Saturday, September 25, 2010

Are You Fiction Or Nonfiction?

By Pat Browning
Literary agent Michael Larsen’s blog at
covers topics from storytelling to publishing and everything in between. This week, with his permission, I’m reprinting his Sept. 15th blog -- “Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?”

The husband and wife team of Michael Larsen and Elizabeth Pomada left New York for San Francisco and opened their own literary agency in 1972. They founded the prestigious San Francisco Writers Conference almost eight years ago.

The next conference is scheduled for February 18- 20, 2011. It will feature nearly 100 agents, authors, editors and book industry professionals. Attendees will have access to more than 50 “how to" sessions, panels, and workshops taught by authors. Speed Dating for Agents and Ask a Pro offer one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work directly to publishing professionals.

New this year is a contest for independent and self-published authors. Here’s a quote from contest publicity: “In this new era of digital publishing with eBooks, Print on Demand (POD) books and more, there are now many paths to publication," said Laurie McLean, Contest Director of the San Francisco Writers Conference and Dean of the soon to debut San Francisco Writers University. "While the Holy Grail remains a contract with one of the big six publishers in New York, that goal is getting more elusive than ever for writers. We are offering the indie alternative to get to the big six--and hoping to establish the credibility for indie publishing that the indie film and music industries enjoy today."

Check out The Indie Publishing Contest where you can win a publishing package complete with distribution, marketing and more. Deadline to enter is January 5, 2011. Details at the conference web site:
Memoirists: Are You Fiction or Nonfiction?
By Michael Larsen
William Hamilton once did a cartoon showing an aspiring young woman writer asking a balding, mustachioed literary type: “Are you fiction or nonfiction?”

If you’re writing a memoir (a me-moir to the cynical) you may wonder whether it would be better as a novel. What reasons might there be for making that decision?
Legal Reasons
Publishers are extremely wary about anything that might cause litigation. If you’re going to include unflattering things about living people, they may sue. You can disguise them, but if you’re living in a small town or people will know who you’re referring to anyway, that won’t help.
Personal Reasons
Fictionalizing your past may make it easier to write about. A memoir is constrained by the truth. Writing fiction liberates you to alter your experience as you wish.
Literary Reasons
What are your literary goals in writing the book? If you want to create a legacy for your friends and family, writing a memoir makes more sense. Nonfiction is easier to write because you’re drawing on your experiences and facts you can verify.

But writing fiction liberates you to create whatever combination of character, plot, and setting will have the most impact on readers. And a memoir should read like a novel. Frank McCourt’s bestseller, Angela’s Ashes, which ignited the interest in memoirs, certainly does. You could call it a novel without changing a word. The dialogues he had as a child with his family capture the emotional truth if not the factual truth of what was said.

Like a novel, a memoir has to describe places, characters, and situations so readers will want to keep reading about them. The book needs a story arc that traces your transformation from who you are at the beginning of the book to the person you become after being changed by your experiences. Many novels, especially first novels, are autobiographical, and all novels make use of the author’s experience filtered by the imagination and the needs of the story.
Commercial Reasons
What are your financial goals for your memoir? Will it be more salable as a novel? Will it be more promotable? Will it have more film and foreign rights potential? Will have more potential for follow-up books?

My partner, Elizabeth Pomada, spent quite a while trying to sell Pam Chun’s biography of her great grandfather, The Money Dragon. Finally, we suggested Pam call it a novel, and the first publisher to see it published it complete with photos and trial transcripts. It became a prizewinning bestseller in Hawaii, where it’s set.

I hope these considerations help you answer the question of whether to fictionalize your memoir. Everyone has a story to tell, and I encourage you to tell yours. First get it down on paper in the most effective, enjoyable way you can, and get feedback from a fiction or memoir critique group as you write. Then, if you still can’t decide whether to fictionalize it, let your community of readers help you figure out how best to offer your story to the world. If your writing has enough humor, drama, insight, or inspiration, it will find its audience.

Take heart. The hardest part of many memoirs is surviving the research!


Jean Henry Mead said...

My life has been such an adventure that I think I'd have to fictionalize it. I've been considering writing a memoir for some time but I don't think the world is ready for it. :)

Mark W. Danielson said...

One of the greatest memoirs may be "Citizen Kane" -- the fictionalized bio of William Randolph Hearst. Fiction allows liberties, but there is no requirement to name names in non-fiction memoirs.