Friday, October 4, 2013

Countdown to a Book 13: Memoir, or a Novel Based on True Events?

Authors wanting to write about a major life upheaval in their life must decide the best way to do so—write a memoir, or fictionalize aspects of the story and instead write a novel based on true events. The first offers the chance to unsettle readers with naked fact; the second allows you to maximize the story’s impact along a certain premise. Either way, you endeavor to write an engaging story that ultimately arrives at the truth about life and human nature.

After years of waffling on this front I’ve made a decision that delivered me right to the doorstep of my second traditional book deal!



As I wrote in a previous countdown post, this summer I’ve been putting together a couple of novel proposals. I’d been working on shaping my second novel since April, writing then boiling down an extended synopsis and polishing the first fifty pages until my agent said, “I love it.” Hoping that love could carry us into a two-book deal, she asked about a third project.

I did have a story idea in my back pocket. While over the course of the many years I’d been submitting the novel now known as The Art of Falling, I’d been drafting a memoir. My family had dealt with a tragedy, and transforming it into a story of hope through the written word felt like the work I was called to do.

When The Art of Falling sold, though, I launched a career as a novelist. Women’s/book club fiction, specifically. The Sourcebooks team and I are working hard to find an audience for this book—why jump genres and build another one? So I decided to novelize—whatever the heck that meant.

After some back-and-forth with a writing friend and my agent, I wrapped my head around what it meant to fictionalize and came up with a synopsis. It was sketchy at best, but the book was far out in my queue—I had to hope my editor would understand this.

My agent asked for an Author’s Note, often included in a novel based on true events. I wrote:
On October 20, 1997, my husband Ron killed himself on our small farm after a daylong standoff. For my sons, my stoic parents, and me, those eight hours thinned the line between heaven and hell. This entire novel unfolds in that limited time frame, as the events of one day forever change a family’s lives. 
This is not a memoir—only the cockapoo Max plays himself—but I am well aware of how a typical Monday can be skewed into a minute-by-minute, life-and-death horror, even while food must be eaten and kids must play and stories from days gone by must relieve tension.  
The story is written from what I know. I’ve felt the intergenerational ramifications of alcoholism and suicide and what it means to be left behind to deal with them. I know suicide’s taboo can cause friends to fade and new heroes to emerge. In the background, this is a story about a standoff between one desperate man and the police. But in the foreground it is a standoff within family relationships as two generations of women almost break under the pressure that those tense eight hours of uncertainty deliver. 
I’ve compressed time to allow events that played out after the suicide to unfold sooner, and added fictional elements that help develop the novel’s premise. But the standoff was very real, and it didn’t just happen to us. Our entire community held its collective breath while awaiting its outcome that picture-perfect autumn day, while even the leaves stood still. 
I had no sample pages. A synopsis only two-and-a-half pages long. Yet a few weeks later, my adventure in traditional publishing threw me a plot twist: largely on the strength of this note, my publisher skipped over Book #2 entirely and offered on Book #3. Maybe I’ll have a chance to sell Book #2 to another publisher one day—I know my agent will want to try—but for now I must set that novel and its beloved characters aside.

In my Author’s Note, above: did you notice the clever use of the past tense, as if I’d already written this book?

I have not. While the Leaves Stood Still is due June 1, so if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to writing now.

Have you ever written a “novel based on true events”? Thought about it, and decided on memoir instead? Suffered a publishing plot twist that wrenched you from one character set into another? I’d gladly break from my writing to read your comments.

Just catching up? Search results for this series can be found here:
Countdown to a Book


Kathryn Craft
is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Her work is represented by Katie Shea at the Donald Maass Literary Agency. Her monthly series, "Countdown to a Book," details the traditional publication of her debut novel, The Art of Falling, by Sourcebooks in January 2014. It is now available for pre-order. Her new monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the StormConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.

27 comments :

  1. Oh, Kathryn, I had no idea! That's powerful, serious stuff! Congrats on the deal. To answer your question, I've written one novel very closely based on true events that I've never tried to sell. I'm waiting for the right moment. And at this point, it's historical fiction, so as it gets older, it hopefully will blossom like fine wine. :)

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  2. Yes Catherine, this is the event that led me to writing fiction in the first place, as a way of seeking deeper truths. Of course mine is historical at this point as well—I need to find out from my editor if she wants to keep it that way, or set it in the modern day. That choice affects so much!

    I agree with the wine metaphor, though. My advice to memoirists who have lived through trauma is always, "journal as it unfolds to capture the details, but wait many years to gain the perspective needed to write a great story." While you're still in active healing/grieving mode, with anger so close to the surface, the tendency is to not see the compassion you must have for all your characters and instead just drag the reader through the same muck you encountered.

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  3. Excellent posting, and thank you for sharing your experience and process. (Should title refer to Book 3 instead of Book 13?) I look forward to the countdown posts. // My experience with novel vs. memoir was to go with memoir as a family legacy sort of book first, since I'd never written a novel before and didn't know the options really. In preparing the legacy memoir (combo sort of book really just intended for family, tho made available to anyone), I tried to get into my siblings' and parents' heads as best I could so that my niece/nephews could read and assume the implications about their parents (my siblings) were real. My siblings read the draft and gave very supportive and helpful feedback. In the end, after 3+ years of working on it, I had benefited from some of the time needed to come to grips with the memoir aspect that really drove me. And now I think someday I still may write the novel (probably, instead of memoir - especially thanks to your clarifications here!).

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    1. Thanks for stopping by, Meredith. I can see how the "13" confused you—the "Countdown to a Book 13" refers to my journey in traditional publishing from the book deal for novel one through the release of book one—and, of course, preparing to write another book is an important part of the process.

      You're probably smart to first hone your skills on a simple retelling for family and friends "but made available to anyone." At least I think it's smart because that's what I did. ;) Traditionally published memoirs or novels based on true events force you to concentrate harder on the "anyone"—how will your story speak to the wider public, and what beyond "this really happened!" can you make of it to create an engaging story? That's now my challenge!

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    2. Wow, Kathryn, 13 posts about this already - that's another book! You'll put the links to all in one post for the end of the year, right? I think our readers might like to revisit your journey from month-to-month. It's been a thrill following along! We're all so excited for you.

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  4. Hi Kathryn. Bless you as you write this story! I imagine in doing so there will be quite a bit of reliving. I know this will be a powerful book.

    Congratulations on your deal!

    The story I wrote is based on true events, but I never considered writing it as memoir. Maybe I needed to hide behind the fiction of it, but I think that I mostly chose to write it the way I did because I needed the story to have things I needed in the real life version. The biggest of these is a way to be understood.

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    1. Thanks Ruthy. A big challenge, after drafting my story first as memoir, is to step back and give another protagonist her story—kind of like Peter Pan removing his shadow so he could examine it from all angles. It's quite a process!

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  5. Don't you think all novels are largely based on an author's experiences? I don't know how we can get away with *not* including our own views and feelings, no matter what imaginary worlds we create. We even own the wishful thinking played out in our characterizations.

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    1. You know, I've come to a realization of late. I don't really like reading memoir. Unless it reads like a novel, and there are memoirs that accomplish that.

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    2. I think novels can't help but be filtered through our perceptions, but I don't know. Anna Quindlen once said in an interview that book four is the hardest to write, as you must drift farther and farther from the source material in your life. For me, fiction is often much less direct than "a novel based on true events." For example, I was never a professional dance nor did I have an eating disorder, but I could relate to my character's sense of body-level betrayal in The Art of Falling because I had miscarried two deeply desired babies, for example. Why was my body expelling them? I latched onto that feeling and transferred it to my dancer.

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    3. I can definitely relate to the miscarriage pain, but I'm not sure I'd ever write about it except privately. Well, I don't know... it would certainly add depth to a character, that level of pain. It's especially intriguing because it's a pain the public brushes off very quickly, even as the mother has to carry on as though nothing really happened. I might have to think about the conflict between personal and public pain, especially when perceptions of the pain clash.

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  6. I would say I'm blessed in that I haven't had anything noteworthy enough in my life to base a book on, although bits and pieces of events do show up in various disguises. "Creative non-fiction" is the term being used when memoirs were starting to hit it big. Glad you got the deal, although I'm sorry you had to go through what you did for your subject matter.

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  7. Aw, thanks, Terry. Writing is how I work to come to terms with it.

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  8. What Terry said. I just can't imagine how excruciating that must be deep in the heart, even long after, Kathryn. :/

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  9. Kathryn, your willingness to share the intimate and heart-wrenching moments of that awful day will no doubt touch the hearts of many who have endured similar agonizing and traumatic losses. It takes a special kind of person to share such a personal experience and help others come to grips with the unthinkable.

    In response to your question about fiction based on fact, my first book dealt with spousal and child abuse, something I wish I knew less about. The writing of it had the cathartic effect of requiring me to stand back and explore my perspective -- and my anger. My third book will deal with a similar topic in a very different setting.

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    1. Linda, one thing I've learned from Don Maass is that beneath the obvious emotions (suicide/grief, abuse/anger) lives a world of more nuanced emotions that can bring the situation fully to light in a more empathetic way. The day my husband killed himself, for instance, was a sunny, perfect fall day—my favorite time of year. Against this beauty—as opposed to a dark misty night—the horror of what happened takes on a different meaning.

      I hope that when readers look through the lens of my prose at this high-stakes moment, they will see encompassed there all that it is to be human.

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  10. The name of your book, "When the Leaves Stood Still," is amazingly evocative of what you've told us about your experience. I imagine life was suspended for those eight hours while your mind constantly hashed over the days, weeks, and years that lead up to that point -- what did you do that helped lead to this standoff, what could you have done differently. I don't know the exact circumstances, but I do know the tendency for people, women especially, to blame themselves. I'm glad you waited to write about it because your novel "based on true events" will have gained from what you've come to understand about life and alcoholism as a result.

    When cam we expect to see it in stores?

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    1. Thank you, Suzanne, for your kind words. I agree that waiting is crucial in writing about events this traumatic. As to when you'll see this one in stores, it is due June 1 and will be released a year later, in Spring 2015. I need to see to the release of my debut, The Art of Falling, first! So close now—January 28!

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  11. I love that the story will be told through the lens of your creativity, sensitivity and passion for life. You inspire, Kathryn, as always. Blessings and prayers sent your way.

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    1. Thanks Lisa, you make such an important distinction here. Ultimately, this will not at all be a story about death, but the courage to choose life.

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  12. Powerful stuff indeed, Kathryn! And I think this was thrown at you at this very moment in your life for a reason: you can do the best job with it now more so than ever based on your brimming writer's toolbox, deft writing skill, and having space away from this terrible, tragic life-changing event. Bravo to you for fictionalizing this. How terribly hard writing the memoir now would be - reliving it so personally and trying to get each awful detail just right - rather than a novel of it. You've got distance and the freedom to take creative liberties now. I wait eagerly to read it! Now you're inspiring me to see what events I can come up with to fictionalize a slice of my life. That would be a great writer's workshop (hint hint).

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    1. Thanks for all your kind words about my writing, Donna. My writing is never a way to distance myself from anything, though, it's a way to find beauty and meaning even among life's dark circumstances. A way to enter life more fully. I have been grieving anew each day while writing this, but I totally agree that due to my distance from it, I'm no longer stuck in my perspective— I will be able to examine it better from all sides.

      And thanks for the workshop idea—must be "a reason" for those as well, as this is the second incoming suggestion this week!

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  13. Thanks for sharing another part of your writing experience with us. It's interesting to see how deals get made. I can see why this one sold based on your short synopsis. Congratulations again. I look forward to reading it. I'm sure this book will connect with many people who've faced terrible things in life and come out changed on the other side.

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  14. Thanks for sharing another part of your writing experience with us. It's interesting to see how deals get made. I can see why this one sold based on your short synopsis. Congratulations again. I look forward to reading it. I'm sure this book will connect with many people who've faced terrible things in life and come out changed on the other side.

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  15. Kathryn, I hope the writing goes well. How exciting, yet a bit scary I'm sure, to delve into this story. I loved the author note and can see why the publisher is anxious to bring this book out.

    To answer your question, I have based many of my stories on true events, although the event was more of a starting point and not the whole story. With One Small Victory, however, I did stick to reality as much as possible even without knowing all of the facts of the actual events.

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  16. Maryann I'd love to hear sometime how you found the process—I'm already reframing my experience in a new way, writing about it now from this new distance, and through fictional characters. New truths emerge. And of course with suicide there will always be unknowns—those "facts" no one could possibly know—because, if known, I would think the whole thing could have been prevented.

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