My first novel has been accused of being a memoir in disguise. Especially readers who know me believe all I did was change the names. I protest, to sly smiles and the inevitable, “Come on, tell me which parts are really you.”
“A writer uses everything,” I explain, because it’s true, but I also hope it gets me off the hook.
My publisher first suggested I call my novel, Perfection, a “fictional memoir,” but that felt too transparent for me. Readers see MEMOIR and forget about the FICTIONAL part. So I embraced the doctrine of the “character arc” and blended many characters so that all the named characters in my novel had their own arc; that is, an initial conflict followed by a series of conflicts and a final resolution.
Sticking to the novel pattern both lengthened and shortened my novel. It lengthened it because I hadn’t bothered initially to give all the named characters their own arc, so those elements of plot had to be added. It shortened it because I had to pare down my cast of characters from 45 to about 15!
Choosing novel over memoir format sent me back to my computer for five months more of writing and editing than I’d planned on. But it also gave me a much tighter, well-developed story – IMHO. My editor, publisher and early readers agreed.
Memoir writing is, in many respects, easier than novel writing. You’re crafting a story, of course, but in the end, the overarching guideline for memoirs is: “This happened. Period.” How you tell the story is crucial, but always grounded by the truth of the tale.
Here’s the clincher for me: If you name names, depict places and incidents, you’d better have your ducks in a row: Written permission from all those identified. Dates verified. Times and places carefully vetted.
What if one of your major characters says “No way.” Won’t your readers sniff out the gaps in your narrative? Even so, libel lawyers stand ready to profit from your indiscretions and errors.
We also know that one person’s memories and truths are another’s blasphemies. How many of us have a sibling, cousin, parent, etc. insisting: “It didn’t happen that way!”
Choosing novel over memoir gave me freedom to weave a good story, craft interesting and lovable characters, and come up with the best possible ending. My fictional characters DID experience nearly everything I did, but with a level of courage, daring and consciousness I couldn’t have, if I were writing my memoir. I do have more stories to tell. I’m still convinced they’ll fit best in the novel form.