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I've kept diaries all my life and now have over 100...which I've recently started turning into an autobiography - where some of the original diary quotes are included along with the new text.

I belong to a local writers group, most of whom are well into their 70's & have led much more 'normal' lives than myself. Today I received their feedback on my first chapter. They seemed fascinated by the content but the general consensus was that, because I'm not famous and "nobody buys memoirs of anyone who's not", it might be better if I wrote it as a novel - though still writing it in the first person.

I've had quite an unusual life involving a great deal of travelling and (in my 20's) was socialising with several notorious rock musicians as well as getting caught up in some rather nefarious activities. I definitely dont have to fictionalise anything! I only discovered this website by googling the query of possible conviction for misdeeds I committed 40 years ago (which were never uncovered) by writing about them now.

So I was wondering: 1. If others on here shared the same view that memoirs, by unknowns, are not a suitable genre for first time writers? 2. The question of admitting to crimes (drugs imparticularly...and more than just smoking some weed!) being liable to prosecution - or possible barring from the foreign countries where those crimes were committed.

PS I'm now 65 & was only naughty in the 1970's!

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    Very interesting question! As a Q&A site, we try to have one question per post (otherwise people answer one thing and not the other, and so on). I'd suggest leaving the autobiography vs. novel question here, and moving the admission-of-crimes to a new question. – Standback Jan 19 '17 at 0:12
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    what you might do is get a professional opinion, or several. Query some agents and try to find out what the memoir market is like. They'll be able to tell you with more accuracy if you have a shot. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 19 '17 at 1:06
  • Thanks so much (Standback) for adding a heading to my question & for the suggestion that I should only ask one question per post on this (fabulous) website! Also thanks to Lauren for your advice about seeking a professional opinion on the matter from an agent...though I feel I should first probably get a couple of chapters down that I'm totally happy with! I'm still honing the style right now & inserting some internal dialogue to explain to the reader the reason for some of my foolhardy decisions/actions along with the underlying thoughts and emotions so that readers can relate to me more. – Jenny Webb Jan 20 '17 at 2:12
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    Your memoir might be actually very commercial, if you feel comfortable (and made sure it is legal) sharing the names of the rock stars with which you were associated at the time. If it is out of the question, consider writing a story, where the characters are (while based on real people) fictional. The ones in the know will get it, big you will be safe. :-) – Lew Jan 20 '17 at 5:57
  • The statute of limitations is your friend in this case. – Aaron Brick Jun 3 '19 at 20:08
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There are two factors that sell an (auto)biography: fame and relevance.

(Auto)biographies by famous persons sell because everyone wants to know what their lives were (or are) like. We, the common people, want to know how rich, famous, or talented people live. The (auto)biography of a celebrity will sell, even if that person has a completely common and boring life. Because even that is an insight that tickles our curiosity. How can they live a normal life, if their circumstances are so exceptional?

(Auto)biographies by unknown persons sell because the "protagonist" led an exceptional life or because his life exemplifies the average life. Anne Frank was a very normal, completely unknown girl. Yet her autobiography has become a bestseller because her life was both tragic and an example by which we can understand the lives of many similarly normal people at that time. Today, of course, Anne Frank is "famous", if you want, but only through her autobiography. It is her autobiography that made her famous! That Anne Frank never intended to publish her diaries adds to the veracity of her writings and makes reading them even more heartbreaking.

I disagree with the advice of Dale. If you are a common person and your life was average, you cannot make yourself famous and then sell your autobiography off that fame. And if your life was interesting enough to make you famous through the strategies outlined by Dale, it will sell without that effort, too.

If you go to a bookstore and look at the biographies section, that will be misleading because the books there are often limited to famous people. But in the novels or social/political sections, there are many (auto)biographies of people that somehow exemplify the circumstances we live in. There are many (auto)biographies by or about women who escaped oppression in islamic states, for example. These are common, average women who were completely unknown before they published their books, but they have become both an inspiration to women in similar circumstances and have helped outsiders understand the situation in their countries.

So if you are unknown, but you can manage to make your life relevant to a wider public, either because your life was exceptional, or because your life exemplifies something that people are struggling to understand, then your book will sell.

There is one type of autobiography that seems to profit from novellisation, and that is the "normal" life of a member of some fringe group or subculture. A good example is Fight Club, which fictionalizes the experiences of the author. Other examples are books about drug addicts and criminals, but also musicians or teenagers. The authors of these books are people whose lives are not normal or average from the perspective of the wider audience, but are normal and average within the community they are a part of.

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I have an additional possibility to consider: Get yourself better known.

  1. Submit some of the episodes of your story to widely circulated magazines, especially magazines that serve the audience you want to reach.
  2. Contact writers and reporters for national and local media outlets (magazines, newspapers, TV, websites) to see if they're interested in your story.
  3. Publish some of the episodes yourself, either on your own website or someone else's platform, such as Medium.com, YouTube, …
  4. Other ideas I haven't thought of…
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  • I am not yet at a stage that I have anything I'd want to submit for publication Dale... or even want to share with friends! I'm only on the 3rd draft of my first chapter (which will be inserted about 1/3 through the final book) so I'm still refining the style right now. I also need to check the legal side out before I admit anything publicly of the juicier episodes which sometimes involved famous people. Many of them are dead now but they have children... – Jenny Webb Jan 20 '17 at 2:39
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My personal opinion is to try sell it to an agent as an Autobiography first - but make the back cover matter interesting - so that someone who picks it up and reads the cover - even though they don't know you, suddenly wants to buy the book to find out more. If you fail to get an agent after a few months of trying - turn it into a novel and try that.

I believe in doing things in a way that you can reverse them - if you do it as a novel first, you can almost never go back to doing it as an autobiography.

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Many famous authors have made their names on lightly fictionalized versions of their own lives. This is called autobiographical fiction, and it underlies books from To Kill a Mockingbird and David Copperfield to Fear of Flying and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Consider also the movie, Almost Famous, with a similar theme as your own work. It's presented as fiction, even though it features real people, and is transparently based on the life of the famous writer/director who created it.

The big advantages are that you can rewrite history to make it more entertaining, you can combine characters to make them more interesting, you run less of a risk of libel suits or legal culpability (for illicit activities, such as you mentioned), and you aren't constrained by the facts. You also don't have people waiting to catch you out in lies.

Given that fiction generally sells better than autobiography, except for the truly famous, I would suggest that your friends are correct that you would be better off changing a few names and calling this a novel "based on true events" rather than an autobiography. (About the only person I can think of who became famous primarily through straight autobiography is Maya Angelou, and she's perhaps a unique case.)

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You might benefit from clarifying the difference between an autobiography and a memoir. There are many articles on these topics on the Internet. They might help you find an answer. Autobiographies tend to be chronological; memoirs focus on a theme, topic or event. What makes any story standout is getting the voice right: if you create an engaging persona as a storyteller and tell a good story in an engaging way, the actual genre whether autobiography, novel or memoir will matter less and be a marketing issue rather than a stylistic one.

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  • Yes - ideas are used again and again by different authors, yet people will happily read them again. Because voice is what attracts or repels people, what pulls them into or boots them out of your story. Good point – Tasch Feb 24 at 14:55

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