Should My Story Be a Memoir or a Novel?

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Before you decide, consider this: on an average day I read 8-10 memoir queries in the slush pile. Now think about how many memoirs make a big commercial splash in a given year (don’t forget to subtract the celebrity ones—a whole different niche). I don’t need to gather the latest statistics; let’s just say it’s a modest handful. Many more memoirs are written than the reading public can consume, and competition is high. So before you sit down to write, it’s worth thinking about your goal for the project. Is it to get published and find commercial success? Or do you simply need to get this story out of your head and onto the page, for your own benefit, or as a memento to pass on to loved ones? If it’s the latter, go for it. When the memoir is finished, you can decide whether to try for a traditional publisher or to self-publish and make it as widely available as you want it to be.

If you’re more focused on the first goal, commercial success, you’ve got a much higher mountain to climb. Have you thought about turning your memoir-in-progress into a novel? Many authors have found success by using their life story as a starting point—the grain of sand at the heart of the pearl. Here are some advantages:

  • Creative freedom. You’ll no longer be constrained by the cardinal rule of memoir writing—that you must tell the truth. You’ll be able to make events “bigger,” invent characters, and re-arrange scenes to produce a greater impact.
  • Emotional distance. Some memoir writing involves going deeply into experiences you’d rather forget, and it can be more traumatic than therapeutic. Fictionalizing a story can help bring the cathartic effects while keeping some distance from the real events. This applies not only to your feelings, but the friends and relatives who would have populated your memoir. You’ll worry less about exposing them or showing them in a negative light when you have the “it’s fiction” excuse to fall back on.
  • Ability to Capture Larger Themes. A good memoir succeeds because of a paradox: it portrays a highly unique life experience while tapping into the emotional psyche of the public—meaning the themes and events of the story have universal interest.  Fiction does the same thing, but it gives the author more leeway. You can draw from the experiences of multiple people, or an entire group of people, to tell a more resonant story. Novelist Dave Eggers does this beautifully in What is the What, the fictionalized “memoir” (because it is told in the first-person voice of the subject) of Sudanese refugee Valentino Achak Deng.

Examples of fictionalized memoirs (also called semi-autobiographical novels):

         On the Road by Jack Kerouac

         A Farewell to Arms by Earnest Hemingway

         A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

        The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Remember, once you choose to write fiction, you have the freedom to stay as close to the truth or wander as far as your imagination takes you. Almost every novel contains bits inspired by the author’s experience, but don’t be surprised if what started as a memoir evolves into something  unexpected. Fantasy? Magical realism? Why not.

In the end, it’s your decision. In the hands of a gifted writer, even an ordinary life can be the basis of an extraordinary memoir. If you believe in the story you have to tell, in the end, the decision between nonfiction and fiction will come naturally. So relax, get your fingers on the keyboard and see where they take you.

4 responses »

  1. Thanks for the post. I have written a memoir of my 8 years in the convent and I’ve written a novel that would take place many years later about a nun and an undertaker. Your post discussed several issues that I debated in my head. I found advantages and disadvantages with both genres. I don’t know how to put my finger on it exactly, but there was a slight feeling of dishonesty or cowardice with the novel, like I was hiding.
    Thanks again.

    • Very interesting–and you raise a good point about honesty. In the end, every author has to decide which works best for his or her sense of integrity. Thanks for your feedback!

  2. I just looked at the submission page for NLA and I’m confused. It says no nonfiction. Your post states that you receive 8 or more queries per day for memoir. Publishers Marketplace lists memoir as one of Nelson’s areas of interest. Does your agency consider memoir?
    Thanks for the clarification.

    • Sorry for the confusion, Kathleen. Our new website doesn’t list memoir because we do so few of those–we really focus on fiction. But yes, we do still consider memoir queries and you are welcome to send yours following those same submissions guidelines on the website. Best wishes!

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