Should Your Memoir be a Novel?

When you’re writing a family memoir or an autobiographical story, it can be tempting to alter parts of the story to make it more appealing to readers. So it’s a valid question: should your memoir be written as a novel?
When you’re writing a family memoir or an autobiographical story, it can be tempting to alter parts of the story to make it more appealing to readers. So it’s a valid question: should your memoir be written as a novel? If you choose this option, you can reap the benefits of fiction, because it gives you artistic licence to change whatever you want. So, before deciding which style of book to write, you need to ask yourself these questions:

What’s the purpose of writing the book?

Do you want to tell the story for the records and pay tribute to the real people involved in your life? Or do you want to share a didactic message, to help your readers understand and potentially overcome similar challenges to those you have faced? Choosing to fictionalise the story would offer your 'characters’ some privacy and protection from unwanted attention, should the book prove to be popular.

What do others think of your pitch?

Have you had your manuscript reviewed by any professionals? Have beta readers given feedback? Have you researched how the trade publishing market views your book? If you did any traditional publishing approaches, what did literary agents say? Were there any publishers interested? (Incidentally, even if you get a publishing deal, the responsibility for marketing your book still lies with you, the author.)

So, if you are purely focused on book sales, you might need to think through your marketing plans before you start writing. Will you feel more committed to promoting a memoir? And have you got plenty of backstories which you could share in emails to your followers? Or will a novel work in your favour for writing blog articles and opinion pieces to support the book?

How large is your audience?

How large will your readership be? And will you want to write subsequent books for them? When author Nadia Ragozhina wrote her family memoir, unveiling the stories of two patriarchs and their descendants, she soon realised her book would be of interest to the wider Jewish community. Whereas, historical novelist Charles Egan found some interesting family documents on his brother’s farmland which led him to write a whole series relating to the years of the Great Famine. As an engaging series of historical fiction, his novels are of interest to the Irish diaspora around the world. There are three books in Charles' Irish Famine series already and he’s working on more. So you need to think about your plans: will you enjoy developing the characters beyond what you know about the real-life people in your memoirs? If so, could you have fun with it and let your imagination guide you into the areas which readers will enjoy too?

How long is your book?

Readers have certain expectations when it comes to fiction because they tend to pay between £9.99 and £12.99 for a paperback novel. And the number of pages has a huge impact on the price you can sell the book for, because of the print costs. So, if you’re planning to fictionalise your story, do bear in mind that 80-90,000 words is plenty. This kind of planning allows you to create a neat ending for your characters, or run with a cliffhanger, inviting them to read your next book.

If you already know you want to write much more than that, perhaps your work will be better as a factual series of memoirs.

Where is the story set?

If your book has a central place which is at the heart of the story, it can work well to include some of the history of the area or mini side-stories from other people who know that place. That would lead you to take the approach of writing a memoir. If the place is less significant, you might want to fictionalise it, so you can add more general character into the story by embellishing your descriptions of the places.

Who features in the story?

And finally, how are you feeling about being named as the author? If you’re veering towards using a pseudonym, you should definitely turn your memoir into a novel. Equally, how do other people feel about being in your memoir? There is a careful line to tread if you have negative things to say about others, so fictionalising your work may avoid potential defamation.

You might also like:

How to create space for your writing
Why writing a book is the greatest gift to yourself
Seeing your book in print

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