View Full Version : Turning memoir into narrative non-fiction

10-09-2007, 05:25 AM
I keep mulling something over. At the writers' conference I attended in July, one very prominent editor, after hearing my 30 second synopsis (that's all the time that was allowed in the one-publisher, six-author sessions) had only one suggestion. He said to change it from memoir to almost anything else. He said that memoir may never recover from the James Frey thing. He suggested I change it to narrative non-fiction.

Any thoughts on this? How is narrative non-fiction different than memoir? Are there reasons one would be better than the other?

By the way- I really didn't like this editor at all. I think thats why it's taken me so long to even consider his opinion. It's hard to take advice from someone you don't respect. But reality is, even jerks sometimes have good advice.

Any ideas you have are greatly appreciated.


10-09-2007, 06:07 AM
I can't help you but maybe someone can also explain the difference between memoir & narrative non-fiction. I'm a little confused. Not to hijack, sorry.

10-09-2007, 06:10 AM
I think the difference is that memoir is about a person, and narrative non-fiction is about an event.

I could be wrong.

But I can say this with authority: disregard the comments of people you dislike, and memoirs still sell.

10-09-2007, 08:28 PM
I don't know the difference...not really. I researched memoir and narrative non-fiction last night. The problem is that almost every "definition" says that defining it is difficult.

Siddow- Not to be argumentative, just trying to figure this out. If the story is about a person's response to a significant event, then what? Is there a choice for some books? Could some fit into either category?

Still confused, but thanks for the responses!


10-10-2007, 01:49 AM
I would think that would fall under memoir, since it's your response to the event, or narrative NF if you're writing about someone else's response.

Susan B
10-10-2007, 04:06 AM
Good question, turning memoir into narrative nonfiction. I considered at points during the search for a publisher for my music memoir. (It was actually suggested to me by an interested agent, who liked the subject of my book but was reluctant to take on a memoir.)

Memoir is definitely an uphill climb these days--though I did eventually find an agent, and am close to finalizing things with a publisher.

People can argue over labels and definitions, but I'd bet the distinction the editor was getting at was how central a focus your personal story should have in your book.

The distinction between memoir and narrative nonfiction doesn't come down to whether the focus is on a particular event or time period or subject. Many memoirs do just that. (Think of the many memoirs about the Holocaust, Vietnam, the Sixties.) It has to do, i think, with whether the narrator's personal experience is at the core of the book, or whether it plays a lesser role.

There are two recent (and successful) nonfiction books that I think show the difference pretty well. They they both tell engaging stories about two interesting, if offbeat subjects: the saxophone and the game of scrabble. Although they incorporate the personal experiences of the authors, I wouldn't consider them memoirs and they weren't identified or marketed as such.

The two books are:
Michael Segell The Devil's Horn
Stephen Fatsis Wordfreak

In both cases, the authors tell an engaging story, a narrative (rather than using straight nonfiction techniques like reporting, exposition, etc.) They weave together history, anecdotes, interviews of key people in these two very different subcultures. They also weave in their personal stories. Segell as I recall had a brief early fascination with the sax and came back to it as an adult, took lessons, and actually got to perform. Fatsis (a sports reporter) became an undercover reporter in the world of competitive scrabble players. Their personal experiences flavor the story and provide an interesting strand. But the personal story is not the focus, as it would be in memoir.

What is the subject of your book? That might make it easier to discuss what turning it into narrative nonficton this might involve.

Hope some of this is helpful!


10-11-2007, 03:45 AM
You know something funny . . . I've heard the opposite from reporters. They say, "What do you think about the rise in popularity of memoir?"

No one has suggested to me that "memoir may never recover from Frey."

I think you are debating something that has no meaning. Write a compelling tale, and call it memoir or narrative or anything. If it sells, the publisher will call it what they want, and booksellers will shelve it where they think best.

Look how Barnes & Nobles classifies my book:
Home > Books > Medical Figures & Patient Narratives

How obscure is that? And yet, it's one of the fastest selling books in the country. And I called it a memoir.