Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fudging the Facts

Question of the day:

I see this all the time:

"A novel based on her experience," "Inspired by a true story," "Names and identifying features have been changed..."

My question is, how much has to be changed? A few details? Major plotlines? Names and places and hair color?

I'm in the midst of writing a memoir. I've changed the names because it enables me to write about my characters, not the people I know. How much would have to be fiction for the book to be fiction -- if I'd like to pitch it that way? I'd never fall into James Frey territory.

And I know writers, agents and publishers have different opinions.

Just curious for yours.

I'm not an expert and I don't write memoirs, so I can only offer my opinion, which, obviously, counts for squat. But I loved this question and think it opens up a good debate/discussion, so I wanted to post it right away. (Trish Ryan, who has a memoir coming out next year, might want to weigh in.)

My inclination is that, in the day and age of James Frey, that you should adhere as closely as possible to the details. Changing names is understandable, and in some cases, advisable, as litigation is always a possibility if you paint a less than flattering picture of someone. A few details? Hair color? I don't think anyone will complain, especially because so many memoirs, like Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg, now offer caveats that, "ahem, this is written from the best of my memory and some dates/situations/people might have changed."

But I'd steer clear of creating fictitious major plot lines because, well, then, like Frey's book (which, not for nothing, I enjoyed a lot), it becomes fiction. I do think that there's a category for this type of book called "creative non-fiction," but from what I understand (and this could have changed as of late), these are tough sells for agents. Editors/publishers either want memoirs (which are already tough sells - make sure that yours highlights something unique) or they want fiction. Period. Either or.

Besides, the whole point of writing a memoir is that you have an incredibly interesting story to tell, one that's specific and unique to you. If you have to change it so drastically, maybe it's not a story you should be telling...

But that's just my initial inclination. What say you, readers?


Eileen said...

I've heard (although don't know for a fact) that in a post Frey world the publisher will ask you for real names although names may be changed in the book. Any events should be real and if you start straying into the "it would be a lot more touching if the dad died in this scene where they finally met after years of being lost in the Arctic versus a few months later" then they call it fiction.

Personally my life is too boring to be a good memoir, readers are rushing to read "Home in bed by 10 with a good book."

Trish Ryan said...

I changed some names in mine, mostly ex boyfriends. I didn't want a reader to pick up my book and bring it home, only to discover that I once dated her husband. UGH!

My publisher never asked for real names. I guess nothing I said was so outlandish that they doubted me (or they figured none of these guys would want to fess up to being the jerks I describe). And you're right, you can't make up plot lines a la Mr. Frey. You can move stuff around chronologically a bit for flow, but it all has to be stuff that happened.

If you want to pitch as fiction, you can change whatever you want. My agent and I briefly discussed this option. It's a nice way to stay out of court, if that's a concern, and it gives you some freedom to make interesting situations really absurd and entertaining/horrifying. But I think it's a tougher sell unless you have a story line that really rocks.

Perhaps you could query with your plot line, telling agents that it's a true story and you'd be open to pitching as either memoir or roman a clef. If they're interested, they'll be happy to advise.

Gail said...

Hi Allison!

As you know, my memoir CANCER IS A BITCH will be published fall 2008 and I agree with everything you say. In my opinion, ALL events should be true and accurate. No embellishments of WHAT happened. But I have changed names (to protect privacy) and some details (for the same reason). Dialogue is sort of difficult to recall exactly so that is to the best of my memory (which we all know is not always 100% accurate). And yes, memoirs are a very tough sell (unless you're Britany Spears' mother).

Anonymous said...

If your not famous and you need to change things, why not sell it as fiction. Especially if its easier to sell.

Gail said...

Are you asking me anonymous? If so.. the book spun off of a popular column I had based on a health scare and it wasn't fiction. And while I'd always written fiction before, I sort of liked the challenge of writing about my life and it IS a challenge (for me) because you want to include all the juicy stuff but you don't want to hurt anyone... Also, when I said it was hard to sell, I didn't mean harder than fiction. I meant harder than other non-fiction.

kate hopper said...

Very interesting discussion. I agree--always try to be as truthful as possible in memoir.

A note about creative nonfiction: it encompasses memoir, personal essay and literary journalism--all of which is fact-based writing. It's a confusing term for people because they think if it's "creative," it's made-up, but that's not the case. It's creative because a memoirist, like a novelist, crafts a story (using character, dialogue, scene, language, etc.), but the story s/he is working with really happened.

Allison Winn Scotch said...

Thanks for clarifying that. Good info to know.