Talking Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction

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Q. What's the difference between memoir and narrative nonfiction? Aren't they the same thing?

A. Memoir is when someone writes about their own life. Narrative nonfiction is when someone writes about the lives of others.
Both of these categories are notable because they blur the line between fiction and nonfiction. Narrative nonfiction is unique (and in high demand) because it tells a true story - hence the word nonfiction - but it's told like a novel. If you want to write about horse racing, you would probably come up with an average book on horse racing. But Seabiscuit is narrative nonfiction. Same thing with the space program. There's a huge amount of difference between a book on NASA's programs and The Right Stuff.

Q. How do you pitch memoir and narrative nonfiction if they bridge the gap?

A. Memoir is tricky because it's the only nonfiction subject that must be treated as fiction. That means you have to write the entire manuscript (and revise it) before submitting. You would eventually write a synopsis - not a book proposal.
Narrative nonfiction, however, is still nonfiction and you would submit a proposal, most likely. Writers with a track record and platform would do just fine submitting a book proposal and writing very little of the actual text. But - for writers without a track record, it wouldn't hurt to write a lot (or all) of the manuscript. Narrative nonfiction is tricky, and you have to show that you know what you're doing.

Q. Are publishers jittery about memoirs these days because of James Frey and A Million Little Pieces?

A. From what I'm hearing, oh yeah. I talked with literary agent and lawyer Paul S. Levine over the weekend and he said that memoirs should be vetted before being sent to publishers. The purpose of this is to eliminate any libel or invasions of privacy in the text itself. Though vetting a manuscript will not ensure that you never get sued, it should prevent anyone who sues you from winning.