Jeannie here. This post first appeared in my literary consultant blog.
You might have grown up thinking that there are about fifty genres of books, but really, there are three. We’ll call the rest of the genres, like sci-fi and mystery, sub-genres. So what are the three types? Well, there's 1) fiction (duh); 2) nonfiction (also, duh); and 3) creative nonfiction (uh, what's this?).
You’re probably staring at the screen reading this and thinking, “Duh, fiction and nonfiction . . .”
I get it. But these three genres have different rules when querying agents, so it’s really important to get your genre correct. What I come across in working with first-time writers of creative nonfiction is that they often don’t know that they are writing creative nonfiction.
So, what is creative nonfiction? Simply: It's nonfiction that uses the mechanics and devices of fiction. Here’s the best example I can give you:
Have you ever wondered what’s the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? Did you maybe think that “memoir” is the new hip word for autobiography? You’d be wrong, but you’d also be in good company with many other talented, intelligent readers and writers.
Autobiography is nonfiction, while memoir is creative nonfiction.
In an autobiography, the story isn’t the point. The facts are the point. There are tons of research, footnotes, letters referenced, and a cadre of fact-checkers. If your dress was yellow at your husband’s presidential coronation, you can’t say it was pink. You don’t often see the average Joe writing an autobiography. Presidents, kings, and Ben Franklin write autobiographies. The rest of us write memoirs.
In a memoir, you are telling your story. You are trying to evoke feelings in the reader and lead them on a journey through a well-thought-out plot. Because life rarely follows a coherent plot line, you have to bend the facts slightly, rearrange them here and there, and maybe leave really important things out. You can wear a pink dress in a memoir even if it was yellow in real life. You can even wear a black pantsuit if you need to.
The story and the feelings it evokes need to be true, but the details can be fuzzy or a little wrong. It’s about how you remember things. And our memories are tainted by our beliefs, worldview, how many times we’ve accessed those memories, other people retelling stories, and the passage of time.
If you are querying an agent, you may notice that they usually only have submission protocol for fiction and nonfiction. And since most writers I work with aren’t aware that memoir is not nonfiction, they follow the protocol for nonfiction.
Here’s the problem: You’re going to see you don’t have to write the whole book and instead need to write a book proposal.
Agents are going to pass right over your memoir proposal because:
I get a couple of requests for help with book proposals for memoirs every month. This is a costly and time-consuming mistake. Book proposals are between 25 and 50 pages, with extensive marketing and promotion sections, your industry contacts, dozens of hard numbers on your platform (which should number in the 100,000s), and competing titles. You only need a couple of chapters to show your writing ability (if you can’t write up to their standards, they’ll pair you with a ghostwriter).
On the other hand, fiction and creative nonfiction are all about your writing ability.*
There are always exceptions, partly because the lines between nonfiction and creative nonfiction and between fiction and creative nonfiction are blurry. How much of it has to be based in fact before it’s labeled as fiction “based on a true story”? And is your personal story just supporting the premise for your nonfiction self-help book? Or maybe you’re a talented and published nonfiction business writer and want to write your memoir.
For many reasons, especially because platform is becoming more important for all writers, I like to add a third type of agent contact letter. I call it the narrative book proposal. It’s shorter and geared specifically for books that use a narrative structure. To the traditional book proposal, the narrative proposal adds the back-cover blurb and author bio, with a photo, but simplifies the marketing and platform areas, keeps the comparable titles and sample chapters, and replaces the detailed outline and chapter summaries with a standard three-page plot synopsis.
If you need help deciding because you’re in a gray area, reach out to me, another published and successful author, an agent at a writer’s conference, or find a writing professor. But please don’t ask your writer’s group with all unpublished writers, and especially don’t ask your mother or significant other.
What are your favorite memoirs, if you’ve read any?
*This is becoming less and less true. As the publishing industry changes to keep up with self-publishing, they have started to cut their marketing budgets, putting more of the burden on writers. So having a strong platform or already established readership will help you as a fiction writer, but if you don’t, it’s not a death blow to your dreams.