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An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post | Are you Writing Memoir, Fiction or Faction?

AuthorToolBoxBlogHop | Are You Writing Memoir, Fiction, or Faction?

Welcome to the first #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop of 2018!

The monthly Author Toolbox Blog Hop is organised by Raimey Gallant, and has over 40 participating blogs. To find more posts, click here to check out the main page, click here to search #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop on Twitter, or click here to find us on Pinterest.

Are you writing real-life stories?

I work with a range of authors as a freelance editor. Most are writing fiction, because that’s my specialty (specifically, Christian fiction). But I do have a few clients writing stories based on true life events. Sometimes these books are clearly non-fiction—memoir (I shared my top tips on writing memoir last week). Some are pure fiction. Others are a mixture of both.

How do you decide which is the most appropriate for your story? Memoir or fiction or something in between?

Memoir?

Memoir is the appropriate choice when the author is discussing good experiences (like a relationship that has had a positive effect on her life), and when the author is prepared to tell the truth.The whole truth. Including the ugly parts. Anything less is fiction, not memoir. And good memoir, like good fiction, is shown rather than told.

Soul Friend by Jo-Anne Berthelsen is an excellent example of memoir. It doesn’t tell all the events of jo-Anne’s life as an autobiography would. Instead, Soul Friend follows a theme in a way that changes the way the reader sees the world. In the case of Soul Friend, the memoir follows Jo-Anne’s journey with Joy, her spiritual mentor, which had me envying the relationship.

Or Fiction?

In contrast, Words by Ginny Yttrup is a novel about sexual abuse written by someone who has herself experienced abuse. Yttrup says she doesn’t use her own experiences in Words, but it’s clear she has used the memories and feelings from her own experiences, then adapted those to her fictional writing.

Words is typical of what readers expect in fiction: clear point of view, clear character goals, motivations, and conflicts, a three-act plot, and showing the story rather than telling. There is an excellent build-up of tension throughout the novel, and the writing is outstanding—emotive without being graphic.

Fiction based on real-life situations is the appropriate choice where the author is prepared to weave a story around the main events and themes, rather than feeling obliged to remain true to what actually happened. It may be easier to compartmentalise when writing fiction: these difficult events are happening to your character, not to you.

Choosing to write a story as fiction will mean creating characters rather than adapting real people. It will mean creating a plot that fits the expected three-act structure, rather than relying on what actually happened and when. But fiction still requires the author to go deep into the feelings of the situation—positive and negative. Especially the negative, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong or things that shouldn’t have happened.

Or Something In Between?

Then there is the middle ground: writing a fictional account of a factual story. This is known as a non-fiction novel, or faction. One well-known example is Roots by Alex Haley, which details nine generations of his family’s history.

I’ve read many novels which take this faction approach. Some are writing about the experiences of people and events from long ago, perhaps from their own family history. Some are writing about events that are closer to home, about people they know e.g. friends or parents. And some are writing their own story in novel form.

I’ve read (and edited) non-fiction novels, both those based on the author’s own experiences, and those based on their family history. Some were written as pure fiction, others were written as faction. The stories which worked best had the following features:

The author was sufficiently distanced by time to be able to write about the people and events without personal bias.

This may be because the author is writing about other people (e.g. parents or other relations, or complete strangers) rather than about himself or herself. Authors who are writing about themselves often don’t pay enough attention to the goals, motivations, and conflicts (GMC) of their lead characters—possibly because they didn’t have a personal goal at the time. This lack of GMC makes for a weak novel.

The author was prepared to be honest about the faults of the characters.

No one is perfect in real life, and no one likes reading about perfect fictional characters. This means the author needs to ensure the main characters has faults … even when that main character is based on the author. And they have to be real faults, not the kind we dredge up for job interviews (“People say my biggest fault is that I work too hard”).

The main character’s actions felt realistic.

The problem with creating an almost-perfect main character is that personal stories (fiction or faction) are almost always stories where something went wrong or where something bad happened. That’s good, because good fiction is about conflict, about things going wrong. Sometimes this leads to characters making decisions that are out of character … because that’s how it happened in real life. It’s not enough for that thing to have happened in real life. It also has to make sense in the context of the character the author has created (even when that character is based on the author or someone s/he knows).

The author was prepared to change what actually happened.

In fiction, the needs of the story are paramount. If cutting a scene, changing the timeline, or combining characters makes it a better story, the change is made. Even if that wasn’t how it happened in real life (because fiction has to feel realistic for the reader).

The author kept to one story.

I read one World War II novel that had a good first half, but then turned strange in the second half. When I read the author’s note, I found the first half had been based on the real-life events of one person, and the second half based on another. That’s why the second half seemed as though the heroine was acting out of character: because she was literally a different person.

But this can happen even if the author sticks to one character. Good fiction is like memoir: it focuses on one key theme or story question. A scene that doesn’t move the character closer to their goal has no place in the novel. Even if it’s the time you (aka your character) met the Queen. Stick to the story.

What is Right for Your Story?

So what is right for your story? Memoir, fiction, or faction? Only you can answer that question, but I hope these tips will help you decide.

Are you writing a real-life story? Is it memoir, fiction, or faction?

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31 comments

  1. So interesting. This is the first time I’ve heard the word faction used in this way. I like it. I’d never thought about the differences in amount of telling between the genres either. Food for thought. Great post! I’ll add it in my Facebook schedule soon! 🙂

    • Iola says:

      Yes, a certain YA dystopian trilogy has us all thinking of the more traditional meaning of “faction”. But I like the term better than “non-fiction novel”, which sounds like a contradiction in terms.

  2. Very interesting — I’ve never thought of memoirs in quite such a way. Thanks for sharing 🙂 Oh, let’s hope that the dystopian trilogy with the scary factions doesn’t turn out to be a faction from another time 😉

  3. Erika Beebe says:

    Wow Iola! Very conconcise and informative! I don’t think I can ever brave memoir, but I will one tell tell my story through fictional eyes. I love everything about this post 🙂

  4. M.L. Keller says:

    I’ve never heard the term faction before. I’ve read a few non-fiction novels and really enjoyed them. For me, I feel a closer connection to the story than if it is written in memoir style.
    Thanks for sharing

  5. Man, I can’t even imagine having a good enough memory to write an entire memoir. I’m having fun attempting a few Chicken Soup for the Soul essay entries, but book-length is beyond me. Since I write speculative, that means the fiction approach might work better; I can fit some of my experiences into my fantasy. I need to think about that a little more as I plot my next books. It really helps it feel authentic.

    http://micascottikole.com/2018/01/16/query-structure/

  6. Chrys Fey says:

    For Flaming Crimes. my most recent release, I used my real-life experiences with fire and all of my memories in that book. The things I went through when a fire threatened my childhood home, what I saw, and everything that happened then happens to my characters. It’s fiction because I had to write it fictiously, but it’s also very real. 🙂

    • Iola says:

      I’m sure those experiences will add authenticity and power to your stories. Thanks for visiting, and welcome to the Author ToolBox Blog Hop.

  7. Great post! Sometimes a memoir is not the right way to go to get the point you are trying to make across. Or, telling a personal story from a different perspective can make a better read, and easier to write.

  8. You have excellent points here, Iola. The writer must go deep in writing the protagonist’s journey, whether memoir, factual, or fiction, because that’s where the story is. The story is internal, the internal struggle of the protagonist. The reader wants to literally watch the protagonist change throughout the story and become somehow different at the end. Thanks so much for sharing this insight with your followers.

    • Iola says:

      The problem is when the writer doesn’t want to go deep into themselves and find that internal struggle. Without it, the story is dead – even if it’s based on truth.

  9. J.J. Burry says:

    Interesting, Iola! I’ve never heard faction as a genre before! Definitely something to consider.

    I like how you differentiate between what it takes to write each of them.

  10. Megan Morgan says:

    Great post! I like stories that are fictional retellings of something real that happened, but I didn’t realize there was so much thought and work put into it. Thanks for sharing!

  11. E.M.A. Timar says:

    This is the first time I have heard the term faction. Thanks for sharing. Writing YA fantasy is a far cry from the non-fiction/fiction bridge you are discussing, but it’s great to learn more about other genres and the lines between them.

  12. Lupa says:

    This is an excellent list of lookouts for when writing from real life experiences and I can put your advice to immediate use. I wrote my novella ‘Bad Daughter’ based on the retained emotions from certain true events though the plot did not always follow the events themselves – hence, fiction. But after publishing the ebook (which I did on a tight deadline written and edited within a month), I realized I wasn’t being completely honest to the story I wanted to tell and focused more on the superficial elements of the scenes. I’ve since begun to re-write the book into a novel for a re-release sometime in the near future. I learned that when writing fiction based on facts, there needs to be a balance between being honest and relating events in their exact factual forms. The saying “truth is stranger than fiction” sums it up about right – the scenes on the pages need to be relevant to the moral of the story because one cannot always fall back on “but that’s how it really happened” and it also needs to be palatable for the readers. This is where editing comes into play.
    Thank you for sharing this! Your insight arrived just in time. This goes on my Facebook author page 🙂

    • Iola says:

      “But that’s how it really happened!”

      I’ve heard that. The problem is that “it” rarely makes sense in terms of the character on the paper. We expect our fictional characters to act consistently based on their character, and we expect them to be working towards some goal. Unfortunately, neither of those things are true of many real people. We often act inconsistently, and don’t always have goals.

      Pleased to help, and thanks for sharing my post!

  13. Louise says:

    Some great points to consider. I don’t think I could ever write memoir, but I use some of my personal experiences in my fictional works in progress. I think it helps bring characters to life more vividly 🙂

    • Iola says:

      I agree that it’s good to use our own experiences in our fiction. It’s even better to take some of those experiences and channel the emotion. Both make it a better reading experience.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  14. Louise Foerster says:

    Terrific explanation — the distinctions between real life and fiction are important ones — appreciate how clear you’ve been in discussing each —

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