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)?
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.