ongoing stories, but 3-1/2 hours is only 3-1/2 hours no matter how you cut it.
16. Define for yourself what you expect to get out of the group, and what you expect to put into the group. Bring these two elements into balance.
17. Don't waste the group's time; don't waste your own; above all, don't waste mine.
Prepared and copyrighted by Carol Woods.
First copy free, 10 cents for first replacement copy,
25 cents for second replacement copy. No further replacements.