Saturday, April 04, 2020

memoir vs novel

A fellow writer has written a memoir about a traumatic personal experience lasting some months. It’s a newsworthy experience - not beating cancer, not dealing with a loved one’s death, but a genuinely unusual experience. Other books have dealt with similar experiences; this writer has a new angle.

The writer is nervous about querying/publishing as a memoir and is interested in making it into a novel. They think that way they might avoid being seen as “the person that traumatic and explicit thing happened to” by family and friends.

I’ve encouraged the writer to go ahead and query it as a memoir, because I think the truthfulness of the story brings a compelling narrative tension that a novel might have to work a little harder for. In particular, the book ends with a “walking into the light” type moment that works if you know the author is a living human who is doing other stuff in a continued life, but might be unsatisfying for a fictional protagonist. However, I am a not-shy person who writes my own life pretty explicitly, so I’m biased.

1) Am I wrong? What (if anything) does a novel do in terms of narrative tension that a memoir does not/does not have to do? Can a memoir get away with language that’s a bit less polished if it feels like the true voice telling a true story?

2) Is it likely that an agent would be willing to work with an author on converting memoir to novel, or would the author need to make that choice before querying (and probably rewrite some of the book)?

(1) No
(2) No

Now, let's unpack this.

The most important thing for a memoir is voice and universality.

By voice I mean the narrative is vibrant, and compelling. I can't teach voice, no one really can. But a writer can develop voice. The way to do that is by --surprise! surprise!-- writing.

Universality means that the story resonates with a reader who not only didn't experience what's being talked about, but never would. A story about Alaskan mushing must have something that appeals to a desert Bedouin.

Lack of resonance is why most memoirs don't work. A memoir is not just an interesting series of events, a good memoir illuminates something in the reader's life.

Given that developing voice is a process, your friend (and since I know you, I know that this is not code for "me") needs to start writing NOW.

And she should not query now or she's going to squander her opportunities.

Now would be a good time for her to be in a writing group.

And reading a lot of memoir.

And writing too. LOTS of writing.

And thinking about how her story is more than just what happened.

Agents only come in when the memoir is done, polished, revised, left sitting for a week, and the whole process repeated for enough time that the writer can start to see where she needs to revise.

It's when you think you're done that the real work starts.


Carolyn Haley said...

I've sent this line to my writing buddies as our Writerly Quote for the Day: "It's when you think you're done that the real work starts."


True, true, and truer.

CynthiaMc said...

Real life resonates, but only if it's more than just me me me.

What is the takeaway for the reader? How will their life improve by reading yours?

Kitty said...

Btw, Janet, I watched Unorthodox yesterday and loved it. Wrapping everything in foil was a new one for me. I had Jewish friends in high school, but still, most everything I know about their practices I learned watching Radio Days. Except the mikvah. My step-daughter converted and gave us a detailed description of the mikvah.

Katja said...

Oh how interesting this post is!

Before I even started writing One Of Us Has To Go, I knew I wanted to make it 'different'. Great, ha ha.
I had never planned on NOT using two characters for the same person. And I thought it was different for... well... a memoir. But then I thought it can't count as a memoir given how I've constructed it. Plus, I used two extra voices (devil and angel) arguing with Finja to represent her conscience as well as her difficulties/insecurities of making decisions. So I thought it must be a novel even though it's all based on true events.

I did tweak things slightly, like the order of very few events to make it better for the story. So, I thought my book is fiction/a novel even though it's not fiction. :/ I still don't know what it really is.

And when I read the reviews on Goodreads, I see people saying "This reads like a memoir" and "This really is an autobiography" (since it says on the cover "Based on a true story").

Maybe it's none of these things, lol.

I don't regret having (tried to) put it together as a novel. An agent might well say it's not, but I meant to. Also, I wanted to give it a satisfying ending (as OP mentioned this...), and my ending (as much as the entire present timeline) is fictitious. It didn't happen like that.

BJ Muntain said...

My favourite memoir is George Burns' GRACIE: A LOVE STORY. Generally, it's about a flawed man who falls in love with the perfect woman, and the relationship works. It's also about people navigating new technologies, changing, adapting, succeeding. It's about friendships and loyalty. And it's about happiness and regrets. Trials and mistakes. And through it all is a fascination that this perfect angel actually loves him.

It's told in George Burns' own unmistakable voice.

The fact that this couple and their friends are famous, even household names, and are navigating the entertainment business in the early days of radio and television, doesn't take away from the resonance.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Is selling your memoir as a novel likely to produce a similar response to what James Frey's MILLION LITTLE PIECES got when the truth came out? Because that was. Something.

I can undeerstand wanting to fictionalize things that have happened to you, situations that're recognizable to the people who know you, diluting it enough that they don't think your writing is you, forever and ever amen. And I feel like it isn't necessary for most of us to write our memoirs. But. Writing one's memoir and then having it published also seem like two different things to me. Like yes, write, but are you then also prepared for the potential bread and circus if it gets popular and you become dissectible by every once-a-month book club that chooses it? By Oprah? By those incisive people at Kirkus with their pens-as-knives?

Brigid said...

Y'all, I have a STORY. You know my mother is navigating cancer. You know that she can't get surgery due to the pandemic. You may not have known she couldn't afford the auxiliary treatments her doctor recommended to help see her through the next few months. So, we did the American thing and started a GoFundMe.

Yesterday an acquaintance gave $2,525, enough for her to begin treatment NOW. This may be a lifesaving difference.

Now that's an interesting number, $2,525. In fact, $2525. Instead of $25. It was a typo, an accident.
They aren't wealthy--far from it, they live simply in a dodgy area of town--and this is more than they ever spend. They have needs of their own. We're in a pandemic, staring down an economic depression!

They told her to keep it.

John Davis Frain said...

Brigid, that is awesome news.

I can't even follow it with my lame comment. Good luck to your mom.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Brigid that is AMAZING!

Janet Reid said...

Brigid Holy smokes.
That is beyond words.

Katja said...

Wow, Brigid, that's fantastic and heartwarming news!!

NLiu said...

That's wonderful, Brigid! All the best to your mum (mom)!

MA Hudson said...

Brigid, that's heartwarming news.
I just tried clicking through to your website - maybe if you put a link to the GoFundMe page, you never know, you might pick up some extra contributions.... ;)

Brigid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brigid said...

MA, done!

Irene Troy said...

For the OP: When I was trying to write my memoir, I received what I still consider excellent advice from a writer whose memoir made it to the bestseller list. The first rule of successful memoir is it must tell a story that, as Janet puts it so well, is universal. Think of someone going into a bookstore and picking up your book from the shelf. The prospective buyer opens the book to page one and begins to read...does that first paragraph grab her interest? Does it compel her to keep reading? Is there a story there or just a series of events and emotions? It's not enough to have experienced something unusual, traumatic or interesting. The writing must make up a compelling story. Memoir is non-fiction, but it must read almost as fiction -- meaning it must be powerful enough to hold the reader's attention. The second piece of advice: it takes great courage and honesty to write effective memoir. It requires the writer to dig deep and to be courageous enough to share raw and sometimes troubling emotion. I suspect some stop writing because they cannot or will not be that honest.

Allison K Williams said...

Thanks, all! OP here and as a longtime reader I should have realized that "has written" sounds an awful lot like "has written a first draft."

This memoir has been multiply-drafted, workshopped, writers'-group'ed, workshopped some more, and undergone a professional developmental edit and professional line edit. The author is indeed ready to query, and is wondering if they should in fact *rewrite* the entire book as a novel, in order to query it as a novel.

I've read plenty of memoir manuscripts that don't pass the so-what test and this isn't one of them :) My worry is that some of the power invested in memoir by virtue of its truth must be manufactured by a novelist in service of creating a truth as strong as a good memoir - that a story that works as a memoir might feel thin as a novel.

Brigid said...

That makes sense, Allison. I have a lot of empathy for your friend's position. Might I suggest a pseudonym for their memoir?