Narrative nonfiction, biographical fiction, novel, etc.

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TrapperViper

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Morning everyone,

Hope you're all having a great start to fall.

I've been querying my WIP since early September as a novel. I've gotten two requests for full, one of which was rejected and the other I'm waiting to hear back on. I'm also waiting for responses from about 60% of the agents I queried.

I recently rewrote a draft "preface" for my WIP, which can be found here:


This week I queried my manuscript to agents looking for creative nonfiction, identifying my manuscript as creative nonfiction. I used the preface as a cover letter to those agents, and the responses have been awesome.

That said, a mentor friend of mine who used to be a journalist and is now a trade published nonfiction author has expressed to me her very strong conviction that I should not be suggesting the manuscript is narrative nonfiction (she also gave me a huge compliment and said my preface is the best thing she's read of mine to date). I state in the preface that I fictionalized a lot of the story, but also say that it leans more toward fact than fiction. What I wrote, for the most part, really did happen as I wrote it.

For one, this is hard to admit. I've always said it was a novel, mainly because I was embarrassed by the way I wrote the protagonist. Calling it nonfiction is not really something I'm proud of, but I find it interesting that--from what it seems--more folks will be more attracted to it knowing that most of it is true than they would be if they thought it was a standard novel.

So I'm curious what any of you "subject matter experts" on this topic might think of this.

Is the line between narrative nonfiction and biographical fiction as clear as my friend suggests?

Should I let agents decide how they want to label this after I hook them with the text?

Any other thoughts or insights would be appreciated.

Thanks,
 
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veinglory

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In my mind narrative non-fiction "fills the gaps" between the facts especially in conveying the specifics of scenes, but the attempt is to do so with a minimum of the invention. So it's more like interpolating. But once you inject whole elements (characters, events) it becomes more fiction inspired by fact. I don't think there is a clear way to distinguish them in the middle ground other than the opinions of well-informed readers as to whether it has crossed over....
 
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ChaseJxyz

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I love narrative nonfiction. In a book like Bad Blood (which is about the whole Theranos kerfuffle), there's scenes that the author obviously does not have full info as to what happened (I'm pretty sure Holmes never sat down with the writer and said "okay this is how I lied to Henry Kissinger about my company") so he had to, as veinglory said, "fill in the gaps" based on what he does know about the people involved and the facts he does have. So there's definitely going to be scenes that are not 100% aligned with reality, but the "goal"/outcomes of the scenes do.

People also have imperfect memory, so it's entirely possible that people told him things that also do not 100% align with what really happened. He might have conflicting info from different sources so he has to make a choice as to what is "true" and write that. But he's also a journalist who's been doing this a really, really, really long time, so he knows what he's doing.

So for your story....how much of it is true? Is your MC a person who actually existed? What stuff did you make up? Many years ago there was a book called "A Million Little Pieces" which was a "memoir" about the writer's struggle with addiction. It got big, really big, Oprah even had him go on her show to sell it to people...and the guy made it all up! People were really pissed! So now whenever you google the dude's name, all of this is what comes up...so his reputation was ruined to sell a book. Was it worth it though?

If you sell your book as nonfiction and, at any point, someone finds out it's fiction, then you risk your contract being pulled, at minimum. It will not go well for you. What you CAN do is say "this was inspired by true events, like my time in the army serving under such and such." But also writing a fictional story about REAL people is another legal minefield...
 

TrapperViper

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In my mind narrative non-fiction "fills the gaps" between the facts especially in conveying the specifics of scenes, but the attempt is to do so with a minimum of the invention. So it's more like interpolating. But once you inject whole elements (characters, events) it becomes more fiction inspired by fact. I don't think there is a clear way to distinguish them in the middle ground other than the opinions of well-informed readers as to whether it has crossed over...
Thank you.

Question: when you say "distinguish them," are you referring to distinguishing between fact and fiction or distinguishing between narrative nonfiction and novel?
 

Stytch

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I think you need to be able to produce a clear run down that distinguishes what parts are fact, and what are fiction. Not to be published, but because if I was a publisher, I'd like to know who I might need to fact check with, or what details might need changing to avoid a lawsuit, etc., and I imagine this discussion would have to happen at some point before print. Then again, maybe I'm thinking way too highly of publishing standards in that area.
 
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TrapperViper

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But also writing a fictional story about REAL people is another legal minefield...
Well...exactly. I tried to address this in the preface, too.

I'm not at the publishing stage. I'm at the pitch stage to agents and small presses.

I'm struggling with whether to pitch the manuscript as narrative nonfiction, biographical war fiction, or novel. It seems like the first option is capturing the most interest.

Thanks for chiming in!
 

TrapperViper

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I think you need to be able to produce a clear run down that distinguishes what parts are fact, and what are fiction. Not to be published, but because if I was a publisher, I'd like to know who I might need to fact check with, or what details might need changing to avoid a lawsuit, etc., and I imagine this discussion would have to happen at some point before print. Then again, maybe I'm thinking way too highly of publishing standards in that area.
Yup, happy to do this. But like I just replied to chase, I'm not at the publishing stage yet. I'm in the pitch stage to agents. And I'm not sure which way to do it that makes the most sense.
 

Catriona Grace

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Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction written so that it reads like a novel. That doesn't mean it is permissible to fictionalize part of the book. Presenting speculation as fact is unethical, even if all one is doing is "filling in the gaps." If there are gaps due to lack of proof or knowledge, say so, and move on.
 
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TrapperViper

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Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction written so that it reads like a novel. That doesn't mean it is permissible to fictionalize part of the book.

If this is universal, than what I wrote is not narrative nonfiction. If there is any ambiguity about it, though, I wonder if it's permissible for me to label it as such since I address in the preface that the story is true as a whole with bits and pieces fictionalized.
 

Helix

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If this is universal, than what I wrote is not narrative nonfiction. If there is any ambiguity about it, though, I wonder if it's permissible for me to label it as such since I address in the preface that the story is true as a whole with bits and pieces fictionalized.

I'd label it as a novel based on true events, because calling it narrative non-fiction will open up a big old can o' worms. You only need one person who was there to say, 'this didn't happen' and that's all credibility down the drain.
 

veinglory

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Thank you.

Question: when you say "distinguish them," are you referring to distinguishing between fact and fiction or distinguishing between narrative nonfiction and novel?
I mean distinguishing fiction or non-fiction.

Even full on NF tends to have some assumed content but I think the difference is the author tends to flag "it must be presumed" or "it is likely that" for anything that is not a matter of record that can be closely substantiated.
 

mccardey

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Yup, happy to do this. But like I just replied to chase, I'm not at the publishing stage yet. I'm in the pitch stage to agents. And I'm not sure which way to do it that makes the most sense.
Yes, but Trapper - if you get an agent interested by describing the book as *something* of non-fiction, and it turns out that it is more fictional than that, they're not going to be happy with you. You need to be very clear from the start regardless of which category is gaining the most interest.

I think Helix has it right. It's war fiction, based on true events (with the added bonus that you were there...) If it were mine, I'd pitch it like that, and then let the agent and publisher sort it out - I wouldn't be trying to land an agent and then have to swap non-fic for fic.

I think your prologue (though it needs tightening) is a good tool to use upfront.
 
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veinglory

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Narrative nonfiction is nonfiction written so that it reads like a novel. That doesn't mean it is permissible to fictionalize part of the book. Presenting speculation as fact is unethical, even if all one is doing is "filling in the gaps." If there are gaps due to lack of proof or knowledge, say so, and move on.
As soon as you try to make a narrative -- that is a scene in real-time -- unless you had a videotape of the event the author is adding things not in the record.

For example, I am currently relating a scene where a research project fell apart, the study was done in a cold rainy swamp for long hours, and the investigator (who observed from ac comfortable location) said his assistant lost all enthusiasm for the work. I am happy to assume the assistant found his work cold, wet, exhausting and that is why he no longer liked it-- but I don't literally have a text connecting those dots so I am inventing that aspect of the scene as I describe it -- albeit close to the source. It is just a question of what might be fairly assumed, with the knowledge that it might be wrong. Possibly the investigator slept with the assistant's girlfriend and that is why it all fell apart and the days of laboring in a swamp were coincidental or the investigator deliberately made the work horrible to torture his love rival and this aspect is omitted from the record.

IMHO a clearly indicated degree of interpretation is routinely--perhaps always--part of a good NF text. Even the "facts" of previous textbooks have turned out to be the assumptions of the time. The main job of most BF authors IMHO is to be transparent, I have written a number of texts all on the NF end, but they range from flagged assumptions to scenes of historical events that are likely to be close to the truth with citations the sources of record. Those who think you can speak only the facts when not quoting the text are sometimes the source of the most insidious misunderstandings...
 
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TrapperViper

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Thank you all. I'm slowly resigning myself to the fact that unless I take out the stuff I genuinely made up (the protagonist's relationship with his dad, the mother, etc.), I won't be able to get away calling this creative nonfiction.

Seems like everyone agrees.

"Title: An Autobiographical Novel of the Afghanistan War"

or

"Title: Autofiction of the Afghanistan War"

Here's an interesting take the term autofiction...

 

Helix

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Thank you all. I'm slowly resigning myself to the fact that unless I take out the stuff I genuinely made up (the protagonist's relationship with his dad, the mother, etc.), I won't be able to get away calling this creative nonfiction.

Seems like everyone agrees.

"Title: An Autobiographical Novel of the Afghanistan War"

or

"Title: Autofiction of the Afghanistan War"

Here's an interesting take the term autofiction...



Is the narrative related in first person? If not, then I'd be dropping 'auto' from any part of the description.

Here's the Guardian on autofiction, with some examples: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2...fiction-all-men-want-to-know-by-nina-bouraoui
 

Catriona Grace

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As soon as you try to make a narrative -- that is a scene in real-time -- unless you had a videotape of the event the author is adding things not in the record.

A narrative is a written account of a string of events, not a scene in real time.

If one must employ speculation, assumptions, and come close to the truth without actually arriving there, one might not have the information one needs to write a nonfiction book.
 

folkchick

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I am shopping a narrative nonfiction about John Lennon. It was a trick keeping it voicey and fresh, yet still aligned with facts. I took time to research dates, people and specific events before writing a scene each day. A trip to the bookstore shows there are quite a few similar non-fiction books about him, but nothing in the 'novel' genre, which makes sense. I'm very serious about this book. It's been a lot of work, and joy. Yet do you think I am barking up the wrong tree by calling it narrative nonfiction? Historical fiction perhaps? We all know Truman Capote veritably created the genre--indeed he changed details for privacy, his own I'm sure.
 
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