Ask the Editor: Memoir or novel for my true story?

Q. I have an amazing true story to tell, but publishing it may step on some toes. Should I write it as a memoir, and tell it exactly like it was? Or should I write it discreetly as a novel, so I can disguise the lurid details and stay out of trouble?

If I don’t write this story, the truth will never come out. But I could get sued. Or worse!”

A. If you want to stick to the literal truth, write it as a selective memoir and be aware of the legal ramifications.

If you want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or taking on potential legal problems, disguise the reality as imaginative fiction.

Whether a book should be memoir or fiction comes up frequently at my seminars, blind-date pitches, and in consultations with authors at the early stages of their creative processes. The choice has a profound impact on the book and how it’s written, needless to say, so the two alternatives should be carefully considered.

A memoir must be true

One advantage of the memoir is the ability to tell a great story without the danger of disbelief or incredulity. The truth is often stranger than fiction. The word memoir itself is derived from “to remember”.

Publishers often put a note in the front of a memoir explaining that dialogue and scenes have been reconstructed since the author didn’t film or tape everything.

Most successful writers incorporate the underlying reality of their lives in their work. From Tolstoy to Hilary Mantel, readers recognize autobiographical details not only in novels but nonfiction essays, journals and letters. The information may be benign and without controversy, but when an author is molding reality to suit some personal agenda like anger, revenge, having the last word, or just plain self-aggrandizement, big trouble can erupt.

In the memoir A Million Little Pieces, for example, author James Frey was exposed for fabricating important parts of the book to enhance his dramatic injuries, incarceration, and recovery from addiction. What he had presented as fact but turned out to be fiction brought him public shame and embarrassment.

Be careful with fiction too

The word novel means “new”, and one is expected to include invention and imagination, though a disclaimer still may appear in the front of a novel that “any similarity to people living or dead is coincidental.”

But novelists still need to practice discretion. I worked on a mystery with a writer whom I knew to be exploiting the reality of his painful divorce in a brief but memorable scene in the book. What he was presenting as fiction was based on real events, but distorted by his biased perspective. He portrayed his hero as an innocent victim while his easily recognizable ex-wife became a villainous femme fatale. In the end, fortunately, he left it out.

My advice

Do the right thing.

If you’re determined to tell the truth in a memoir, be sure everything you write is factual without misrepresentation and, ideally, can be documented. Get written releases if possible. Leave out anything that remains unproven or without permission. The result may be incomplete, but it’s safer.

If you’re worried about invasion of privacy, libel or just plain hurting someone’s feelings, then disguise your characters in a novel so they’re impossible to identify.

Change the age, ethnicity, cultural context, even the gender if possible. This strategy isn’t foolproof, since the person you’re writing about may know very well what you’re up to, but it’s a feasible defense. And there’s always the possibility that someone may bring a lawsuit, whether it’s winnable or not.

If you choose the memoir, remember these guidelines: truth only, releases where needed, strategic omissions.

If you decide to write a novel, you’ll have a greater opportunity for digging down to the core truth of a story, but keep in mind that fiction requires an independent credibility that isn’t acting out any personal agenda.

Ultimately, it’s each author’s personal call.

What about you?

Have you gone back and forth over whether to write your story as memoir or fiction? What were some of the biggest issues? And where did you end up? Hope you’ll share some of your experience here in comments.

42 Responses to Ask the Editor: Memoir or novel for my true story?

  1. lydia

    Hi Alan,
    As irony would have it I haven’t been here in some time but on the day I do show, the topic which seems to be the bane of my writer’s existence is your post subject. As you know I have struggled with this one for some time. I thought it would be easier for all involved (and still do) to convert to a novel however I am finding it to be much more difficult than I had expected. You’re right to advise about doing the right thing and staying away from personal agendas. It has been one of the more difficult things to accomplish in this process. I am now approaching the finish line and the anxiety is mounting as to whether I’ve done a good enough job on that particular point. Luckily I had a good editor to advise me early on. Hope you are well. Lydia

  2. Alan Rinzler

    Lydia,

    Glad to hear you’re approaching the finish line and look forward to seeing the completed novel. You have an inspiring story that’s going to have a big impact on readers.

  3. Torchy Blane

    First of all, every writer thinks they have an amazing story that just has to be written, when the reality is we’ve all heard the story before.

    Secondly, it’s my belief that each and every human being is born to live the greatest story ever told. Which is why I love to read memoirs. Doesn’t mean the story should be published, but the successful ones that are, and sell well, are the ones that seem to be able to balance self-pity, (in the case of tragic memoir, which most are) with the desire to educate. Those kinds of memoirs are rare. Off the top of my head, Joan Didion’s memoir is the last one I read that I thought was well-worth reading.

    If a memoir’s intent is designed to get back at someone, and becomes a self-absorbed, self-pitying mess/rant, then it’s a book that should never be written. The writer needs to reach a level of maturity where they can write objectivity, and with that balancing act I mentioned before.

    It’s obvious the writer who posed the question in the above post, has not reached that level of maturity. The writer states he or she is going to step on toes. Why would you do that? The writer fears he or she will get sued, and thinks that’s ok because the truth must come out. No, it doesn’t. Unless it’s a truth that is criminal in nature. Then you take it to the proper authorities. DIRECTLY. Not through a book.

    This particular writer needs to think outside the ‘me’ zone, get a better perspective, and then write the memoir as it should be written.

  4. Alan Rinzler

    Torchy,

    The lead question in this post reflects a situation of concern to many authors writing memoirs.

    In some cases serious harm could come to innocent people if the truth were revealed. An author’s concerns might not be immature or self-centered at all, but quite real, so I must respectfully disagree with you on that count.

  5. Carmen Anthony Fiore

    I’ve never written a long-form (book-size) memoir. I’ve stuck to the shorter kinds of work: essays, articles. Some of my short stories were borderline memoirs, but I disguised the characters well enough.
    But when it comes to straight memoir-writing short-form stuff, the safest thing is to write about your relationships with certain family members and certain personal work associates and friends when they are dead. As for book-length memoirs, even family members of the person you insult, attack, whatever, in your memoir can come after you, if it’s to their benefit and/or have the willingness to defend the subject person. That’s why you as author have to weigh the pros and cons whether to do it in memoir form or novel. I’d go with the novel and make big changes (translated: big disguises). Lawsuits can be financially disastrous, even if you win.

  6. Alan Rinzler

    Carmen

    You’re right about the potential for expensive lawsuits even if you win. Since most authors don’t have deep pockets, however, the complainant with a smart lawyer goes after the publisher, who has insurance and can afford a quick settlement rather than risk an predictable jury. If you’re self-publishing, however, you’re on your own.

    A novel with disguises can work, but it’s not foolproof, since those who know anything about what you’re writing will recognize who’s who and could still seek changes and financial compensation.

    My advice remains to either get releases in those situations where it’s possible, or channel that creative energy into a memoir that hurts no one, including yourself.

  7. Littlehill

    I wonder how David Sedaris got his family not to sue him. Hahaha

  8. Cate Macabe

    It took twelve years for me to write AJ Jackson’s memoir “This New Mountain.” Part of the reason it took so long was trying to decide how to handle certain aspects of her life. Through the whole process we were very aware of our responsibility to tell the truth but also of the consequences of doing so. In the end, we left out stories we knew would have dangerous consequences to AJ (mob related, etc.) and those that would hurt the hearts of loved ones. We also changed details of other stories we felt must be told. We sought legal advice and obtained releases where possible. I’m a fiction writer, and putting “This New Mountain” together was the most challenging project I’ve ever completed. I think if I had to do it over, I would have fictionalized the whole thing.

  9. Kenneth J. Kerr

    I have a slightly different situation from Memoir versus Novel. I recently wrote a novel, “Life of a Double Agent.” It is fiction, but some of the lead character’s experiences parallel some of mine, the non spy stuff. I have had two reviewers suggest that I should not promote the book as a thriller, rather the style I used to write the book is more like a biography. It is definitely not a memoir, but is fictional biography a book genre? Ken

  10. Shey

    I had to decide between the two when I started writing my second book. I wanted it to be a memoir, in honor of a child. However, with cultural issues, the possibility of being sued and primarily of hurting other people’s feelings. especially that of my family’s, I decided that a novel would be the wisest course to take. The books isn’t nowhere near done yet, but so far it is looking good. :)
    Thank you for your insights.

  11. Kavion Xavior

    I totally disagree with the advice, related to telling a story based on truth. If a person was treated a certain way in life, then why shouldn’t they write what ever happened to them the way it happened. The Universe didn’t edit their life events, so why should they edit their story in a memoir or novel form? I think the world is full of to much fiction and not enough reality. I’m personally board with the over sensationalized fiction novels. I’ve recently had a meeting with an author who is putting the finishing touches on his book called: “Intense (Mental) Attack” that would fall under the category as angry, revengeful, and insulting, with a personal agenda. I asked him was afraid of being sued, he said; “I want them to take me to court, so the truth can come out before a judge, so I’m prepared for that.” I respect his courage and boldness. His story has a very spiritual element to it, and he is a very kind and intelligent person who was deeply betrayed. In fact, he told me writing the book was his way to heal, and move on with his life. So I respect and encourage that for anyone….

    It seems so strange to live in a world that punishes people for telling the truth, but rewards and protect them for lying.

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  13. Albert Chu

    Memoirs is the French word for Memories. We may say memory was derived from Memoirs, but not the other way around.

  14. carolyn munn

    I am really wanting to write a book about my life growing up but am extremely afraid of hurting my parents and also my children who will be reading some things concerning what happened with their dad, now ex husband. I believe this book would help many many people but then again would probably hurt others who have been involved. I am very torn about this whole thing………..

  15. Kim BS

    I could easily write a very great important memoir. I am afraid to ask for consent to write personally about some people due to their,, and my possible full disclosure of very private issues. I feel that writing about these issues could help other young people to know how to deal with what i dealt with and what I’ve seen. But, also help some adults understand how to deal with children who were never taught how to be children themselves. I have a lot to say, and i feel the truth would be best. Although, others involved in my life may not agree. I wouldn’t want to hurt some people along the way. I was thinking about finding a way to make it a novel of truth with changes so some wouldn’t know who or if it was actually true. I am debating this as i am writing. I could break all these issues down into many short stories possibly in the same book. I have a lot to say to write, and a lot to learn, to make it successful because i feel a lot of people will relate truly benefit from what i know, and maybe i can save some people who went through what i have went through, and seen others go through. I am confused but, i just keep writing the rough drafts until i decide.I want my book to let others know they aren’t alone and there are some form dysfunctions in all families. And, if they work it right they will triumph and get away from the pain and save themselves from being destroyed, by being strong with a soul that can help heal. And, in turn maybe they can help others also. This is my DREAM! I have made the decision to proceed and see where it leads me! Pray I need to change the future of my family.

  16. Robert

    I’m writing a memoir about my life as a sex addict. It includes stories of my childhood sexual and physical abuse. In my opinion my story of recovery will not have the desired impact if the details of my childhood are not exposed. To do this I must indite my parents, as well as other perpetrators in the book, including the person who raped me. All of these are deceased but one, and that person is now 92 years of age. If I change that person’s first name can I tell the story? Without it my memoir is far less than effective. Even changing the name, it will be obvious to that person’s family that I am writing about her. I prefer not to make this a fictitious novel. I write about actual events including stories about other people, but not using any names at all. These people will know I am talking about them even though I do not name them. Can I still tell my story? What are the legal ramifications?

  17. Alan Rinzler

    Robert,

    Changing the name of that 92-year-old person may not shield you from a lawsuit, even after the individual passes away. The estate could recognize whom you’re writing about and may attempt legal action.

    I’m not an attorney and can’t offer legal advice. A good lawyer with publishing experience needs to examine the work and explain the risks before you decide what to do. This lawyer may work for a commercial publishing company if you go that route, or if you decide on self-publishing you will need to hire one yourself.

    Good luck,

  18. amsty

    Torchy,
    For the first time in a long time I read some words of value. Please email me directly as I have a sellable and marketable story….yet neex advice….for some reason my inner harold crick chose you for help……adusthimer12@gmail

  19. Nadia

    Hi,
    I am writing my life story in a form of memoir, but I don’t want the world to know that it’s my life story. So, I made a character, Sarah, who is me, who writes the story in “I” form. Sarah is writing about her life. Is it still a memoir. Will the world know that it’s my story or Sarah’s? I’m confused. :/

  20. Haley

    Hi,

    I would *like* to write what is partially a story about me as a fiction novel. I’ve decided I’m going to use fake names in my story and leave some potentially offensive details out. The main thing here is that I want the true events to be fairly close to what they were in reality, while writing roughly the second half of the book as completely made up events. Does this sound like something that would avoid lawsuit?

  21. Nate

    I’ve been contemplating writing my personal story about events in my life that have taken place over the past 5 years.. I believe that this story could reach many others as they could relate to my pain, anguish, anger, depression, faith, hope,love and renewal. I know that if I write it as a memoir( it must be, because the truth is extremely important to the story) I will be sued for sure by the opposition. I don’t want to have to change the details to spare feelings or deviate from my story. I want to write the truth and nothing but. I like what Kavion said in the previous statement about being bold enough to do it. I don’t feel that I could reach my audience as well if in novel form. I want to reach and talk with others about what happened to me and give them hope so it can help get them through their struggle. How could I reach others if in my story im actually someone else? I just feel the truth would suit my story best. My grandmother always used to say when she was still alive ” the truth shall set you free.” It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if a judge heard what I have to say.

  22. danielle

    Good day,
    I want to write a book about my life that is helpful to myself & educates others . Abuse, genius, mental & physical illness, alcohol, drugs,& career choices, will all be involved. I “believe” that a fictitious novel would be my wisest & most effective choice, but am unsure as this will be my first book. Having been a teacher for over 30 years…& due to many poor choices on my part…which will be a large part of the book, I will need help in mapping out my story. Many years of drug & alcohol abuse, & physical surgeries/issues, my memory is loading. I don’t know who to trust & rely on when it comes to beginning this journey. Any suggestions will be appreciated.

  23. 2tworld8nature@gmail.com

    I am thinking of writing my story but need advice if I should make it a novel and change the names. I also dont know if I should include my real name. Any advice would be helpful I will even accept advice throughout email. I already started writing but can use more guidance.

    Rosa

  24. psnoopydog

    I may get a lot of flack over this.

    A memoir is suppose to be the truth so why, except the obvious, some change peoples names, clothes, body size or whatever.

    So does this, at any, affect the credilbility of a writer changing truths to falsehood.

    snoopy

  25. K.

    Hi.

    Nadia, I have the same confusion as you. I am writing a book about my personal experiences on abuse but I don’t want people to know it’s about me because I am very particular about my privacy, but I want to share what I have been through as I believe it can help others. But I question, does a memoir have to strictly conform to its definition? Does it always have to be so clear cut? Don’t writers have the liberty to create a hybrid genre to suit their purpose, fictional memoir like someone suggested. Let’s face it, these days new words are being created which borrow from already existing words. Didn’t Shakespeare create his own words which eventually became part of accepted vocabulary? So why can’t we create a subtype of memoir which borrows from the original characteristics of a memoir but have been modified to suit the writer’s needs? It is clear that the definition of memoir is failing to cater for the various needs of writers who have personal stories to tell but have other concerns as well.

  26. Liz

    Oh my, this is tough! I have been struggling, wondering what to do in a memoir I have written. My story is about mental illness and the suicide of my only daughter. She left three children who are not adults. They do not know how their mother died, and their father does not want to reveal this to them at this time. I have changed names in the story, but the events and the characters are very distinquisable. I strongly think my story should be told…it reveals how I handled this and the impact on the children. It also explains the consequences of mental illness and how it affects an entire family. I go into the stigmas of divorce, single parent families, mental illness, and suicide. I show no animosity toward others, am not critical, nor condemning of others. In writing my story for publication, my main concern is how the revealing of specify issues might affect my grandchildren. What shall I do? Should I proceed? Any feedback or direction for me?

  27. Alan Rinzler

    Liz,

    Whether or not and how you should proceed with the publication of your memoir is a very personal decision you must make yourself. Do consult with your grandchildren’s father since his feelings and concerns are important and evidently he has his own plan for revealing how their mother died when he feels it’s the right time.

    And if you decide to refrain from publishing the book now, remember that you can revisit the question when your grandchildren are adults and can themselves contribute to the decision.

  28. Jenny Orelle

    Thank you for your generosity in writing. I’m learning so much.

    I just added the books you worked on with Shirley MacLain (along with a few others) to my reading list. I was impressed you convinced her to write her story as a memoir. It can’t have been an easy decision for her.

    Life is stranger than fiction, it’s true.

    There’s more scientific evidence for psychic phenomenon than there is for health benefits in aspirin, but still the prejudice continues. Once they burnt women at the stake. Now they threaten to medicate anyone who senses things others can’t.

    (Do people really think Elie Wiesel had reason to lie about Madame Schächter’s premonition in his memoir? As if he didn’t have enough to write about.)

    I considered writing my story as a novel, but am taking the plunge and calling it what it is: a memoir. I’d feel like a coward if I didn’t and readers deserve the truth. I know it’s a risk. It will be harder for people to accept–but all the more reason to write it well.

    It was a surprise to find out how many great novels are autobiographical.

    I’m using a pen-name and changing names in the book to protect my family. A pen name gives me freedom to be more honest.

    I think many memoir writers worry about being believed, if they have any story worth telling at all. I’m no James Frey. I’ll have to play down the truth to make it more credible.

    I followed Alice Walkers advice (who wouldn’t?) and read “Mutant Message Down Under”. It must have been an older interview and I was crushed to learn the memoir was fake. Aborigines are right to be angry and genuine telepaths might well be miffed. Just what they need: one more charlatan to muddy the water.

    It’s a pity Marlo Morgan didn’t call it a novel, even if she’d still be accused of voice appropriation.

    all the best,

    Jenny (my real name.)☺

  29. sussi

    I have written a true story about how I built and established an orphanage in China in the 90s where the impossible became possible. I had to use some names from my Board but didn’t write directly about any particular person. I did though write the history about Chinese orphans from the 80s and 90s.Is it possible to find an editor who can help me decide if what I wrote is risky but the truth! very delicate subject by the way…
    Sussi

  30. Denise

    Alan, you stated in response to Memoir or Novel

    If you want to stick to the literal truth, write it as a selective memoir and be aware of the legal ramifications.
    If you want to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings or taking on potential legal problems, disguise the reality as imaginative fiction.

    What if because the subject you are writing about is a well know entity within certain subgroups, the ability to disguise the characters in not an option. I wish to write a True account of something that I participated in that had both good and challenging aspects to it. This is not an act of revenge or sour grapes, but rather my version of how a Team came together to achieve the most regarded prize that they strived for . I wish to share the lessons learned along the way which include both great and challenging moments. It should be noted that some members of this team are minors. All accounts in the story will be true.

    What are the potential legal ramifications to that?
    -

  31. Alan Rinzler

    Denise,

    There would definitely be legal ramifications in the situation you describe. But I’m not qualified to offer any specific advice other than to please consult an attorney familiar with book publishing and intellectual property.

    Alan

  32. George

    If I am writing a Novel, based on my personal experience and story of a few years of my life. Where and Why do I have to specify, that this is a Memoir or this is a Novel ? Can’t I just say, that I am writing a story of a teenager etc ect ?
    Could I use my real first name and those of my family ?
    Of course I would make the statement that” any similarity to people living or dead is coincidental”
    Please advise
    George

  33. Alan Rinzler

    George

    You can’t have it both ways. Readers, agents, and publishers will only devote their time and energy to a book if you specify it’s a memoir or a novel.

    If you’re writing a memoir about your personal experience, it’s nonfiction — all true. And using your real first name will make it obvious to anyone the identity of you and everyone else in the book. So be careful about legal issues or get releases.

    If you’re writing a novel, you have the liberty write a story that isn’t confined to the truth but can make your point more effectively with creative new ideas and literary craft. Nevertheless, unless all the real people are disguised beyond the possibility of recognition, which is tough if not impossible, you’ll have the same legal issues, so consult an attorney who knows about libel and invasion of privacy.

    Alan

  34. George

    Thanks so much
    It has to be a Novel. All names and people in the book shall be disguised .
    Except mine, my Parents and Brother, who are all dead with no heirs.
    Is that still not ok ?
    As an alternative, If I have to,I can use false names for myself and the family too. But do I must ?
    Thanks,
    George

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  36. Nichelle

    Like the other posters here, I too, would like to write my story and believe that others would find it both interesting and educational. However, it would be extremely hurtful to my family. Someone suggested writing fiction as “based on a true story”. How does that work? Or has the memoir genre taken over that description? Also, I wondered about disguising the story and using a pseudonym. Is that a viable possibility?

  37. Alan Rinzler

    Nichelle,

    Fiction “based on a true story”, is an alternative for you if you want to avoid being hurtful to your family. It will still be necessary to disguise the characters in a way that’s unrecognizable to anyone. This can be done if you focus on characters who have similar issues in their lives and dynamics in their relationships, but live in another era (centuries ago) or perhaps a foreign country. You can also change the ages, gender or ethnicity.

    Don’t feel you have to stick to what’s absolutely true, but rather find what’s interesting and educational in a more general manner. And if you ultimately prefer to write a memoir that’s the specific truth as you lived it, better get legal permission with the help of an attorney, if possible, from everyone in the book.

  38. Julie

    This is a very interesting article and the reader’s comments which follow are quite diverse.
    My true story which I have just self published and now have the offer of a traditional publishing house taking on, is written with all real names.
    I have informed some but not all of the people mentioned in my memoir. Every word is true and the events I describe did happen. My book has at it’s centre, the death in an accident of my son and my spiritual journey trying to find meaning in our whole existence for eternity.
    Naturally there are obvious mentions to having to carry on with normal life and the people in my life, but I have not been vindictive to anyone, just stated what happened and let the reader decide…

  39. Kiki

    My memoir would expose so much lude behavior by my family, and yes, myself too, that they are afraid of me writing it even before I’ve started. It’s all mostly verifiably true (as long as my aunt and cousin are alive to attest to it). I know they could sue me for exposure so it causes pause and leaves my writing anything stunted because everything is clouded by my past. They are figuratively dead to me now so I don’t care what they think. But it makes me mad that I cannot write my memoir properly because of fear of lawsuit. What a shame how many true stories cannot be written. I think of all the family fiction sagas in the literary world and know that none of it is stranger or more heart rending than the “unspeakable” truth. I suppose it will have to be a novel but that would take away from the truth of the real story and defeats the purpose.

  40. Heidi

    Alan,

    You have offered wonderful advice, as well as others here. I am facing the same dilemma. My memoir will be a trilogy, which ultimately made my decision easier, which will be to publish as a novel. I have combined events in order to make them a “new story”, though there still may be a familiarity to readers who know me personally. I have also changed characters names, as well as places, except one. I lived in Europe for many years, and my knowledge of a country’s language and scenery make it difficult to change. Will it be alright to keep that country the same?
    I believe most novels have a lot of truth in them, especially regarding the author’s feelings. I did not write to be vindictive. I wrote in order to be free. I am currently 60,000 words into book one of my trilogy, and believe it will be finished at approximately 80,000 words (very exciting!). I originally wanted to include terms such as “based on a true story”, and the like, but wonder if I should let readers draw their own conclusions. What is your opinion?
    Thank you,
    Heidi

  41. Alan Rinzler

    Heidi,

    Sounds to me like you could change the country to avoid potential problems down the road, and there’s no problem doing that since this is fiction.

    Also no need to say “based on a true story” since this is a novel and readers are familiar with authors using their own experience and feelings in their work.

  42. Wally

    I have pretty much decided I have to write my story as a novel. Not for fear of being sued but because I do not wish to hurt my sibling’s feelings. I have gone over this in my mind many times. For years, I thought memoir would be the way to go but of late, and since I am a fiction writer anyway, I’ve decided that the book must be fiction. Every one of our stories is a unique story, of course, and should be told in the best way possible. The truth will out.

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