Recently I was at a conference where I met with a writer who was working on a non-fiction memoir. It needed work, but it was viable, I thought.

Imagine my surprise when we met again and he told me he had been advised by two others (faculty members at this conference) to write it as a novel, not as a non-fiction book. He scrapped the memoir and began his fact-based novel.

I think he was given bad advice. I’m assuming the other two faculty members believe that if you can write non-fiction, you can write fiction just as well.

I disagree. Fiction and non-fiction are not the same and, in my opinion, take a different set of talents. Yes, there’s some overlapping. Some fiction techniques are useful in writing non-fiction and vice versa. But few authors succeed at both fiction and non-fiction.

The stumbling block as I see it is that turning a true-life experience into a novel is handicapped by the reality of what actually happened. Fiction is a made-up story. When you try to pour non-fiction realities into a made-up story, you’re no longer free to tailor the story according to your creative imagination.

In my days as an editor, I rejected many novels based on “my grandmother’s life” or “my uncle’s experience in World War II.” Most of the time when I suggested a plot problem or an unbelievable scenario, the reply was, “but it really happened that way.” In fiction, we don’t care if it really happened that way. We want it to be believable and compelling. Non-fiction writers trying to turn a true story into fiction rarely succeed at either.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s fine to write both fiction and non-fiction. I do that myself. But for every book we want to write, we need to ask ourselves and ask the story itself, Is this a novel or is this a non-fiction book? And when we receive the answer, the next question is Do I have the capability of writing it that way?

Not all writers can write both fiction and non-fiction. One of our tasks as writers is to know our strengths and weaknesses and then major on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. You may want to try writing a true story as a fiction piece as an exercise to see if you can do it well….but please don’t write it for publication without getting some input from several editors/agents/other writers you respect.

Write the story as it’s meant to be told—whether fiction or non-fiction. And then only if you have the skills to write it that way.