Posts Tagged libel

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.

Huh?

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.

Attention!

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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My book is Kryptonite: do I need a secret identity?

If you change your name, can you hide from the people you’re writing about?

I’ve had this rather interesting question: I saw you had written under pen names, and wondered: Is it difficult to keep your cover? I very much need an assumed name, as my novel will include details that will not go down well here with the powers that be. Said details won’t include names and faces, even so, I’d like to stay on the safe side. Do you have any advice or warnings?

As they say in magazines, names have been concealed and details changed to protect identities.

First – is it easy to keep my cover? Yes, because I’m not in hiding or in danger of being unmasked. The ‘authors’ whose names I ghostwrite under are real people. They appear on TV, they go to book signings and talk to the media and fans when necessary. Everyone who knows I wrote the books is within the industry and has a vested interest in keeping my cover. (But that also means I have to too…)

But it’s a different matter if you are genuinely worried about the consequences if someone can identify you as the author. And I’m probably not about to make you feel better.

Here is a law of writing. If you write a book, people you know will see themselves in it even if you categorically did not use them. Your family, your ex, your colleagues. Even your cat if he could be bothered.

Names have been changed

Will a pseudonym mean you don’t provoke those comparisons? It might be enough for situations where the aggrieved party might write an angry letter or exclude you from the Christmas card list. But this correspondent seems to fear a lot more than that.

If your revelations are sufficiently annoying, using a pseudonym is virtually pointless. The publisher is not obliged to keep your identity a secret if a legal letter arrives or the heavies call. They don’t have the code of conduct that journalists have, of protecting their sources. Publishing contracts, even for the sweetest book about daffodil husbandry, have a clause that requires the author to bear the cost of any legal claims or injunctions.

Changing names and faces does not stop someone being identified in your story, as many libel cases will demonstrate. If your friends will see themselves in your novel no matter what, think how sensitive someone might be if they suspected they or their organisation were the material for your book. You might find yourself with a libel writ, in breach of a contractual obligation, or even the Official Secrets Act. If you feel you must hide your true identity, maybe you would be better seeking legal advice and finding safe ways to use sensitive material. Much depends, of course, on what you’re writing, but an agent should be able to advise you, or a specialist media lawyer.

However, if you are determined to make fiction out of your experience, there’s a lot you can do without risking legal repercussions or concrete overshoes.

Spilling the beans – the safe way

Here was my advice.

First, write a private draft, with everything you have to say, for your eyes only. Then think about how to make it into a story. Real life has a habit of being messy, meandering and inconclusive. It often lacks coherence, artistry and all the neatness that make a crafted story satisfying.

Then start to camouflage – by looking for ways to change the story into fiction while telling a core truth.

Find themes to highlight – this will allow you to hone your main plot/ sub plot structure.

Remodel the characters into roles. There will probably be far too many people in the real-life version, so you’ll have to merge some of them. And in fiction, characters tend to have defined roles. There will be a hero, an antagonist, perhaps a mentor, perhaps a loyal friend. Make a list of character archetypes.

Sometimes using archetype lists can seem too formulaic, but you’re not doing this to paint by numbers, you’re working out what to do with a messy, real cast. Terrell Mims has an excellent series on character archetypes and how they work in a story.

Make a conscious effort to let go of real events. You have passed into fiction now – the gods aren’t going to examine you on what really happened. Your duty is to make a story that examines the themes, motivations and behaviours that kicked you to the writing desk in the first place. Identify gaps in the story and invent egregiously to fill them. It will probably be much better than the real version was, and will carry your truths more convincingly to the reader’s heart.

If you’re having trouble getting it all in one book, don’t try. Save material for another.  This isn’t your only shot and publishers want a writer who can run and run.

Of course, all of us pour our life experiences, relationships, traumas and triumphs into our fiction – that’s unavoidable. For some of us the urge to write comes from a zeal to lift a lid, right a specific wrong. It’s possible to do that under quite a heavy smokescreen.

What would you add? Have you had to tell a story and camouflage it heavily? Relax… your relatives, friends, former employers will never read this blog… Share in the comments!

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