When to sell non-fiction as fiction

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paqart

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Is there an established protocol for deciding when a non-fiction book may be sold as fiction? For this question, "non-fiction" refers to a book that is based on real events but has been adjusted to anonymize the material. The purpose of writing the book in this way is to allow a novelistic treatment that would not be possible otherwise. The events are not well-known, so it is highly unlikely that readers would be familiar with them.

Does anyone have an opinion whether it is appropriate or not to sell a book like this as fiction rather than non-fiction?

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veinglory

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The first thing I would consider is which would be possible to write, and then if both could be written which would sell better.

Non-fiction needs to be factual to the best of the writer's ability even when some identifying features might be openly fictionalized for legal or ethical reasons such as "we will refer to her as Jane Doe".
 

cornflake

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Is there an established protocol for deciding when a non-fiction book may be sold as fiction? For this question, "non-fiction" refers to a book that is based on real events but has been adjusted to anonymize the material. The purpose of writing the book in this way is to allow a novelistic treatment that would not be possible otherwise. The events are not well-known, so it is highly unlikely that readers would be familiar with them.

Does anyone have an opinion whether it is appropriate or not to sell a book like this as fiction rather than non-fiction?

AP

I'm not sure what you mean. Just making people anonymous, changing names or what have you, does not result in a 'novelistic' treatment, imo.

If you're talking about making stuff up, James Frey-style, then it's not non-fiction, it's fiction.
 

paqart

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I'm not sure what you mean. Just making people anonymous, changing names or what have you, does not result in a 'novelistic' treatment, imo.

If you're talking about making stuff up, James Frey-style, then it's not non-fiction, it's fiction.

What has been done is that real events have been described, but there is no way to check such things as conversations or in some situations, the sequence of events. Instead of leaving the gaps, they have been written into a plausible narrative, though almost certainly with some factual errors. The errors concern smaller details that do not affect the major themes of the story, but they are certainly present.

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veinglory

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I think that the genre depends on the extent of the conjecture and the degree to which they are presented as fact. You might try posting an example in the 'share you work' subforum to get feedback on that. for example coding the known fact versus conjectured material in different colors.
 

paqart

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I think that the genre depends on the extent of the conjecture and the degree to which they are presented as fact. You might try posting an example in the 'share you work' subforum to get feedback on that. for example coding the known fact versus conjectured material in different colors.

Well, I'll just say this is a memoir, but some of the people involved would rather this was presented as fiction. As far as I am able, it is completely factual, apart from changed names and places. Conversations convey the sense of real conversations, but the words are most likely inaccurate though in character.

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JournoWriter

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As a reader, if I pick up a nonfiction book, I expect all the facts to be accurate and all words inside quotation marks to be as they were spoken or written. I can accept name changes for a good reason - such as to identify people talking about very sensitive subjects or illegal activity, or to identify children.

Otherwise, for me, it's fiction.
 

paqart

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As a reader, if I pick up a nonfiction book, I expect all the facts to be accurate and all words inside quotation marks to be as they were spoken or written. I can accept name changes for a good reason - such as to identify people talking about very sensitive subjects or illegal activity, or to identify children.

Otherwise, for me, it's fiction.

After reading your reply, I decided to do a Google search on this question. I was rewarded with quite a few excellent essays on this subject, a couple of which were written by literary agents, others by professional authors. For the benefit of other readers, here is the impression I got from the articles I read:

1) For memoir, it is expected that some fiction-like license is taken with things like descriptions of the appearance of places and objects and the dialogue in conversations.
2) Any event described in a memoir should be a real event that did happen, just as all important conversations also happened, even if the dialogue itself cannot be reconstructed.

Based on these two items, my book is a memoir, not fiction.

3) When pitching to agents, memoirs should be treated as fiction. This means that the full book should be finished rather than simply outlined as may be the case for a non-fiction submission.

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veinglory

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There is a little more to being a memoir. For a start the leeway relates to accepting frailty of memory. But scenes in memoirs are almost always events the writer was present for, not invented. Books that deviate from this tend to be controversial.

And a memoir must have an autobiographical quality even when it relates to a specific personal or historical event rather than a person's entire life. It is composed from direct lived experience with a strong point of view.

I think you might need to get some good beta-readers who know their way around these genres to nail this down.
 

JournoWriter

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Memoir and autobio can be tricky. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that anything presented as fact should be fact, not reconstructed memories subject to fictionalization and finesse. Future historians may rely on your book generations from now and gain a skewed understanding of the past - OK, that's an extreme example, but a real one. Particularly with regard to quotes, there are plenty of other options - summarizing, paraphrasing, presenting inner thoughts in italics, etc. - that a writer can use instead of making stuff up. Do your due diligence - talk to others who were there, consult written records, verify as many of the details independently as you can, and that'll put you on firmer ground. YMMV - just one man's opinion.
 

paqart

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Memoir and autobio can be tricky. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that anything presented as fact should be fact, not reconstructed memories subject to fictionalization and finesse. Future historians may rely on your book generations from now and gain a skewed understanding of the past - OK, that's an extreme example, but a real one. Particularly with regard to quotes, there are plenty of other options - summarizing, paraphrasing, presenting inner thoughts in italics, etc. - that a writer can use instead of making stuff up. Do your due diligence - talk to others who were there, consult written records, verify as many of the details independently as you can, and that'll put you on firmer ground. YMMV - just one man's opinion.

My impression after reading several articles on this elsewhere is that the efforts you describe are unnecessary. It was a surprise to me too, but that appeared to be the consensus. They also addressed your concerns (and mine also as it happens) by saying that many authors have a hard time deciding between "fiction" and "memoir" for the reasons you state. However, the rule seems to be that a memoir is about how you remember something as opposed to ensuring that every memory is objectively perfectly accurate.

On reflection, that actually does seem reasonable to me because it would be almost impossible to write these things otherwise. In my own case for instance, the events did occur, but there is no way to go back in time and verify the details. I wish I could paraphrase conversations, but even that level of detail is not available in most cases. If, for instance, I know that I sold an antique watch to a certain person in a specific place, but that person is dead and there is no record of the transaction, how am I supposed to write the scene where the transaction takes place? This seems to be where the "it's your memory" rule seems to take over.

I just finished reading a couple of excellent books by the historian William Dalrymple. In them, it is quite obvious that he only describes things if he has reference to support them. If he reports a conversation, he states the source and reports what the source said, often quoting it. The style is wonderful to read, but works only when a good amount of documentation exists.

Getting back to the watch example, it is not fiction to say that it was sold, to whom, by whom, or where. Any dialogue I make up for the scene probably does not match whatever was actually said on the occasion, but if that was the rule then very few memoirs would contain dialogue, if any. It seems like it would be a problem only if the dialogue was meaningfully different as opposed to only being different. In that sense, "I'll buy the watch" is not meaningfully different from "I'll take it, but I think you charge too much." A meaningful difference would be if someone wrote something like "I need a new watch because I broke my old one when I escaped from prison last night." This is because the only remembered fact, selling the watch, does not include the detail about a prison escape.

If, on the other hand, the book hinges on the fact that this person claimed to have just escaped from prison and had done so, dialogue could include that information even if it was not originally delivered in the context of buying the watch.

I'm just reporting my impression of these articles btw, not trying to corrupt anyone's journalistic integrity here. My instinct was to call my book fiction, but I found that writing the query letter was very difficult because the material really isn't fiction. After reading some more on the subject, I found it was much easier to describe the work as memoir, and think it is a more accurate definition.

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JournoWriter

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I see your points, certainly, but I'm just old-fashioned, I suppose, in my definition of nonfiction as Stuff That Is True. Fictionalized anything is fiction in my book. Memory is an incredibly and notoriously unreliable source.

ETA: To put it another way from a reader's POV: If the names aren't real, and the places aren't real, and the words weren't spoken as you say they were spoken ... what about a story can I trust?
 
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paqart

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I see your points, certainly, but I'm just old-fashioned, I suppose, in my definition of nonfiction as Stuff That Is True. Fictionalized anything is fiction in my book. Memory is an incredibly and notoriously unreliable source.

A funny thing about the fallibility of memory is that the exact nature of that fallibility is important to understanding it. When I hear others talk about this, it is often brought up as a way to discount all recollections regardless what they are. This is not an easily justified position, not that I imply it is your position.

For instance, I remember certain details of when I was offered a position working for the game developer Square back in 1996. I have a document confirming that an offer was made, but it doesn't say a word about what the interviewer was wearing or how he sat in the chair during the interview. As I remember it, her wore motorcycle boots and that his clothing had a number of metallic studs of some kind all over them. He sat sprawled on the chair in an indecorous manner, as if he'd forgotten that I was essentially a stranger and it is normally considered impolite to splay one's limbs during an interview.

I do not consider this recollection to be incorrect in any way, and seriously doubt that it is. However, there is no independent evidence. I could find other employees who would likely remember that this person did dress in motorcycle gear at the office and that he had a drug problem that tended to make him less formal than he might otherwise have been. I could write it that way quite easily. However, to do so removes the reader from the "you are here" perspective of a memoir. This, I think, is the essential difference between memoir and biography or autobiography. It may be that the idea of reading something that doesn't have trunks of information to support is annoying to some readers, but that doesn't change what the genre has developed into.

In the book I wrote for instance, there are two incidents where I am threatened with a gun, one of which resulted in a police report. I don't have access to the police report because the person who had the gun was a juvenile. This doesn't change the fact that there are two genuine incidents where a loaded gun was pointed at me and the police were involved in the second of the two incidents. No trick of memory is going to create such scenes. It may be that either lasted for less time than it felt like, or I cannot remember what I was wearing, but whether it happened or not is not in question. Powerful incidents such as these are much less likely to be forgotten than less significant events, such as whether you had root beer or Pepsi on a certain day in 1990. This limits the "fallibility of memory" argument a great deal.

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paqart

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I see your points, certainly, but I'm just old-fashioned, I suppose, in my definition of nonfiction as Stuff That Is True. Fictionalized anything is fiction in my book. Memory is an incredibly and notoriously unreliable source.

ETA: To put it another way from a reader's POV: If the names aren't real, and the places aren't real, and the words weren't spoken as you say they were spoken ... what about a story can I trust?

A memoir, at least as I understand it, is what you remember of an event. That you can trust (or should be able to). The memoir you read, like "Wild Swans" or "Death in Shanghai" represent what the author remembers of the incidents in question. The incidents are supported wherever possible, but there are scenes in "Death in Shanghai" that I seriously doubt contain verbatim dialogue. How can someone imprisoned in appalling conditions with no writing materials be expected to remember for years the exact words of a conversation? That doesn't make any sense. But on the other hand, I doubt any memoir makes that claim anyway. What is important is that the meaning is correct. For instance, let's say I meet you at a restaurant and ask you what you were eating. You might answer, "Well, I had a bunch of stuff. I had the ratatouille, a beer, the pig's head followed by a vegan salad, then some twinkies and a martini." If I wanted to include that scene in a memoir, I could write that you said, "I had spaghetti, a martini, a goat's head followed by vegetarian couscous plus some ding dongs and a whisky." Every single item in the second list is wrong, but they all correctly represent the idea that you'd had an odd collection of mismatched meal items.

In a court of law, a journal article, a historical subject, or any kind of traditional non-fiction book, I would want either the exact dialogue or would substitute a true statement that doesn't attempt to record the dialogue. However, in a memoir, that doesn't seem to be the way it is written. This may just mean that the genre is not one that you care for, but it is what it is.

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Fruitbat

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Not sure if it's exactly what you're looking for, paqart, but you might want to look up "roman a clef."
 

veinglory

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It was my understanding you has also written conjectured scenes that you were not actually present for. That is outside the leeway traditionally allowed for memoir.
 

paqart

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It was my understanding you has also written conjectured scenes that you were not actually present for. That is outside the leeway traditionally allowed for memoir.

Not sure where you got that idea, but no, I didn't do that. The closest would be situations where I know that a certain person gave me information, but I didn't remember if it was in the lobby, a bedroom, or the kitchen, so I just picked one and wrote the scene. In situations where the location is not important, but the transfer of information is critical, it seemed like a fair compromise. On the other hand, when location is critical, this would not have been done.

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Siri Kirpal

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Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I've skipped some of the discussion here, but yes, you can reconstruct scenes in memoir, because there's no way in this green earth any human being can remember every last pertinent detail.

BUT: you write a disclaimer at the beginning saying some scenes are reconstructed and certain details are guesses or changed to protect people's privacy.

Also: keep as close to the truth as you can while still creating a good narrative.

We do have a bio/memoir section of the forum. Both a regular section and SYW, which you can access now. Password is vista. You can critique now, but can't post anything until you've got 50 posts.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

frimble3

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As a reader, I'd rather read fiction and think, "Wow, this must be based on some real thing", than read non-fiction and think "Yeah, right, no way anyone could have been there/known that."

Like episodes of 'Law and Order', 'based on a true story', 'ripped from the headlines'. In some cases you can see where they just barely filed the serial numbers off, changed names and nationalities and nothing else. But, it gives them the leeway they need for dramatic license.

Seconding Fruitbat's 'roman a clef' suggestion.
 

veinglory

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As a reader I find stuff that actually happened far more interesting because, wow, that actually happened. But then I do read memoir regularly--so obviously I am in that readership.
 

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I currently writing my third book (well I'm still working on my 2nd non-fiction book but my 3rd book seems to want to work it's way out) which will be a "based on a true story" type deal. Most of the people who the characters are based on, other than me, have passed away. Some of the memories are coming back to me now (based on some of the deaths of some of the participants) and some is being filled in by "fiction" such as a segue and definitely the events are completely out of order. I know events on a stand-alone basis, but it's tough for me to string them together or remember what happened when. So I am writing this on a "based on real life" basis.
 

Karen Landis

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Hi, paqart -

Roman a clef: My book was first critiqued by a university journalism professor who happened to be one of the characters in the book. He called my MS Roman a clef. Perhaps yours could be classed as that, also.

I think that calling your book non-fiction would not be appropriate because there is some modification of dialogue and names of persons and places; memoir would not be appropriate because the names are changed (modification of dialogue should not be a problem as long as the thrust is accurate).

I got the impression that you wanted to publish as fiction. Why wouldn't this be appropriate as long as you aren't using real names? In my opinion, much fiction is based, however loosely, on personal experience.

Go for it.
 

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Narrative non-fiction

Could you label it "narrative non-fiction"?
 

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