Pub Rants

I’ve Got A Memoir But It Could Be Published As A Novel

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STATUS: TGIF. Fun weekend planned as the in-laws (whom I adore) are in town for Father’s Day. Coors Field here we come.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? 50 WAYS TO LEAVE YOUR LOVER by Simon & Garfunkel

I love the memoir. I could talk about this genre for weeks but I imagine some blog readers are thinking, “move on already.”

Seriously though, I read a lot of recently published memoirs on my own, for fun, because I just love that thrilling inside look into another person’s life. If I found more “just blow me away” ones, I would take them on. So I’m going to continue talking about this genre until I’ve exhausted all rant-worthy topics associated with it (and don’t worry, my arsenal is starting to run low).

So the above title to this blog entry is yet another kiss-of-death-otherwise-known-as-an-automatic-NO-from-an-agent for any aspiring memoirist. I cannot count the number of times I’ve chatted with a writer in person who has finished a memoir but when pitching the project to me will often say, “I wrote it as a memoir but it could be published as a novel instead.”

The answer to that is no it can’t.

And yes, I’m going to tell you why because this misconception is definitely a rant-worthy topic.

Although a memoir often shares certain similarities to a novel (as in there are scenes, dialogue, development of characters, and sometimes world-building) a memoir is not the same as a novel. They are two, distinctly different creative processes in how they are crafted and written.

So an already written memoir can’t be “published” as a novel or even vice-versa. It’s like saying my nonfiction self-help book can double as a novel. These are two wholly different entities. Apples and Oranges (James Frey, non-withstanding, but even A Million Little Pieces would have to be redone completely to make it stand as a novel because the crafting of a novel is not the same as the crafting of a memoir). Repeat after me: they are not interchangeable.

Now, I’m not talking about writers who have yet to begin the writing process and are wondering if they should simply take the real-life experience and use that as inspiration for writing a novel. That’s a different ball game altogether (but I also want to point out that such a direction has a whole different set of pitfalls). The key words here are “use it as inspiration.” Let’s just say when writers try to take a real life event and fictionalize it, something gets lost in the translation because the writers get too attached to what “actually happened” versus writing an original scene with developing characters and so on. Usually, but not always, the writing of this “novel” is just terrible because the writer doesn’t have any distance to the material nor are they using the elements of writing good fiction to create it.

But as I said, that’s actually a whole other blog entry. A memoir is a memoir—not a novel. A novel is a novel and can’t easily be “revised” into a memoir.

So don’t approach me with, “I’ve written a memoir but if it would be better, you could submit and publish it as a novel instead.”

18 Responses

  1. ian said:

    I’m curious on your take as a novel written as a memoir – like an “autobiography” of a fictional character.


  2. Anonymous said:

    Umm…I’m actually not at all clear on what the difference is, after having read this. Could you be specific?

  3. beverley said:

    And just look what ended up happening to James Frey. They said he was initially pitching the book as a novel and had no takers.

  4. Anonymous said:

    I have to say, I don’t understand the fascination with memoirs. They are the most uninteresting books in the world to read unless they are about a famous person, and even then I could really give a flying crap. Honestly, why is this genre so hot? If I don’t know you I sure as hell don’t want to know your life story. And how egotistical of people to think the general public really gives a fart about their lives.

  5. Anonymous said:

    I’m going to take a crack at this one. Feel free to hash it out with me if you have a dissenting opinion.

    The key is, a memoir’s focus should be on experience and emotional impact of real events on a person’s life. For it to sell, those real events have to be huge and unique. But the focus is still one person’s perspective on a real event as it unfolded through the lens of their experience. Because it is real, not every scene has to move along a story arc toward a resolution. However, every scene does need to address and revolve around a person’s perspectives. For example, Fredrick Douglas in his memoirs recounts the horrors of being a slave, but skips how he escaped because he didn’t want to close the route to another person who could escape that way. In a novel, the escape would be tied in to the resolution of the plot, and therefore crucial to the story.

    This is why novels are “based” on a true story, and not “A true story.” For a novel to be crafted in such a way that the story flows toward a resolution, you have to take some liberties with “truth.” You can ask Frey about that.

    A novel written as a memoir is a novel. “Memoirs of a Geisha” comes to mind. While that was a first person narrative with the scope that encompassed most of the main character’s life, it was a novel. Scenes like the one where she danced in the festival were carefully crafted and placed in the novel to further the plot, reinforce the themes, and help the character grow toward her resolution and her goal of being with the man she loved.

    If it had really been a memoir, who knows what significance that scene would have had in reality. I’m hard pressed to believe all the allusions to the masks of the makup and the costumes, and the fury of the snow, (while one of the character’s motifs was water) and the triumph of her success at the festival sparked the beginning of the downfall of her nemisis (who had a motif of fire)dang I’m rambling, sorry. Anyway, I’d be hard pressed to believe that reality was so conveniently metaphoric, if that is really a word.

    For that scene to be written believably in a memoir, the focus would have had to be on how what that festival did to change the personal truth of the author.

    Perhaps that is why Oprah likes memoirs so much. She likes personal stories, and personal truth. Those things resonate with her. *shrug*

    Did I make that as clear as mud?


  6. wplasvegas said:

    Memoirs are either an event or a series of events reflective of someone’s actual experience in a particular situation. A novel is a story.

    I had occasion to write a film script based on a lady friend’s relationship with an abusive boyfriend. She was hiding from him at my apartment at the time. I did it more as an emotional purgative for her than as an artistic effort and used the reality of her situation as a set-up for what I expected to be a stock film adventure. In actuality the creep is still on the streets and dangerous, but in the script she thwarts him and he gets his just comeuppance for his sins, there is justice and good triumphs.

    Not only was it a nice release for her and put things in enough of a different light that she could come out of hiding (IE leave my tiny apartment) I was left with what I think is a surprisingly good script. If I still lived in Hollywood, I’d probably be shopping it around right now.

    Everybody in publishing seems to be so dedicated with finding something unique. A good memoir is by default unique. Don’t historical novelists research things like period memoirs and then conflate them into one character in a story during that period?

    “nuff said.”

  7. Imelda said:

    Memories are memories and stories are stories. One can feed the other, but they are not the same thing.

    This is perhaps clearer to me than to some writers because I am also a storyteller (by that I mean that I stand up and tell stories, in the grand old oral tradition handed down from long before there were ‘writers’).

    I learnt a long time ago, from some very talented storytellers, that:

    1) you can’t – or shouldn’t – tell a personal story to an audience until you are ‘over it’. Crying while telling the story is using your audience in place of a therapist and is an insult to them. It also makes you really boring. And don’t think putting the story on paper protects you. You’ll just get your yawns in the form of rejection slips.

    2) What matters in a good story is emotional truth, not actual truth. The actual facts of the story may be dull, unecessary to the development of the theme of the story, or in some cases, just too extraordinary to be believed.

    3) To present a really polished story, it is important to know what it is about – and why you are telling it.

    In creative writing classes, they ask you to sum it up in a sentence. Harriet Mason, one of the most extraordinary storytellers I ever had the honour of hearing, was tougher. She said you should be able to say it in a word.

    Sometimes it takes a lot of telling, or a lot of writing, to find out what that word is. Is it loss? Fear? Innocence? Love? Family?

    You may scoff and say it is impossible to sum up a story’s theme in one word, but it is worth trying, especially when you are dealing with personal stories, because if you can’t even get close, it is a good sign that you do not have enough distance from these events to turn them into something fit for a wider audience. You need to work the material over for a lot longer.

    When you do know what the story is ‘about’ it helps you to choose which elements of the ‘truth’ stay, which go, and which need to be manipulated to make the story powerfully convey the real ‘truth’ that you need to share.

    Obviously, I am biased, but I would recommend that anyone who wants to work with personal material get themselves along to their local storytelling group and learn how to tell stories orally. Actually, anyone who wants to write at all would, I believe, benefit from the experience. And the skill will serve you well for the day you are published and need to do promotion!

    Pardon the length, but this is something I am passionate about!

    Cheers, Imelda

  8. Anonymous said:

    I remembered something about “Memoirs of a Geisha,” last night in the tub. When the book came out I read an article in the newspaper about the woman the author had interviewed to write the story.

    She was ticked. She was just livid that the Geisha in the story had done certain things, that she hadn’t done. For her, that story was her personal truth. For the author, it was the building blocks of a novel.

    Consequently, the novel did not end up reflecting this woman’s personal truth about the experience of being a Geisha. But it was a heck of a story. LOL


    And thanks, Chesya, I like yours too.

  9. joanr16 said:

    I don’t understand the fascination with memoirs. They are the most uninteresting books in the world to read unless they are about a famous person….

    Just off the top of my head, three wonderful memoirs of the last 10 years: The Color of Water by James McBride; Driving Mr. Albert by Michael Paterniti; Time on Fire by Evan Handler. With the exception of Handler, who has a successful TV career these days as a character actor, the authors aren’t famous, but all of their stories are fascinating.

  10. Carolyn Burns Bass said:

    My WIP is “thinly veiled memoir written as fiction.” I thought of writing this as memoir, after all, not everyone has a bohemian sword swallower as a father. But the words of a college professor kept repeating in my head: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”

    My inner child and my inner editor have had some brawls about the way I’ve handled some scenes. Imelda’s point 1 sums up why it’s taken me 40 years to write this novel, while point 2 expresses the essence of how I’m getting it done.

    This has been one of your most engaging weeks of discussion, Kristin. Thank you.

  11. kitty said:

    What about a roman à clef, like Nora Ephron’s Heartburn? Isn’t that something like a memoir written as fiction?

  12. Lisa said:

    I couldn’t help but add a couple of other titles to this list of those written by the (previously) not famous. Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs was an amazing story. It was so interesting, in fact that it paved the way for Dry, a memoir that chronicled the next phase of his life. Tobias Wolff, the author of This Boy’s Life and In Pharoah’s Army was also arguably not a famous person when he wrote those memoirs. He’s now obviously quite well known for his short stories, novellas, novels and memoirs in addition to being one of the most esteemed creative writing teachers in the country. I think interesting memoirs from ordinary people are uncommon, but they exist.

  13. Anonymous said:

    And Augusten Burroughs’ success paved the way for his brother’s memoir about growing up with Asperger’s syndrome. Sold for a LOT of money – so memoirs must be as popular as Ms. Nelson says.

  14. Marsupialis said:

    re: James Frey, wasn’t the story that it was peddled originally as a novel but he couldn’t get any interest. It was only when his agent instructed him to call it a memoir that it sold — and the rest is history (or infamy, I guess).

  15. Wackjob said:

    A memoir is different from an autobiography in that it is less an attempt to recite facts in chronological order than to give the reader the writer’s experience (perhaps that’s a sweeping generalization). Being in recovery, I knew Frey’s story was fake when I read it, before he was exposed, because it was structured like a bad screenplay.

    I have published two novels, and written a third, and they have nothing whatsoever to do with my life. (The first two were comic fantasies, published and now out of print, the third a woman’s coming-of-age historical novel set in 1916.)

    Eventually I will write a memoir, because I have had some very strange experiences, but it’s a frightening prospect.