Memoir or Fiction? What’s best for telling your own story?
by Anne R. Allen
Some people say all writing is autobiographical, and to a certain extent that’s true. I always say writers ought to Mirandize everybody we meet — “I’m a novelist. Anything you say can be taken down and used against you in a work of fiction.”
There certainly is a fine line between fiction and autobiography. All novelists use their own life experiences to bring realism to their stories and characters.
I certainly do.
Fictionalizing a Real Event
During a recent lunch with my friend Catherine Ryan Hyde, I told her about taking a fall when leaving an outdoor concert nearby. (I’ve since discovered I have spinal stenosis, which explains why my legs sometimes give way.)
I asked a muscular young man passing by to help me with the chair I was carrying so I could get up. He refused. He called me fat and told me to go to the gym. (Keep in mind I’m a senior citizen.)
“So what did you do?” Catherine asked.
“I killed him,” I said. “He’s a murder victim in my latest Camilla mystery.”
We had a good laugh, although she reminded me we were in public and somebody might overhear and think I was actually confessing to murder.
I thought about how my anger at that idiotic young man sparked the opening scene of The Queen of Staves, (Launching TODAY!!) So in a way he had actually done me a favor.
But is there anything wrong with using a real life character or situation in a novel?
No, but there are some major caveats.
You need to take that character and situation into the realm of fiction. Changing a few letters of a name or giving the character a different hair color won’t be enough. Don’t make the characters recognizable to themselves or anybody else. Especially if you’re going to portray them as less than saintly.
For more specifics about using real people in your fiction, check out this helpful article at Writer’s Boon from Australian lawyer Carol Vorvain.
Are You Writing Memoir or Fiction?
Many writers who set out to write a memoir find themselves slipping into fiction. This isn’t because they’re trying to “cheat.”
It’s because all memoir has to contain some made-up bits. Unless you’ve spent your entire life wearing a body-cam and a recording device, you are not going to perfectly recreate your first date or that conversation with Great-Aunt Sadie when you were twelve.
But you don’t want to veer too far into fiction, or you’ll end up with a jumble of half-truths—like James Frey’s infamous memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
If you’re writing memoir because you want an accurate chronicle of things that really happened to you, keep in as much historical detail as you can, but you can switch things around a little in order to tell a compelling story. You also want to change the names of people who might be hurt. (Just say something like, “my first bad boyfriend, I’ll call him Fernando.”)
And be very careful nothing you say could be considered libel, even if you’re using a pen name. Lawsuits aren’t fun.
Jane Friedman wrote a great piece on memoir “Using the Fallacy of Memory to Create Effective Memoir.”
Anybody writing memoir should read it. It will make you feel better about your worries that not everything is completely accurate. It can’t be.
So the key is to be as accurate as you can in a memoir, but also be kind. And, as attorney Carol Vorvain says, never “disclose private facts you have no authority to disclose.”
The derriere you save may be your own.
Book-Length Memoir is Tough to Market
When you’re deciding whether you should novelize your story or write an accurate memoir, consider another article Jane Friedman wrote recently.
In “Why Your Memoir Won’t Sell”, Jane lists seven things that make most agents and publishers reject a memoir.
On the top on her list is “This is your first book.”
A lot of people who have “always wanted to write a book” when they retire or have a gap in employment, start with a memoir.
But this isn’t a good idea if you’re not famous and you’re hoping to make money or start a writing career. (It’s great if you simply want a record for family and friends. And there are even services that will help you write that kind of memoir. Marnie Summerfield at YourMemoir.com offers a fantastic memoir service.)
Good memoir is the toughest thing to write well. Memoir needs to be crafted like a novel, with a story arc, compelling dialogue, and tight pacing. (Otherwise it’s not memoir, it’s autobiography.)
But the problem is that real life doesn’t have a story arc, compelling dialogue, and good pacing.
That means you have to superimpose those things on a story that already exists, instead of creating your story around a structure. More on this in my post “How to Write a Publishable Memoir.”
Also, a lot of readers are turned off by memoirs because so many of them involve navel-gazing. As Anna Sabino wrote at the Writing Cooperative recently. “Here is a reminder: It’s not about you. Remove the “I”, stop being worried about feeding your ego and redirect the spotlight to your readers.”
It can be harder to think of your reader when you’re writing memoir than when you’re writing a novel.
If This is Your First Book, Consider Writing the Story as Fiction.
You can always write a “just the facts ma’am” memoir later. But for a first book, a novel is easier to write well and easier to sell.
You have to be careful of people’s feelings in a memoir, but if you want to kill off nasty young men who refuse to help old ladies in distress, do what I did and write fiction, where you can wreak vengeance with impunity.
It can be just as cathartic, and there will be fewer lawsuits. 🙂
But if you do fictionalize, make sure you ARE writing a novel. Let the characters lead you. Don’t try to cram them into the “that’s what really happened” box. Fiction needs to flow. Real life does not. You may have to skip precious, memorable scenes because they don’t further the plot, or take people out of a scene who overshadow the protagonist.
Also, many things that “really happened like that” are totally unbelievable in fiction. Consider our current political situation. Would anybody have believed this stuff in fiction a few years ago?
Also, if you stick too close to the factual details, you could still be open to lawsuits.
There was a case in Portugal a few years ago where a women’s family sued her—and won—after she self-published a barely-fictionalized portrait of her in-laws that was less than flattering.
And yes, she uses a pseudonym, but that didn’t help one bit. Pen names don’t protect you from lawsuits and they are a huge pain. Here’s Kristen Lamb explaining why pen names are a “Ticket to Crazyville” in the digital age.
For more on this, see Ruth Harris’s post on Turning Real Life into Bestselling Fiction.
How to Fictionalize a Real Person
I had to learn to novelize a real person when I wrote The Gatsby Game.
I dated a man in college who was a terrible boyfriend but a fascinating character. David Whiting was comically old-fashioned in his dress and style, and talked like a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. He loved to “Gaslight” people, often sneaking into my dorm room to move things around or leave mysterious gifts without explanation.
A few years later, David was found dead on the floor of actress Sarah Miles’ motel room during the filming of a Burt Reynolds movie.
The incident caused a media frenzy—one of the “Ten Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History“.
The medical experts said David didn’t have enough pills in him to kill anybody, but they called the death an “accidental overdose.”
Nobody will ever know how he died, but I’ve always had my suspicions.
I fought writing about the incident for years because I don’t have any experience with writing true crime. My first try was so dry, even I got snoozified.
A few years later, I decided to write the story as a novel. I invented a fictional protagonist—a smart-mouthed nanny. She made the story come to life and added a lot of humor. I moved the setting to the little California oil town of Taft—originally called “Moron.” (For real; truth IS stranger than fiction.) It was a perfect stand-in for the real site of David’s death, Gila Bend, Arizona.
The result was pure fiction. The dead man became more childlike and endearing than the real David. The Burt Reynolds-type movie star faded into a walk-on. The story became a hero’s journey for the nanny character. I gave her a down-to-earth romantic interest to make up for the dead delusional boyfriend.
Why Memoirists Should Think Outside the Book
My advice to memoir writers these days is to write a series of short personal essays based on your chapters and sell those to magazines, anthologies, journals and websites.
Short creative nonfiction is much more in demand than book-length memoir by non-celebrities.
You can write those short pieces long before you finish a book-length memoir and you’ll find out if there is a market for your story. Plus you’ll start building platform, and even make some money.
Another really great venue for short personal essays is blogs–both your own and as a guest post on sites that address your issues or topics. This is especially true if you have photos. Photos are super expensive to put into a print book, but every one of them can go on your blog.
If you blog pieces of your memoir, along with photos, you can start to build an audience long before you publish, and you’ll have a ready-made list of possible readers.
I urge all memoirists to start a blog. It can make all the difference in whether you can sell that memoir or not.
For tips on how to excerpt short, marketable pieces from your memoir, check out Paul Alan Fahey’s post Writing Memoir that Sells.
And once you’ve had parts of it published, you may find a small press that’s interested in the full book. Here’s a list of 7 publishers who are interested in memoir.
The important thing for every writer is to decide what you want your story to be and then commit to it. If you want to write true crime or a factual, detailed history, that’s great and they can be very popular, but you need to get your legal ducks in a row.
If you want to write novels, let the characters and story take you wherever they want to go. Stay true to the story, not the factual events. And it always helps to include a disclaimer like: “This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.”
Good fiction is inspired by real life, but it doesn’t imitate it. Fiction may not tell “the facts” but it tells the truth.
What about you, scriveners? Are you working on a memoir or fiction? Have you tried to place some short memoir essays in journals or anthologies? Do you put real incidents in your fiction?
by Anne R. Allen (@annerallen) August 20, 2017
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The Golden Quill Awards. The theme is “Liberation.” $500 first prize. Short fiction, poetry and personal essay categories. Up to 1500 words for prose, 40 lines for poetry. Entry fee $15. Deadline September 15, 2017. .
Black Warrior Review Annual Contest. The prestigious journal gives prized of $1000 in each of 3 categories: Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry. Fee $20. Deadline September 1
Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. Write Romance, Thriller, Crime, Horror, Science-Fiction, and Young Adult? Short fiction: 4,000 words or less. $20 fee. Grand prize $2500. Deadline October 16th, 2017
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20 Literary Journals that publish new writers. Compiled by the good folks at Authors Publish magazine.
7 Publishers that take unagented memoir. from Authors Publish.
Aesthetica Creative Writing Award Two prizes of £1,000 each and publication in Aesthetica. Winners also receive a consultation with literary agency Redhammer Management. Up to 40 lines of poetry ($15 fee), 2000 words for short fiction ($24 fee.) Deadline August 31.