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Occasionally, we at Writer’s Relief find ourselves working with a writer who doesn’t quite know what genre he or she is writing (fiction or nonfiction). Let’s say a book or story is based loosely on the author’s real-life adventures. Perhaps the names have been changed. Or maybe one or two little things have been altered, but the story is largely factual.
Should this story be called fiction or nonfiction? If the story is in book form, should it be pitched as a novel or a memoir?
Here are some scenarios we’ve run into, along with suggested solutions.
SITUATION ONE. The author has written a book based on his life. The story is faithful to his experiences in the way that all creative nonfiction tries to recreate stories from memories as accurately as possible. The author has changed the characters’ names to protect identities, but otherwise everything is true. (Writer’s Relief tip: Changing a person’s name will not necessarily protect you from a lawsuit if your characters are recognizable as real people. Learn more: Creative Nonfiction: How To Stay Out Of Trouble).
The problem: The author values his life experience and wants to pitch his book as a memoir. But the names have been changed, so in that way, it’s not entirely truthful.
Solution: In your query letter, explain the situation clearly: My book is an accurate memoir of my life story, though I have changed some names.
SITUATION TWO. An author has written a book based loosely on her life. The story is very familiar to her because she has lived much of it. She has changed characters’ names. She has also taken liberties here and there in order to make the story more compelling, and she amped up her ending to be a little flashier.
The problem: The writer knows that small parts of her tale are fictionalized (perhaps she added a pet dog, a villain, or a love interest), but the larger story is mostly true. Because her real-life experience is so out of the ordinary, she feels it’s important that readers understand that the things she’s writing about actually happened to her (for the most part). Is this a memoir or a novel? Fiction or nonfiction?
Solution: In this case, we feel the author would be best served by calling her story a novel. Memoir promises truth, and so if the book is not as truthful as the author can possibly make it, then it is not a memoir. In her professional writer’s biography, the author might note that her own story is similar to the story of the novel—though not exactly the same.
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SITUATION THREE. A writer has a friend who has an unusual life story because she was a professional spy. The writer gets his friend’s permission to write a story about everything that happened to her.
The problem: The writer is responsible for what he writes. And so if the writer’s friend is feeding him inaccuracies—intentionally or not—the writer will be responsible if/when the book is published. Research is key. All sources must be verified.
Solution: If the writer has done his due diligence and all facts are backed up with proof, then this book might be best pitched as a biography. But if the writer can’t perfectly attest to the truthfulness of his friend’s story, then this book might be best pitched as a novel—and it should probably be quite fictionalized to protect the subjects, the writer, and the publisher.
Still not sure what to call your story?
If you’re not sure whether or not your book is a novel or a memoir, you don’t necessarily have to worry too deeply about it while you’re querying literary agents. Your job as a writer is simply to write the best book you can.
You can learn more about short stories, essays, and mixed-genre pieces as well in order to decide what to call your work.
Finally, you can always call your project “a story inspired by real-life events” or “a work loosely based on my life.” If a literary agent or editor is interested in your project because you’ve got a strong story and a unique voice, then it’s likely that he or she will be happy to talk with you about the most appropriate way to publish or pitch it.
Learn more: How To Write Fiction Based On Real Life.
THE MORAL: Always be honest. If parts of your story are fabricated, say so. If you’ve changed nothing but names, say that as well. As long as you’re being honest, you have nothing to worry about!
Remember, our team of submission strategists is here to help. We’ve been working with creative writers since 1994 to help them navigate the publishing industry. And we’re standing by to help you too!
QUESTION: Do you base your characters closely on people you’ve met? Or are your characters born mostly of your imagination?
Photo by Julia Manzerova