Several of us have been debating how much “fictionalizing” is acceptable in nonfiction. If the basic facts are true and correct, is it acceptable to enhance dialogue and setting? Or to change names and gender? Moreover, if that’s allowed, at what stage in the process should the author inform the editor—in the query letter, the cover letter, or when working with the editor on revisions?
The only time it is acceptable to change the facts in nonfiction is when you’re using case studies to illustrate a concept and you change the name of the person and their identifying details. This should be stated right up front in the book’s introduction and as a footnote on the first case study.
If you enhance the dialogue and setting, change name, gender or any other fact, then it is no longer nonfiction—it is fiction, based on a true story and should be labeled as such in your initial query.
Update: You have a little more leeway with memoirs and autobiographies. As Annette commented, you can’t go all hogwild with the facts, as did James Frey in his “memoir” but you can alter some details to protect the innocent (or guilty) and you can adjust conversations somewhat. Tell you editor exactly what was changed and they will help you stay within acceptable limits.
3 thoughts on “Fictionalizing Nonfiction”
What about memoirs and autobiographies? Many have dialogue and such, but I doubt any of those writers remember exactly what people said 20 years later. It seems like in those cases, readers will understand that this is how one person remembers it, not necessarily how it happened 100% precisely.
I’m not talking about the ilk of James Frey, who just up all kinds of things wholesale. Just little things, such as two brief conversations that could be condensed into one, but where the point and the spirit are still there as to what really happened.
If it’s labeled as a memoir, is that okay? No?
(Not writing one, and I have no plans to, but this intrigues me.)
Thanks, Annette. I wasn’t thinking of those. I’ve added an update to the post.
Thanks for adding your thoughts on that.
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