Should I write a memoir, a novel or a fictionalised memoir?

If you want to write a book from your life experiences, which is the best option? I’ve had this rather interesting question…

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working across the globe as a freelance soldier. I am committing my adventures to text to shine a light on the realities of that world. Far from the blood and gore of Tony Geraghty’s Guns for Hire, I want to explore the personal torment so many go through and the struggles they face in balancing domestic life and freelancing. Would this be better written as a personal recollection or a novel like Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher series?- Michael

My first reaction is, can I be your agent? Wow, what a story. Not many people who offer themselves to the publishing world have such a unique premise. You should definitely write a memoir first. If it does very well, you’ll find yourself asked to write novels anyway. Many successful publishing careers have started with a best-selling memoir – although, of course, there are many memoirs published that don’t hit the big time.

If you have ideas for novels, work them up too to demonstrate that you can be a long-term investment. (If you haven’t, it’s not a deal-breaker. If they’re really keen they’ll send you to someone like me 🙂 )

Are you legally allowed to write it?

Make sure you’re allowed to write this book. In your case it sounds as though you want to focus on the personal story rather than operational details. But many writers with dynamite memoirs can’t publish because of libel laws, the Official Secrets Act or possible death threats.

Libel is when you harm a person’s reputation. You can relate events if you can prove they’re true. If you’re delving into people’s motives you have to be careful, or get the subject’s permission. But don’t let this scare you – people do write quite searching, searing memoirs. Just make sure you’re fully informed.

Publishers will not protect you

Writers often think that if they have a publisher to hide behind, it will protect them. It won’t. Although publishers have lawyers they can show manuscripts to, they usually only do that with the famous or infamous – otherwise it’s not worth paying the fees. (Sorry.) Publishing contracts always have a clause that makes you responsible for any harm (ie legal harm) caused by your book. Even if it’s only a twinkly fairy tale.

Be honest – do you want to be honest?

Are you willing to write honestly and fully about the experience? This is going to be a story about the effect on your family and friends. They won’t all be angels – and if they are, the book won’t ring true. Will they mind if you peel them in public?

I’ve seen many manuscripts from writers who are examining traumatic periods from their lives. While they delve truthfully into their own hell and bad behaviour, they balk at doing the same to their loved ones.

We novel-writers are frequently asked by friends or family if we’ve put them into books. If we deny it, they often don’t believe us. In a memoir there is no cloak of fictionality. They know, without doubt, that you did.

Should you write a fictionalised memoir?

This is the hybrid option – not quite truth, not fully invented. You take a real experience apart and make a story that is true in essence, even if not keeping to the precise detail.

I get approached by a lot of people who want to write about a major change in their lives, such as unusual travel experiences or giving up a high-flying career to start anew in a foreign country. Speaking with my cruel marketing hat on, these are not as unusual as Michael’s story. It’s probably better to mine them for a novel instead, where you have licence to make something bigger and more distinctive than reality. In that case fictionalised memoir might be a good option.

From the moment you cross into fiction, fiction rules apply. Start with what really happened, but do not shrink from adding, cutting and inventing until you have the best story and the most usable characters. What’s the difference between that and ‘real’ fiction, if there is such a thing? Probably not much.


Fictionalised memoir is mainly a label to get more attention in an overcrowded market. It says ‘this is a story, but it is written from what I truly lived’. Some readers like that; some are profoundly irritated and want either truth or fiction. They certainly don’t want to question whether you made the best bits up.


The problem with being a debut writer is getting attention. Readers – and publishers – buy the author’s story as much as they buy the book. For that there’s a pecking order.

1 – Memoirist – translates as ‘read my book because this is my extraordinary life and it’s fascinating’

2 – Fictional memoirist – ‘read my book because it’s fiction based on my inimitable experiences’

3 – Novelist – ‘read my book, I made it up from extensive research, the depth of my human understanding and the pure dedicated application of my craft’

Believe me, it hurts to write that list. It’s not a comment on quality, simply on the volume of writing that is out there.

The bottom line

Memoir comes with the marketing built in. If you have enough usable material to write a straight memoir, go with the memoir. You’ll start at the top of the debut writers’ pecking order.

You guys may, of course disagree! What would you tell Michael? Share in the comments!


How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for writing novels in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.My own novel, My Memories of a Future Life is now available. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.


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  1. #1 by Daniel R. Marvello on December 4, 2011 - 3:52 pm

    You are far more knowledgeable than I about the market, Roz, so my first advice to Michael would to be to take your advice over mine, but if Michael asked me that question, here’s what I’d say…

    If it were my decision to make, I’d write a novel. I’d take the most emotionally-charged aspect of my experiences and write a story based on that. I’d use that first book to establish a character who I would then carry forward into additional books. I’m thinking along the lines of Harry Bosch, John Corey, J.P. Beaumont, etc.

    Memory is a funny thing, and not entirely to be trusted (well, mine isn’t anyway). If the book were written as straight memoir, I’d have to make sure I got it exactly right or risk being accused of writing fictionalized memoir. Only if I had kept a detailed journal during my experiences would I be willing to give that a go.

    Writing a fiction novel would give me the freedom to weave real and fictional circumstances/characters into the story I want to tell. I could *always* fall back on what really happened at those times when “truth is stranger than fiction.”

  2. #3 by Paul R. Drewfs on December 4, 2011 - 4:40 pm

    Smack on, succinct, and shrewd. There is one additional question I think any would be memoirist should objectively answer before they pants themselves and various sacred cows in the public square: is it cost-effective? Cost, in this case, refers to the price of exposing yourself and the past actions of your colleagues and associates; as opposed to mere financial gains and losses. You were trusted with information and experiences in your life that others weren’t: that’s what makes you and your story unique. Now you are considering the compromise of that trust to share that information and your experiences with the World. The price of compromising that trust can be enormous, measured relative to the effectiveness of your memoir. Effectiveness, in this case, amounts to a second question: if anyone believes your memoir – another issue to consider – will it make a substantial difference in the behavior of the readers. If you are writing your memoir solely to excite and entertain your readers, a fact based memoir probably isn’t worth the price of trading off that sacred trust. If you believe that you can positively change hearts and minds and influence the behavior of your fellow human beings, the exchange of that trust may be warranted. Memoirists beware: do not simply assume that your memoir will elicit rational behavior form irrational human beings.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 4, 2011 - 6:41 pm

      The price of telling… a good point, Paul. The opposite view is that some stories have to be told because they take the lid off a hitherto unseen part of life – and that doing this will improve the lives of others.
      In that case, memoirs are not just for curiosity. If they catch the hearts of the reading public they can become a force for change.

  3. #5 by Son of Incogneato on December 4, 2011 - 5:25 pm

    So finally I have a tag to hang on myself – I’m fictional memoirist! I took all the best bits from a wild and wooly year of my youth and packed them into a single month. My life wasn’t particularly exciting, but we were crazy enough to generate numerous outrageous and comical situations. Thus was The Beauregarde Affair born.

    There are several illegal activities in the story, so I changed everybody’s names except my own. However, anyone who is connected to the story will easily recognize themselves and others. So I am wondering if that could end up having legal repercussions. Almost all the episodes are taken from reality–obviously the dialog is reconstructed–but certain aspects have been altered to give the book more flow.

    So; I’m wondering if I can get into trouble if someone who is in the story reads the book and is unhappy about finding themselves–albeit a quasi-fictionalized version– exposed to the world.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 4, 2011 - 6:44 pm

      No wonder you are Incogneato.

      To answer your question seriously – yes there have been cases of authors being sued by people who have recognised themselves in books. Depending on what you’ve done with your folks, of course, the best thing to do is to contact them, let them read the book and tell you in writing that they don’t mind.

  4. #7 by Rich Weatherly on December 4, 2011 - 5:31 pm

    Thank you for your comments and observations on this issue. It is one I struggle with personally. For the reasons you mentioned, I’m forced to write a hybrid memoir.

    That said, for the most part these types of stories, at least for the generation that experienced them are more about the personal tragedies and triumphs than they are about the details of operations.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 4, 2011 - 6:45 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Rich. And that’s an interesting point – that the personal triumphs and tragedies are what the reader connects to. Good luck with your book.

  5. #9 by Son of Incogneato on December 4, 2011 - 7:16 pm

    ‘… let them read the book and tell you in writing that they don’t mind.’ That’s the problem. One of the main characters is dead (perhaps his family will take offence) while the other main character is nowhere to be found. On the other hand, the chances of this book being read by millions (and by those involved) is infinitesimal, so I guess I’ll just have to hope that it isn’t a success …

    Great article and blog – thanks Roz.

  6. #11 by Quiet Riot Girl on December 4, 2011 - 8:55 pm

    My advice would be : start writing. I have found whatever I have intended to write may come out differently from how I planned it.

    I wrote one very personal account as a completely fictional story. Another personal ‘memoir’ I am struggling to make into fiction and keep feeling like reverting to ‘memoir’.

    But I am not aiming to make money and your advice seems to relate to financial concerns which when it comes to writing I know nothing about!

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 4, 2011 - 11:52 pm

      That’s an interesting perspective and worth pointing out – once you start writing, you may find your feelings about the book change. Thanks!

  7. #13 by Dan Holloway on December 4, 2011 - 9:14 pm

    excellent post, Roz. I completely understand the difference between Michael’s story and other “not quite unique if very very interesting” life stories, but I’m still intrigued you suggest memoir first as we hear so much about the essentiality of platform for non-fiction. Would you advise Michael to build his platform before pitching, or in his case is the story enough?

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on December 5, 2011 - 12:01 am

      Hmm, good point, Dan. You always have to do what is best for the material, of course. As for platform – in MIchael’s case, a publisher would help build that because there would be a hefty human interest angle. There’s always a significant lead time from a book being signed to being published – which gives a publisher and author time to build a platform.
      I’m not saying that we’re all wasting our time building platforms – but a lot of people who pitch to publishers and are accepted haven’t done that. Also, most of us writers have lived rather less fruity lives and so are not natural biography material!
      Someone will now pipe up and say ‘speak for yourself, Ms Morris…’

  8. #15 by Dave Morris on December 5, 2011 - 12:36 am

    Chris Ryan and Andy McNab are both examples we might look to here. They didn’t just have the credentials of being in the SAS, they were bona fide wartime heroes. So that was their platform – though we didn’t use marketing jargon like that in those days 🙂 Your correspondent may not have equivalent fame to back up his memoirs, which would make it a bit harder to get a publishing deal, but all other things being equal, I agree it’s easier to sell the memoir than the novel.

    Btw, I believe it isn’t possible to libel the dead (answering Incogneato’s point) so his family may take offense, but they can’t use the law to stop you publishing.

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