You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: Fiction or Memoir?

“You Have a Question?  I Have an Answer” is a feature that answers real questions from real writers.

Q:  I have finished a manuscript that could be sold as fiction, but in truth, it is a memoir of a teenage girl.  The story begins when she first falls in love at 13 and tracks her on-again-off-again romance until she finally marries the man, who was the boy she fell in love with 30 years before.  I am the main character.  I have gotten so many rejections for this story as fiction, so I thought perhaps I’d start submitting it as a memoir. Any suggestions?                                                                                    –T.S.

A:  Thanks for the question!

This brings to mind some questions of my own, and I think the answers could help writers with similar manuscripts.

IS YOUR STORY COMPLETELY FACTUAL?

If not, and, say, Oprah happens to like it, you could have an A Million Little Pieces situation on your hands—not something you necessarily want.  (Although, I’m fairly certain author James Frey made more than a few bucks even after being kicked out of Oprah’s book club…so, I could be wrong.)

If it is completely factual, then there’s the whole issue of getting the permission of all those people you represent in the book, making sure it’s not libelous, etc.  Being that memoir comes from one’s memory—and being that memory can be subjective—you want to be sure you get all the “characters” on board before you send it out into the world.  It might just be easier (and more fun) to fictionalize some true events to avoid potential headaches.  I’ll discuss this more in a second.

DOES IT TELL A GOOD STORY?

An editor friend of mine told me he often sees writers sacrifice their storytelling because they keep incidents “how it happened.”  This made a lot of sense to me, and it sort of transformed the way I think about writing to a degree, once I paid attention to where I was doing that.

When I fictionalized some of the events of my MS I’d written as “true to life,” the story quality improved.  Rookies tend to write from their personal lives, and I think recognizing that and breaking out of that habit when it’s necessary is something everyone needs to learn.

When you fictionalize, the story goes from being a bunch of “Dear Diary” moments to more of a manuscript.  (Now, my MS isn’t a memoir, so that’s exactly the kind of transformation I needed; however, if you want yours to be a memoir, you can’t really do that.)

But, how do you know if it’s a good story, you ask?

Well, you may be a bit biased in this area.  The story might interest you because, y’know, it happened to you and all, but will it appeal to others if it’s written as it happened IRL?

To answer this question, have a few people critique it.  If your MS is completely factual, you’ve done your homework in terms of getting the proper permission, and you don’t think you’re going to get sued (should your book be published), get four to six people—not family members—to read it and offer feedback.  If you don’t have a writing group to look at it, *brace yourself for a shameless plug,* join an online group, such as the one I helm, Shenandoah Writers.

After you’ve received feedback from writers on the overall story, then maybe ask some friends who read to peruse it.  Their reviews might be a bit more glowing (don’t let them fool you), but this will give you a sense of how a variety of people will react to your actual story.  (FYI: I’d weigh the critique partners’ feedback much more heavily, but this way, if the critiques tear you apart, your friends can tell you what an awesome job you did, and that will cheer you up.  Hee!)

Remember, many, many (did I say many?  I meant pretty much all) literary agents are looking for narrative nonfiction—and that includes memoirs—so, the better your story is and the more it reads like a novel, the better the shape of your manuscript.

If after the feedback you discover the story lacks something, my advice would be to fictionalize the hell out of the thing.  Think of it as fun/therapeutic for you, as you can indulge your fantasies a bit (i.e., how might things have gone had, say, I stayed friends with so-and-so in high school; what would that year have been like if I hadn’t dated Johnny Douchebag, etc.).

HOW’S YOUR PLATFORM?

This isn't exactly what we're talking about when we say "platform," but a pair of these puppies probably can't hurt your career.

This is the biggest question that comes to mind when considering memoir.  According to pretty much every literary agent out there, you must have a strong platform for pretty much any kind of nonfiction.

What’s platform, you ask? Platform is basically your visibility—your reputation or following.  Do you have a Web site or blog?  Does it get 2,000 views a day?  Do you speak at conferences?  Do you do guest appearances on a radio show?

If the answer to all these questions is “no,” don’t fret.  It’s not imperative that you host your own morning talk show, but having some kind of name recognition certainly factors in when literary agents consider taking on your project.  As well, this is something you must consider when deciding whether or not to fictionalize the truth or present your MS as a memoir.

However, according to most, story and writing trumps all.  If it’s incredible, and it had better be—especially if you lack celebrity status—you should be okay.  (Ideally, though, you should have the perfect mix of both.)

HOW’S YOUR QUERY LETTER?

You say you’ve received “so many rejections for this story as fiction,” and I guess I’m just wondering a) how far in the querying process you’ve gotten, b) how many rejections you’ve gotten, and c) how long you’ve been querying.

If you’ve only queried a handful of agents and received form rejections from all, the problem might be your query letter, not your manuscript.

As we’ve all heard over and over, the query is the foundation upon which your publishing career rests.  If no one’s asking for your pages, revisit your query.  However, if most agents have requested partials/fulls from you, and you’ve still been rejected more than a few times, then it might be your manuscript after all.

When in doubt about your query, consult the Query Shark.

One thought on “You Have a Question? I Have an Answer: Fiction or Memoir?

  1. My story is factual, but I have changed the names of the characters, and was trying to promote it as fiction, because I didn’t want to approach any of the players in my life about their role in it. There are some serious issues involved, like domestic abuse, sexual assault, and the like. So, I changed their names. One character, my second husband is only referred to as Price Charming, for example.
    After my first draft, I was told my story was too short. My husband told me to make stuff up, but that isn’t the story I want to tell. The ms is now 57,000 words with nothing made up in it.
    Being that the story focuses on the relationship between the two primaries, I didn’t want to go into lengthy detail about others in the story. It spans 30 years, and several relationships in between the first chapter and the last.

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