Sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn’t it? A couple of years ago, I started an off-shoot of my main writers group, SWAG Writers, for critiquing fiction. We began with six people, and after the first meeting we ended up with three regulars. One person was accepted into a graduate program and moved. One indicated she really had nothing prepared to critique, and the third didn’t take well having her grammar and punctuation corrected. But they were all writers of fiction.
The three of us stumbled on for a while, but it wasn’t working well, so we disbanded. Two of us continued to exchange our work online, but we became so accustomed to each others’ work, we realized we couldn’t give it that “other eyes” assessment.
Fast-forward a year, count in some new additions to SWAG, and, huzzah, we have six people again. I learned a bit from the earlier experience. Before we met for the first time, I asked everyone to submit to each other a couple of pages of their work, so we could all decide whether the experience would be beneficial to us; then, we met to critique those two pages. That’s when we discovered, gasp, one of the members is writing a biography.
SWAG is open to all writers in the area–poets, lyricists, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, even crossword puzzle designers. But, clearly, the poets and fiction writers outnumber the non-fiction writers. A few of the poets get together informally, and here we had the re-constituted fiction critique group. There is, however, nowhere else for the non-fiction writer to go. So, we thought, what the heck, let’s give it a go.
A couple of us have experience with non-fiction. In fact, since I got a job as a publications assistant with an aviation insurance consortium in 1976, most of my editing and writing experience has been in non-fiction, specifically in the technical aviation safety area. I was a reporter on and editor of an aviation safety magazine, and for a little more than a year, I wrote non-fiction feature articles for my local newspaper. I have a lot of experience editing non-fiction, not the least of which is my degree in history. Another member of the critique group is a newspaper editor. (She is in the group to have her fiction critiqued, however.)
No problem, you say. Not a problem exactly–editing fiction and non-fiction have similar approaches (grammar, punctuation, etc.), they both tell a story though one is strictly fact-based and has to have the references to substantiate those facts. Now, yes, if you write historical fiction, you have references out the wazoo. The difference is you don’t have to cite them. Yes, you can put a list at the end of your book, but, trust me, the readers hardly ever look there. In a non-fiction piece, particularly a biography, just about everything you say has to have a citation.
When I review or critique a fiction piece, I involve myself completely in the story and characters. In a biography, you can do that too, especially with the current fashion in non-fiction writing, which is to make it “read” like a work of fiction–good characters, action, conflict, etc. Non-fiction writing is still scholarly, but now it just doesn’t sound like it.
Still, and I can’t quite put my finger on it, critiquing fiction and non-fiction is different. When I read the fiction pieces for the upcoming meeting, I was caught up in the characters and the conflict in the stories. When I read the non-fiction piece–which is a rough draft with references listed but not cited–I found myself making notes like, “how do you know this,” “how can you prove that,” etc. I needed the citations, even though I recall from writing my own monographs and senior theses that you usually put those in on the final draft.
I’ve been focusing on my fiction the last four years, the writing there of, that is. It’s a bit of a head-shake for me to break that habit and get back into reviewing and evaluating non-fiction, and unrelated to aviation at that. I just hope I can be of use to that biographer, that my fiction brain can make the abrupt adjustment.
Still, it’s a diverse group of writers, and I’m all heady with anticipation.