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How to switch from novels to memoir (and vice versa)

If you’re considering switching from a novel to a memoir (or vice versa), what should you know before you begin? We asked five writers with published memoirs as well as novels for their expert advice.

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Your story’s premise

How do you handle the premise or central idea in either genre? Should your approach be basically the same or different? For instance, does the premise need to be clear by a given point in the memoir? If so, what about in a novel?

“Writers have a responsibility to leave their readers with a deep impression – a feeling, a sense, an emotional response,” says Kephart. “Thus, no matter what form a memoir or novel takes, there must be a deliberate, intentional cohesion to the pages. That cohesion often revolves around a premise, but it doesn’t always.”

If there is a premise, where does it go? “A common approach,” says Kephart, used to be to place it in the prologue with a memoir, “but I’m seeing less and less of that now.” Other options include making “clear early on what themes or questions one is chasing.” Or one can be implicit rather than explicit: “The premise may never be fully defined or articulated; it may, rather, be hinted at through voice and form.”

With a novel, it depends on the genre, says Kephart. “In a murder mystery, one is going to want to know the nature of the mystery pretty early on. In literary fiction, on the other hand, the establishment of tone, mood, voice, and characters will take precedence early on; readers of literary fiction will be willing to wait for, are even happy to stumble upon, the premise.”

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Kohler questions the idea of a set premise as a whole: “I don’t know about premises. I think one is moved to write by an image, something seen or overheard, or a question one wants to try and answer.” This isn’t something you plan, she says. “What the book is about has to come about inadvertently, if you will. Plot, I think, and structure, which is so closely associated with meaning, is probably the most unconscious part of a book – the structure must come in the writing, it seems to me, and is ultimately what the book is about.”

“I think I would handle any ‘central idea’ essentially the same way in either novel or memoir – which is to avoid it,” Chace says. She opposes “spelling out theses or central ideas in either genre.” And she cautions against having a premise in mind when you are drafting your work since doing so can “close the door on the part of your writing process which is highly intuitive.” Whether it’s memoir or novel, she says, “the book you are writing may only reveal its central idea once you are well into it, or it may be that you think it’s about one thing when you begin, and that changes by the time you have finished the book. In fact, that has always been my experience.”

Writing in both genres

Whether you’re writing memoir or fiction, you’ll certainly do well if you can capture the world in which your story takes place, and one way to do this is to develop vivid, dramatic scenes. But if you’re switching to memoir from fiction, it’s always necessary to ask: “Am I being true to what really happened?” Here, you need to distinguish carefully between sheer invention and imaginative re-enactment of experiences you did, in fact, have. Beyond that, be careful not to emphasize trauma for trauma’s sake in either genre. The rest? Much depends on you, the writer, and how you handle any given work, regardless of genre.

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—Jack Smith is the author of five novels, three books of nonfiction, and numerous reviews, articles, and interviews. His collection of articles on fiction writing, Inventing the World, was recently published by Serving House Books.

 

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