When to sell non-fiction as fiction

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Feb 13, 2005
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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?


It's either fiction or nonfiction. It can't be both. It's either all true, or it's all fiction. "Adjusted" means making it up, changing the facts. When you do this, it's fiction.


Aug 30, 2013
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I'm also struggling with this. Many people would have you believe that there is a clear line between fiction and non-fiction. Just not true.

All literature, fiction or non-fiction, is heavily editorialized. When you watch the news, at best, you are getting a heavily edited description of what actually happened. This "truth" has to go through, at best, three filters:

  1. The reporter's perception of the event (assuming they were even the one to witness the event).
  2. The editorializing - deciding what is important to mention and what isn't.
  3. The description - putting that version of the "truth" into words.
Truth in literature is a myth. So, if we start with that understanding, it is easier to deal with the ambiguity.

But, it is a lot like when people swear in court to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." This is an impossible task from the get-go. It is impossible to know the whole truth, much less tell it.

What the court is really asking is, "Do you swear to tell us all of the truth that matters to us?"

And, that's really what the literary world is asking too.

If I am writing a book about ... say ... surviving the winter alone in remote Siberia, then if I say, "The black wolf stole my fish." But, in fact, the wolf was grey ... does the reader care?

We run into a problem when some clever reader does some research and discovers that there are no black wolves in Siberia. (I'm sure there are ... just making a point.) Then, even though you just got the detail wrong and/or just thought that a black wolf helps the reader feel the event better than a grey wolf, it calls your credibility into question.

That's a trivial example, but you get my point.

In addition to editorializing qualified details (such as the make/model of a car, the color of the wolf, or possibly even a date), there is editorializing quantity or scope. To say, "I was surrounded by a dozen wolves", is different from, "I saw a wolf."

But, this is problematic. Let's say there were 10 wolves and not 12. Who cares? What about 9? 6? At what point does that become fiction? What about if the wolves were just fanned out in front of me? Is that the same as "surrounded"?

And, this is where the memoir runs into some problems. If I experienced this, and, at the time, it felt to me as if dozens of wolves were surrounding me and chomping at my heels - even though it may not have actually happened that way - that's the way I need to tell it.

I actually just had an experience this summer wherein I came very close to a large animal in the wild. As I recall it, I could have nearly reached out and touched it. But, I was also catching the video with my phone. Turns out, it maybe got 30 feet or so from me. But, that's not how I tell the story. I tell it like I remember it. Why? Because that is how I experienced it, and it makes a better story.

But, there is a third sort of editorializing. If I write a non-fiction account of the winter I spent in Siberia living among wolves, it is probably important that I spent the winter in Siberia living among wolves.

What is probably not important are things like exact timeline, names of people, exact descriptions, etc. These are more important for "non-fiction" than for "memoirs", but still, they aren't that important.

For example, I did law enforcement surveillance for years. If I am going to integrate that into a story (of any genre), I would not / could not, give a completely faithful account. The problems are:

  • I don't remember everything that happened.
  • 99.9% of everything that happened was, "John and I sat in the car", followed by, "John and I sat in the car." In other words, most of what happened doesn't matter.
  • The sum of what does matter may have actually spanned several different occasions. In other words, I may have learned one small thing one night, another small thing another night, and so on - cumulatively resulting in something that is meaningful to the story. So, it may make literary sense to put them all together into a single event or somehow otherwise condense them.
This last issue is, for me, the most problematic. On one hand, it is perfectly OK to compress/conflate events in this way (or distribute them). It is only problematic to the genre if the reader has expectations that the material facts you have modified matter. That is fairly easy to predict, in most cases, but what is more difficult to predict is how the reader's perception of your credibility will be altered by such a move.

And, I really think that, herein lies the answer: It is all about expectations. If you set your readers' expectations correctly, then you're OK. If the reader expects emotional truth without much regard for material facts, and that's what you give them, then everything is good. If the reader expects a materially-accurate account, material errors or editorializing will be viewed with disappointment.

Someone brought up James Frey, whom I have to defend. He is the public whipping boy for truth in memoirs, but really only because Oprah ambushed him and sensationalized the issue. The problem is that the memoir lies in a grey area between fiction and non-fiction.

As I mentioned, it is impossible to tell the whole truth. The memoir exists to tell a story about the author's truth. A memoir portrays experiences, not events, and the distinction is important.

If I am telling about the time I went cliff-diving, and how terrified I was standing up there working up the nerve to jump, it betrays the story to say ... "Well, actually it was only about 15 feet tall ... but it seemed higher at the time." If it felt 100 feet high, then that's how I should tell it (in a memoir). This is just editorializing quantity/scope to portray an experience, even though it doesn't accurately recount the event.

Conversely, I also better have actually had a terrifying experience jumping off of a cliff of some height. To have gone swimming in a pool isn't the same thing, and to tell it that way crosses the line into fiction. To simply exaggerate the height of the cliff to portray the experience, that's fine in a memoir. You only need to measure the cliff if you are writing non-memoir non-fiction, and even then, probably only if the height of the cliff matters to the reader at all.

Frey probably crossed the line when, for example, he talked about spending three months in jail when he only spent a few hours in police custody. This seems to go beyond editorializing scope. If he had spent two weeks in jail, and wrote about spending three months - that's probably OK in a memoir if that better represents how it felt and how it impacted his life. But, a few hours in custody is certainly an entirely different experience. So, any emotional truth is not likely to be genuine - and that's why the reader feels cheated.

I recently read it described as: In a memoir, it is OK to rehash the data to make a good story that represents to the reader what you experienced. It is not OK to fabricate new data.

I think that other non-fiction (not a memoir) is not allowed as much wiggle room here. It is more important that you explicitly declare when you know or think you may have departed from the material facts. In other words, cite imagination. That is, if you come across something that you do not know to be true, simply disclose that. No one really cares that it is not true so long as they know it's not true and you're not claiming otherwise.

And, that comes back to what I was saying about expectations. People don't like feeling lied to, and how they feel is completely framed by their expectations.

By the way, for my own project, I've decided to present the work as fiction based on real events, even though it is, essentially, non-fiction. This has to do with managing reader expectations. I am changing numerous material details such that, even though the stories are substantially true, they could not be materially verified. For example, I describe a conversation that took place in a pub. That pub doesn't exist. The actual pub was pretty unremarkable, though the conversation was important. So, I draw on experiences in a much more interesting pub to create a better backdrop for the conversation.

In terms of the truth of the story, this just doesn't matter. The conversation is what matters. Hardliners would shake their heads and say that this immediately crosses the line into fiction. I could argue why this isn't the case, but I've just made the decision to not open myself up to those conversations. I'm presenting my story as fiction. My position is basically that any story is a mixture of "fiction" and "non-fiction" to some degree, and I'm not going to split hairs with people about it.

I'm describing it as "a completely fictitious account of what really happened."

(Wow, sorry about the long stream-of-consciousness post. This is what I'm doing in lieu of working on my story.)


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Feb 22, 2012
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New York
I just saw this long reply. Thanks for the perspective!

I had dropped the memoir idea for awhile and finished my PhD instead. Two days ago, my sister unexpectedly asked me to write a memoir of our time as children. I reminded her that she had crossed paths with the police a few times and might not find accounts of those incidents, both of which are pivotal, flattering. She agreed, and then said I could write it as fiction instead. Not that I need permission, but she is the person I most wanted to shield by asking about this here.


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May 17, 2012
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Floral City, FL
Taking a story about a fishing boat lost at sea during a rare storm and writing about the crew and their relationships before they set sail is non-fiction.

Taking a story about a fishing boat lost at sea in a rare storm and writing about the crew and events that happened after the boat left dock until it is sunk and the crew dies is fiction based on an actual event.


Elizabeth George's book Write Away