Saturday, September 10, 2016

My novel is almost really true

 I am getting ready to query a novel that is partially inspired by a true story. I am going to mention this in my query, especially since it occurred in New York City and so most agents may find my query ringing a bell. I am also debating mentioning that a non-fiction book about the true story was a recent New York Times bestseller, to show that there is interest in the topic.

Should I do this? (1) Does it demonstrate that there is interest in the topic, or because it is a non-fiction book is it unrelated to any potential sales for my book?(2) Or worse, am I hurting myself by pointing out that there's competition in the marketplace for books on this topic?(3)

1. No
2. No
3. Yes...but not for that reason.

Should you do this? No you should not. You don't have enough words in a query to do anything but talk about YOUR story.  All the time you waste telling me it's based on true events is time you're not talking about your interpretation.

Interest in your book will have almost no correlation to interest in the non-fiction book.  

And you're hurting yourself because you're going to confuse your reader (me.)  I can't tell you the number of times a query has opened by talking about some real life event and I thought the query was for non-fiction and my finny fin fin was quite jazzed.  Only to find out in paragraph two that this is a novel and the writer thought I'd be interested in the novel cause I was interested in the real life event.

Here's the problem: I read non-fiction to learn things, or to get different takes on things I already know. Varying perspectives on events in history etc.  I assume that non-fiction is well-researched and true. I depend on that in fact.

Novels are a whole different ball game. I read those for fun. If I learn things, or gain perspective, I don't assume those things are true. It's a novel. It's FICTION. You get to make it all up.

You'd no more limit yourself to "what's true" in a novel than you'd limit yourself to "what's real" in a paranormal romance.  

Let your story stand on its own. 


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Sliding OT from agent to reader, just a bit.

Back in the late ’80s I bought my favorite women’s magazine, sat down for a good read, and though the short story subject matter seemed a bit heavy, I decided to read it. Because they published a (fictional) story lifted from the headlines without warning the reader, I got so pissed off I never bought the mag again.
At the time, an adopted six year old, murdered by her drug crazed lawyer father, in part because her abused mother (in publishing) let it happen, was big news. The heartbreaking and beyond tragic horror story had me sobbing into my orange juice.
I get it Janet, the story has to stand on its own. An agent assuming one thing, only to read another is an issue, but if the story is a tearjerker, please OP warn the reader. If I had known the story was a fictional account of something so horribly real I would not have read it.

Off to work, see you in a few hours. Colin behave:)

AJ Blythe said...

Being based on true events means you are making a whole lotta stuff up - so that makes it fiction. So query following those rules.

Good luck with your submission, Opie!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

There are fiction books inspired by true events. The Silence of the Lambs comes to mind (skin crawls) but that is not what makes that novel work. Compelling story telling, complex and relatable characters Even without Anthony Hopkin's superb acting, when I first read Silence of the Lambs, I was intrigued by Hannibal Lechter to the point I was cheering for him (I am a sad, sick puppy). I couldn't have given two craps that the book was based on "true" events. The story and characters compelled me. If you write fiction, then do it. Yes, use real life events if you must, but make the story yours. And listen to our queen. She really knows these waters. She rules these waters. Happy swimming.

Back to coffee and writing. Morning everyone. Hey, someone wake up Colin.

Donnaeve said...

I love using historic facts to create a story around them. It happens all the time.

E.M. "It puts the lotion on, or it gets the hose again." (brrrr)

In my last project, I used the floods of 1940 in the NC mountains as part of the story.

MA Hudson said...

I understand the OP's thinking here and would probably have been tempted to enlighten an agent about the true story inspiring my fiction (just not with live links to explanatory websites!).
However, I not only fully trust Janet's advice, I also think it rings true. I have never bought a novel solely on the premise of it being based on true events. As a reader I'd find that really confusing and would be always trying to figure out what's real and what's not.

Theresa said...

I love, love, love this post for the very clear explanation of the line between fiction and nonfiction. When you start making stuff up, you're writing fiction. Then, only the story matters.

Celia Reaves said...

Wait, wait, a lightbulb just went off for me. If I base my book partly on true events and partly on stuff I make up, it's a novel. If I make it all up, then it's a fiction novel! Right? It all makes sense now!


/self-administers dope slap/
/slinks back into woodland shadows/

Colin Smith said...

2Ns: Yes ma'am! *devious grin* >:D
Elise: Awww... please! It's Saturday... I get to lie in... *rolls over*

Some years ago I wrote a story that was set in a fictionalized version of my home town. I thought that would make it easier with the geography of things since I knew how it was all laid out. Thing is, I got hung up with descriptions, and trying to get it *right*--this street connects to that street, and there's a railing here, and those iron gates are this tall... It got to a point where a) I was hung up over accuracy, and b) the novel had these huge sections that sounded like a travel guide. It then dawned on me: This is a NOVEL. I can MAKE IT UP and NO-ONE WILL CARE! Kind of like that moment in the first Potter novel, when the trio need fire, and Hermione's fretting about where to get matches, etc. Then Harry and Ron remind her: "You're a witch!" "Oh, that's right!" she says, and does the fire spell.

"You're a writer, Opie!"--you can make it up. As long as it's consistent, and, most important, it's a cracking good story, no-one will care whether or not it's based on fact.

Unknown said...

So, just slightly off topic, if I'm not sure exactly how a home alarm system is set up, I can have it set up so it fits my story without people pointing out to me that home alarms cannot be powered by a common car battery?

Well it just sounds silly when I write it out like that...

Colin Smith said...

Amanda: The danger there is that you're talking about a "common household thing" and some of your readers may well be familiar with how they work. If you don't get it right, you run the risk of losing them. There's a difference between making up a location, or making up a story, and totally changing how an alarm system is set up. Of course, if you have a genius character who has figured out how to power an alarm system using a car battery, that's different. :)

Dena Pawling said...

I have a LOT of “based on actual events” in one of my WIPs. I wrote the novel, then let it sit for 6 months while I worked on something else. When I got back to it, I had enough distance from what “really happened” to make modifications to serve the story. Then I had three betas read it, who made lots of suggestions on NEW ways to modify it to better serve the story. It's now sitting again, and it's been close to 6 months again. Once I'm finished with this pass on WIP#2, then I'll get back to this WIP and polish it for querying.

If you read THE STEEL KISS by Jeffery Deaver, you'll notice the opening scene sounds a LOT like a real-life event that, not too long ago, was very much in the news. But it's modified sufficiently so that the details of what you read won't sound exactly like “what really happened”, and the details serve the story. You'll probably think the same thing I did when I wrote my review – “This author is really good at taking current events and headlines and turning them into excellent stories.”

Your readers [including agents you query] will probably recognize the real life event/s. But if you're writing fiction, their thoughts may be like mine when I read THE STEEL KISS. “I wonder what this author is gonna do with this.” So whether or not it is based on a true story/event, the reader expects the author to have repurposed and rewritten the real-life event as part of an entirely different story. What “really happened” doesn't matter, and in fact, what “really happened” may throw the reader out of the story because it won't ring true as part of THIS story.

We've all heard the phrase that writers write what they know. But we change what we know to make a really great story. Good luck.

Kate Higgins said...

So many ideas are inspired by "real events" and the subsequent writer's mind contemplating 'what if'. I love 'what if's.
The only time I chaff at real events/history in a novel are when they get the facts surrounding the 'what if' wrong. Explaining all that in a query seems like a real waste of space.

I once read a book where they claim their altitude was 2000 feet. However in the area that "they" were actually flying the land was already at 2500 ft. Flight altitude is measured by a pressure altimeter (calibrated to sea level), which is essentially a calibrated barometer (sorry, married to a private pilot). That meant when they flew North through the surrounding higher mountains they would have been flying literally 'through',trees,snow and all.

I quit reading the (true fiction-Celia :) novel for the lack of fact checking. That said; I do love stories with historical backdrops.

nightsmusic said...

If your book says, 'based on real events,' then you'd better darned well have all of those events exactly right because people will read it for new insights into that event. If your book is based on a real event, but you twisted things to make it your own and have now changed things sufficiently to make it a fictional account of what happened, or used it just as a basis but it becomes obscure once your story gets going, don't mention anything about being 'based on real events.' It confuses everyone and frankly, if it's not a hard hitting, national headline making story that stayed in the news for months like oh...say...OJ, chances are 98% of your target readers won't know anything about the 'real events' anyway. Why shoot yourself in the foot?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Jeez Louise, I just realized my WIP (fiction) is based on real events. Sort of, kind of, maybe....
Anyway, yes Donna I love novels based on historical events. When the writer puts my mind into something that happened years ago, man that's cool.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I write fantasy so not based on real events. That said, my books all involve pirates and sea-faring type folk. I spent years studying ships, modeling them, understanding their architecture. And a lot of time with the sea even though I get ridiculously sea sick.

I don't drone on about this in the book but I needed certain characters to be confidently well-versed in nautical engineering.

To Kate's point, whatever your backdrop, best assume your reader is not an idiot and will be miffed at blatant disregard of certain facts regardless of based on a true story or not.

However, no need to go into that sort of thing in a query. What's the story- make it compelling to the person reading hundreds of queries every week,

And I must warn our newbies, do not ever say you have written a fiction novel in a query lest you find yourself in the flatulent kale fields of Carkoon.

Morning, Colin - glad you are up. We have so many newbies poking their heads around - and well, you have all the welcome goodies. :)

And Donna - Buffalo Bill- what a sick creation he was. Sadly, reality can make him seem quite mild - another reason I write fantasy. The truth is too terrifying to bear.

Susan said...

When I first read this, I thought Opie meant it was based on their true story, which piqued my interest because I did something similar. When I was querying my novel, I included a line in the housekeeping indicating that the book was based on my own experiences. In one of the rejections I received, an agent who knew enough about the subject matter mentioned it with her well-wishes, which was surprising and lovely. Now that I'm getting ready to release, I'm calling it a semi-autobiographical novel as part of the marketing plan (although "marketing plan" makes it seem calculated, which it wasn't--I just needed a way for the target audience, people with similar experiences, to understand that despite it being a novel, these were my experiences, too).

So I guess that's my question: is it different if the story is fictionalized based on the author's experiences? If it's based on a true story outside of the author's own experience, can that then become something for the marketing of the book, once it reaches that stage? "Devil in the White City" seems to be a prime example of the latter. Knowing it was based on a true story added an extra chill to the reading.

Craig F said...

Uff Da*

First off I can't see what "ripped from the headlines" has to do with publishing today. From where the OP stands it will be at least two years before it gets onto shelves. That is if you do a spectacular job and grab the first Agent you query.

Writing an occasional technical paper I see the break between fiction and non fiction starting at the base tenet of building a story. In non fiction you have something solid to work with. Think of it as proving or disproving that the Squatty Potty works.

In fiction you start with an idea.

Other than that you still have world building to do. If you have a thriller novel set in Florida you can't run I-55 through Orlando without having people question you. So fiction must still have roots in the solid world but it is written from an idea, not a fact.

* Just as Aleuts have 100 words for ice, Norwegians have differentiated Oof.

Uff Da is the compassionate Oof. Something might annoy you but you can have empathy for it.

Nei Da is a shocked Oof. You are negatively surprised by it.

Fy Da is is a disgusting Oof. You can have nothing but revulsion for this Oof.

BJ Muntain said...

Susan: I think the answer depends on the subject. In your case, it's important people know that the story is based on your experiences, so it will reach your target audience - others who have similar experiences. And this way they know it will ring true. Especially if there are other authors writing on a similar subject with no experience and getting it wrong.

As for marketing - anything can be used in marketing, if it will be appealing in some way. Marketing has a different purpose than a query letter. While they both want to entice a reader to read, marketing is about getting a reader to buy the book. A query letter, however, is about interesting a reader/agent enough to want to sell the book.

Marketing can include quotes from reviews, blurbs from well-known people, exciting covers/pictures, etc. A query letter only includes 250 words about the book, with maybe a few of those words about the author.

I hope I'm making sense - didn't get much sleep and not quite finished my first cup of coffee.

Carrie said...

Oh geez. I have a novel that I have started to query. It's historical. About a doctor who is afraid he may have killed his wife. In 1881. The doctor was a real person and I've done extensive research about his case. Don't I want to mention that somewhere in the query?

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

My current audio book is Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yval Noah Harari. You can find it in print.

It's a mind blowing book, the best history book I've ever read. Harari looks at history through biology. DNA sequencing of ancient bones is an important part of his evolution theories.

He writes that sapiens distinguished themselves from apes by inventing fiction. Face slap!

I'm surprised that this book has not been banned.


OP, the real life event might put a timeline in your novel or help people to relate but is it inherent to the plot, the character development, and all the other delicacies we readers want to drool over?

Donald Maas wrote that he receives many queries for stories in wave of current events.

I can't write fiction because I can't get my mind off current events.

Fiction is the purest art. Commercial fiction is the butter, the darkest chocolate, and the finest malt. That's why we are so addicted to it.

Linda Strader said...

I totally agree! For example, when I discover a book is a fictionalized memoir, I am completely turned off. If you fictionalize a memoir, then what's the point? Does the story make up what happened...or not? I'd rather read a memoir with the assumption that what happened, happened, or a novel that is just a darned good story, and don't give a hoot if it was based on true events. Just my modest opinion.

Craig F said...

Angie; Please stop that. At the moment you feel overwhelmed by current events and incapable of writing fiction.

If you talk yourself into a limitation you do only limit yourself.

The world will turn in a different direction someday and maybe it will elicit a story in your soul. Leave yourself open too it, please.

Karen McCoy said...

At a conference I was at yesterday, Chuck Sambuchino made some delineations between fiction and nonfiction queries. Fiction is based a lot on the strength of the writing, and while it's also true in nonfiction, the main focus there is why the subject is timely and unique, and if there is an audience for it. He also encouraged people writing memoir to pitch in first-person.

Susan said...

Thanks, BJ! I think it depends on the subject, too, and that's what I'm curious to know--if there's some leeway there for queries. There are some events that everyone knows about, so the "based on a true story" negates the point. But there are some, like "Devil in the White City," where I think it adds to the story to know it's true. Although, that's probably a poor example, as it's non-fiction presented as a novel. I'd be curious to know how he queried that one.

Angie: It's been my experience that writing helps us process what's going on in the world around us; wrapping it up in a different package--fiction--helps us cope with reality by separating us from the immediacy of the pain. Don't give up on writing. Even if it's just for yourself, fiction might be just the thing to help you make sense of everything that's happening. Thinking of you.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a blog post last July where, in the course of talking about pain and emotion and writing, I briefly touched on the difference between fiction and non-fiction. I said:

In his book, STEIN ON WRITING, Sol Stein says this about the difference between fiction and non-fiction:

“Let us state the difference in the simplest way.
Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion.”

To me, this is a fundamental truth. People read and enjoy and, most importantly, remember great fiction because of how it makes them feel.

Sure, we can quibble over the black and white of this premise, that fiction can also impart information and do all sorts of things other than just evoke emotion. I won’t argue that point, because of course it does. But the primary purpose of storytelling is to evoke emotion. Different genres, different emotions; all the same purpose.

I haven't changed my mind about that. But I hope you all will forgive me for quoting myself (how self-important!) and not coming up with a fresh way of saying this. I'm thoroughly exhausted in a good way, after hosting a half dozen Imaginary Internet Friends for (a five hour) lunch yesterday. People I met and befriended over a decade ago, in the comment section of a blog much like this one, who traveled from as far away as Canada and Ohio and as nearby as Virginia and other cities in NC to see me and each other IRL. Some of them writers, others not. I know this is wildly off topic, but I need to say it-- don't ever discount the friendships you make online in forums like this. They're very real and you might one day wind up with a bunch of us around your kitchen table, drinking wine and laughing and eating homemade cookies. And be grateful as all hell for it.

JulieWeathers said...

For the most part, I agree.

I've already been warned if I'm going to write about the Civil War and use historical figures, I better have it right. I can't have Jeb Stuart in Virginia when he was in fact making a wild ride through Maryland. To that point I made a historical timeline establishing where historical figures and fictional figures were on specific dates. It's the only way to keep everyone straight and the story straight.

Yes, it's fiction, but trust me, stitch counters will nail you if you get it wrong. Having said that, yeah, Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter. smh.

You can't get it all right. Some people don't even try. I wish people who weren't going to try would leave historical people and places out of their work and just go ahead and make up characters and places. It's why I don't read most books with a rodeo theme. They just make me want to choke the author.

The Rain Crow is loosely based on a real woman who was a courier and spy, but I'm not going to mention that to an agent as I've strayed so far off the path from her true story.

A historian at a museum I've been visiting with discovered a cache of love letters between a Confederate officer and his wife and wrote a book based on them. She's also written some other books based on archives and letters. I would think this might be of interest, I don't know. What a treasure house this lady is sitting on. I'm green with envy.

I had always thought I'd start off the Cowgirl query something like, "In 1929 Billboard Magazine advertised 'Cowgirls Wanted'." This is the story of the cowgirls who answered the ad and went on to become champion lady bronc riders.

It might be exactly the wrong approach. I certainly haven't done great and exciting things in the query department so far.

Susan said...

KD: I love that quote and what you say in your blog post, thank you for sharing it. Forgive me if I get personal here, but that's exactly why I chose fiction as the avenue for my book, which is based on my experiences with an illness that few people understand and anyone can get. People kept asking me when I was going to write my story, and I tried, I really did. I'd been sharing it for years on my blog, so you'd think writing the book would be easy. But the words wouldn't come because I was still so close to the subject. But then, one day, I started writing it as fiction, and the story naturally came together. It was still essentially my experiences, but I was able to craft a narrative around it that gave me enough space to breathe and heal. Like I was saying to Angie, fiction let's you process it, distancing yourself enough so you can still pour all that emotion into it without reliving the worst of it.

It wasn't until I had finished the book that I realized what it could mean to other people. If I had written it as a memoir, I would be telling my story, and that's fine. But through fiction, I'm able to tell our story--those who are also struggling with this illness. And that's two-fold: 1) maybe patients would know they're not alone and 2) maybe it could help those who don't know what it's like understand it better. Fiction seemed like the best way to do that.

Because you're exactly right--with non-fiction, I think there's an intellectual distance. The storytelling can be powerful and emotional, but in the back of your mind you know it's still someone else's story. But with fiction comes complete empathy--it becomes your story, too. That's the beauty of it.

But I'm preaching to the choir here. ;) I just love talking about this kind of stuff, and finding someone who shares that is sometimes hard to find. That's another reason why I love this community so much. :) Glad you had a great day! It sounds lovely.

Craig F said...

Julie weathers choked on her gruel. She turned her head and took a gulp of coffee. When she turned back the Billboard magazine ad still wanted rodeo cowgirls.

She had been kicked off the ranch for racing a horse around a couple of barrels. In 1929 women didn't do those things. The dream of having a horse between her legs overwhelmed her.

She wrote her application on a napkin and spent her last nickel for a stamp. Being an administrative assistant for a literary company in New York didn't pay enough to make it a dream.

MA Hudson said...

Haha, JULIE you'd have me hooked with that query, but watch out for Craig - looks like he could be some pretty stiff competition!!

Seriously, your 'query' has a really high intrigue quotient. Cowgirls + 1920's + bronc riding = I wanna know more!!

Joseph S. said...

I’m writing my memoir as fiction.

In it I explain how I destroyed a terrorist cell planning an attack in the USA. I tell how I was captured by and escaped Colombian revolutionaries, and how I set back a major Mexican drug cartel’s operations by at least a year while beautiful women fought for my favors (literally).

Most of it is true, except for the terrorists, the revolutionaries, the drug cartel and, sadly, the beautiful women.

JulieWeathers said...

Haha Craig and MA. Then along comes Joseph.

Too funny.

Unknown said...

Hmm mm...not a genius to be seen in my novel. Sigh. Thanks Colin.

Unknown said...

Hmm mm...not a genius to be seen in my novel. Sigh. Thanks Colin.