Skip to content

The unsuitability of nonfiction writers compared to reel sirius novelists

First be sure to limit your group to six or seven members, so each participant can be assured plenty of opportunities to read. Look for serious writers with lots of material to submit. Make that serious novelists, because short story or nonfiction authors won’t be suited to this type of group, no matter how kind or clever they are.

So says Marie Lamba in “Plotting a Novel Group” in the February issue of Writer’s Digest. Lamba is the author of the young adult novel What I Meant… which as of this post has several respectable blurbs, nearly 200 holdings in WorldCat, 8 glowing reviews on Amazon, and 20 holdings in LibraryThing, where it has an average rating of 3 stars (based on two reviews).

Lamba points out that most writers’ groups “are set up for short submissions” and that “It could take more than two years [for a full-length manuscript] to be critiqued from start to finish.”

We’ve been dealing with that issue in the critique group I formed locally, and this is a valid point. It’s difficult to workshop long manuscripts one chapter at a time. Months down the road I can’t remember characters from the first chapters; I lose all sense of continuity and can’t really grasp the arc of the work. I wouldn’t read a novel that way, and it’s excruciatingly difficult and not terribly helpful to review it that way, as well.

Lamba’s group came up with rules, many of which are sensible and which we already follow. Don’t let the group get too large. Members must critique all submissions. Limit the group to fiction and fictionalized memoir — WAIT! When I read that, my bones all turned to jelly, to paraphrase her protagonist. What the hell’s wrong with workshopping long nonfiction?

So I wrote Lamba to ask her. She quickly sent me a kind reply which I won’t repeat here because it was personal correspondence, but she didn’t clarify her point.

Frankly, if I had a chance to workshop with the likes of Susan Orlean, Fenton Johnson, Mary Karr, Ruth Reichl, Jon Krakauer, Clarence Major or His-Royal-Nonfiction-Highness-Who-Hath-Ascended Truman Capote Himself, I wouldn’t get too fussy about the fact-based nature of their writing, particularly if they helped me through the finer points of understanding the narrative power of lines such as “JASON IS ASKING ME OUT!!!!!” and “ohmygod, does this mean HE MIGHT KISS ME SOON????”

Don’t get me wrong; it’s great that Lamba got her book published and that the workshop helped her reach her goal (and despite my pokes, I’m sure the language in her book is OMG, like, SOOO appropriate for her audience). Perhaps she has experience with workshopping long nonfiction that we should heed. And frankly, if I could form a writers’ group strictly for creative nonfiction, I’d be tempted to go that route.

But after re-reading Lamba’s article, I felt oddly protective of our slightly messy writing group and its struggles and explorations with form and length and genre. I sometimes think I might write fiction (though I breathe deeply and then the feeling goes away), and where would I be if I were in a nonfiction-only group?

As I said to one of our members last week, it’s our workshop and we’re grownups: we can design it any way we want to. What did we ultimately decide last night, over cookies and wine (Lamba overlooked the rule, “Thou shalt always have nibblies”)? We came up with a hybrid form. We’ll workshop 150 pages a month, mostly two 75-word chunks of longer manuscripts, but sometimes a mix of long and short, and as far as genres go, “whatevah.” Will it work? Time will tell — and so shall I.

Posted on this day, other years: