Turning Memoir Into a Novel

Even if you’ve survived cancer, become a lesbian, got hit by lightning, suffered a psychotic break, and won the lottery, it doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to write a publishable memoir. I learned this the hard way.

My novel, Rose’s Will, started out as a memoir, but memoirs are difficult because one is limited to telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, which can get extremely boring. If you embellish and exaggerate, it can get you into real trouble. Just ask James Frey and Greg Mortenson, sorry examples of what can happen to authors who take undue creative liberties in their memoirs. I can’t imagine a moment more horrifying than sitting across from Oprah and admitting that the eighty-seven days that I spent in prison, turned out to be only three hours, my ex didn’t really commit suicide but stubbed her toe really hard, and my kidnapping by the Taliban was, in reality, a hosted tour of a Pakistani village.

But in a memoir, you must tell the truth no matter how loudly the story cries out for a prison scene, a suicide, or a kidnapping. And that’s why, three quarters through my memoir, I switched gears and turned it into a novel. I added two more characters, gave them each their own point of view, and let it fly. When I was no longer burdened with the agonizing conformity to my personal truth, my creative energy soared. Peripheral characters went from mundane to absurd, story elements were collapsed in time to include only the highlights of several different scenes, words were put into the mouths of people who didn’t say them, and deeds were manufactured to enhance the story line. Best of all, the memoir that had plodded along for ten years turned into a solid, publishable novel in ten months.

Read Rose’s Will and see if you could tell fact from fiction!

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September 11, 2011

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