Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Last week at Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference I was surprised by the number of writers who came with their own story– either memoir or narrative nonfiction. At meal after meal someone at the table would invariably describe his or her own story of overcoming some form of abuse. This is a complicated genre for a number of reasons:
- First, there is a limited market for stories of abuse and recovery. For a new one to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention it must be distinctive– offering a whole different take.
- The question on an agent’s or editor’s mind is always this: has enough time passed so that the writer has the perspective needed to make the book universal. Or is the writer working out his or her own recovery on the pages of the manuscript? Or worse, is this book the writer’s subconscious tool of revenge?
- If it is memoir, the voice needs to be unforgettable with application to all of us. Voices like Jeanette Walls’ in Glass Castle or Liz Murray’s in Breaking Night are few and far between.
- If it’s not memoir and not the story of a celebrity or someone with a huge well-developed platform, it’s going to be a very difficult sell. How many of us go into a book store asking for a story about such a tough subject. Most people read for pleasure or for self-improvement. It’s painful enough to contemplate abuse for a few minutes but how much more intense over the course of a whole book?
- Is the timing right? Oprah disclosed her own abuse only after her celebrity status was well-established. Because everyone knew her emotional strength, the story was all the more powerful.
- Writing a book that details abuse of any kind for the inspirational market requires highly developed writing skills. Forget the old adage, show don’t tell. Any scenes of abuse need to be told not shown. Jan Kern, who wrote the award-winning book about teen cutting, Scars That Wound, Scars That Heal, stressed that in writing the book she was ever mindful that if she described a razor blade pressed against skin, the description could actually stimulate a cutter and cause her to pick up her own blade and cut. We need to be careful not to incite with our writing and to be aware that describing abuse can cause flashbacks in those who’ve been victims of that abuse. It’s a tough assignment.
In my nonfiction class, I briefly covered the issue of permissions and libel. Several writers came up to me afterward with questions. One writer was incensed by the suggestion that a publisher would require permission from her abusive spouse before she could write about him. Several assumed they could write about someone if they changed just a few details about that person. Not necessarily so. If we are writing about a private person– not a celebrity or a politician or a public official– that person does not even have to prove malice to win a libel suit in court. We live in a litigious society. If you have shown that person in a bad light and someone might be able to recognize him or her, they can sue you. If you are talking about someone connected to you– ex-spouse, relative, teacher– it won’t be difficult for those who know you to figure out who you are referring to. You would have to prove the implications you made are true in a court of law and even if you win, costly lawsuits can break the bank. No publisher will be willing to take those risks along with you.
In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott said, “If the people in your life didn’t want you to write about them, they shouldn’t have behaved so poorly…” Funny, yes, but unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
A book every writer needs to read is, The Copyright, Permission and Libel Handbook: A Step-By-Step Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers by Lloyd Jassin and Steven C. Schechter. Read the section on libel. Read it twice and mark it up with a pencil. Then read it again. You need to know this stuff, even if you are writing fiction. If you’ll look at your book contract you’ll see that you are responsible for everything you write. Not your publisher. Not your agent. You.
Are you surprised? Did you know you can sued for libel for a novel? Did you know you cannot be sued on behalf of someone who’s dead? Let’s talk. What you think?
Planning to write your own life story? You need to read this. Click to Tweet
Memoir and narrative nonfiction, oh my! What constitutes libel and defamation? Click to Tweet
@wendylawton identifies the most complicated genre. Click to Tweet
Thank you for this, Wendy.
One thing I am VERY careful about in my humble little newspaper column (maybe twice a month) is to keep names of anyone other than myself out of the article. There are LOTS of people I could say nice things about, but one learns to draw the line at oneself.
I live in a small town and know a few people, and our name is not common. I once gave a radio interview about teachers and professional development days and whoa Nelly!! Batten down the hatches!!
I’ve had a blog/journal for 12 years, yes, twelve, and have been un-friended and smacked down by people for speaking my mind and naming a name or two. But that was WAY back, and I am wiser for it.
“Free speech” can be something we pay dearly for.
Even using the name of someone you loathe as the bad guy in your novel can turn up the heat. I used the names of a few people from my past that gave me somewhat of a hard time, but the names are very “Smith and Jones” common, and I switched them up and spread them out.
Even being positive and complimentary can still backfire. Let’s say you know someone who doesn’t want to be found, no matter how nicely you speak of them, if you name them in a public forum or a book, you’ve given away their location to be in proximity to yours.
So, our lesson for today? When in doubt, keep your mouth shut and your pen closed.
Good advice, Jennifer.
I’m glad our laws protect people. I’ve been on the receiving end of false attacks. It’s bad enough when someone takes action to hurt your life privately–I can’t imagine how painful it would be if done in public.
And, while I realize there are plenty of people (like the abusive spouse mentioned above) who deserve to be punished, we have a judicial system for that.
No one lives in a vacuum. I worry about the children or mother or close friends of someone ripped apart in a memoir. We need to be considerate of all involved and not just pour our side of the story out there without thinking of the consequences.
I’m really glad you wrote about this.
So true, Jill. We may want to tell our story but our story is intertwined with so many others. We need their blessing as well.
Brittany at The 1000th Voice
Thanks for the great advice. I don’t intend to be a memoirist, and I don’t have a lifetime of abuse to write about. But as an aspiring essayist, the same legal issues probably apply.
They do. And like all things legal they are up for interpretation. it’s one of the reasons its so frustrating for us– we’d like black and white answers but we never know for sure– the law is constantly being redefined.
The lawsuits around The Help provide a great cautionary tale for novelists . . .
Amen. And all it takes is hands-down success for the lawsuits to come creeping out of the woodwork.
I’m not surprised, because as you said, we live in a litigious society, where it seems like “anything goes” in regard to lawsuits. Thank you for the book recommended–what a great resource for writers, I’ll be picking that up today! Does it help if writers obtain “permission to use” from others, even if it’s merely to use someone else’s happy story as a good example in nonfiction? Should writers have forms signed before pursuing publication, or do publishing houses have their own legal forms they prefer to use?
Yes. those permission-to-use forms are required for everyone whose story you use in your book or for any quotes you use that don’t fall under what is constituted as “fair use.” (And, if you ask for a hard-and-fast definition of fair use you’ll get some wobbly parameters. It’s constantly being legally redefined.)
While you’re writing your book, just keep sending out those permission forms as you go. Getting permissions may be the most time consuming task of all. And if someone refuses to give permission or wants a truckload of money, you have time to swap out their story.
Good question Christi! I’d like to know that too. 🙂 I’ve written a few but if there is a publisher’s “standard” form we could reference that’d be great.
Each publisher usually has his own permission letter requesting blanket permissions. You want to make sure you are not getting permission for one printing or one edition. Re-asking for permission for every new printing or edition would be a nightmare!
Most people named in a book should consider it an honor. A writer whose work is referenced in another book would consider it a boon– it’s one more way to help bring attention to your work.
Chicago Manual of Style (which is our writer’s guidebook for all questions) has a sample request for permission, figure 4.3. They have a section– Section 4– which addresses rights, permissions and copyrights.
First, thank you for this post. As someone who desires to tell her story, it is very insightful to me. However, I don’t want my story to be about the awful things I went through with bipolar disorder. I want it to be about overcoming and triumph and for others to know that if I can find beauty in the world after the darkness I went through, then anyone can find it. I want it to be a story of hope, beauty and the grace of God.
It is a tough go for sure. Of course, some of the most powerful books we read are in this genre. I think of Maya Angelo’s books.
Sounds like a great resource, Wendy. Thank you!
I’m not surprised. My study of libel and defamation in law school was some of the most interesting. But all you have to do is read the newspaper to see how quick we are to sue each other. What always strikes me about these types of lawsuits is that not many people would have identified the person who claims injury. But once they file a suit and it hits the news, then so many more people know than ever would have if they had just kept quiet. Instant celebrity, even if it’s just a victim status. Hmmm….
I’ll admit, though, it’s a little scary. Even when a lawsuit is dismissed it can rack up huge costs. And then what do the readers think? Do they lose trust for the writer and become uneasy about reading future books? And can a character truly be 100% fictional? Isn’t that where we pick up a lot of our ideas — from the people around us? That’s probably why we should go to the mall and watch the strangers and then put their characteristics into one character. Or maybe it’s just the legal education that makes me nervous….
It IS a little scary. Happily, though, the lawsuits are few and far between.
Dear writer friend with a mannerisms file, 😉
I don’t think any of our characters are 100% fictional. We glean bits and pieces from life and it makes our scenes more poignant.
Yes, Jenni, I forgot about that mannerisms file comment. Thank you. (And I can’t believe what a worrywart I sound like in my comment. Maybe studying the way other people sue each other wasn’t such a great idea…. 🙂 )
I really cannot emphasize enough the wisdom of this post. I’ve been a lay counselor for a long time. I’ve taught Bible study for over 30 years. I’ve been an intercessor forever.
When an old friend asked me to pray for her daughter who seemed distant after her freshman year of college, of course I agreed. I’d been praying for that girl since before her parents adopted her. She’s extraordinary.
I often prayed for her during the church services on Sunday morning. My mind would roam across the continent and when I got to her state, the girl would come to mind.
Several years later I read an incredible book about the horrific way young women are throwing away their virtue and their bodies in one night stands in college.
It was a scholarly book written by a Washington Post writer. She used case studies and interviews with such women.
Three chapters from the end, she described my friend’s daughter; the girl I’d watched grow up in Christmas letters and who I had been praying for, usually on Sunday mornings.
She has a distinct enough story, I recognized her–but only because of things I knew from her very early past and which her mother had told me and asked me to pray about.
Which I had prayed about.
Recognizing the depravity of this young woman, often coming out of it while I would have been praying for her Sundays, threw ME into a total crisis–what is the point of prayer if such things could happen?
I was a mess for a week until good old Oswald Chambers got a hold of me–the devotion that morning was “What’s the Purpose of Prayer?”
I’m okay now.
She–I don’t know.
Two years later, I contacted her and told her I recognized her from the book. That probably was a mistake; she’s a very smart and capable young woman.
But I felt she needed to know someone was still praying for her.
Her mother, of course, has never learned the truth.
We need to be really careful.
We need to pray.
Before you write anything, you need to pray through your heart–what’s the reason behind what you’ve written and do you want to destroy relationships God may have been creating for His purposes?
It’s your story, yes, but other people you may never meet or know, can be affected to the NEGATIVE by what you write.
If you’ve got a prayer, pray for my talented friend. She needs it all the prayers she can get.
What an awful thing, Michelle. I’m assuming the Washington POst writer had all the proper permissions and that is why she didn’t change the details. I think I still would have chosen to change enough details to shield identity.
If it were someone’s psychiatrist or counselor who wrote a book, the stakes are even higher. You are required to respect confidentiality. In those cases guidelines on how to shield patients or clients can be found in professional organizations.
Indeed. Having mentored quite a few Millenials, I am all too aware of the self-destructive behvior far too many engage in.
As you said, the fact that the mother of the young woman you wrote about not knowing seems to be reflective of a much larger problem in the church. How much of it comes from folks just not wanting to think young people in the church behave in such ways, and how much comes from those who know simply avoiding getting involved or speaking out, is something that the church must deal with.
The girl was unhappy with the reporter and felt she had sensationalized the girl’s experiences more than necessary. But she had sat for the interviews and signed the releases.
The reporter had changed details, just not enough. The reporter may have had an axe to grind about our particular community–I have encountered that myself–and left in a few too many particulars. I knew enough about the girl to recognize the details. I sure didn’t want to recognize her. Part of my recognition hung on the named college campus–the reporter was aiming at the school’s notoriety for shock value.
As to Larry, no one wants to think their child was participating in this situation.
As for the prayers. . . I like to think she missed some brutal treatment because of my praying–particularly on Sunday mornings.
A very sad situation all the way around. I went on to use the example in training others to help girls in situations like this.
Janet Ann Collins
Couldn’t it be a problem to share about that here? Aren’t things published on the internet public?
That’s why I have been very careful, Janet. I changed facts and shielded information, too. 🙂
Great topic today Wendy! I need to get this book.
I also should get this book for a former spiritual director of mine since she wrote about me without my permission (not by name but I recognized myself) in an article that she wrote. She was planning to use the article as part of a book she is working on. I had to get a lawyer to send a cease and desist letter. I also got a hold of her potential book publisher and had to stop any going forward with a book that references me without my permisssion. I had to contact the publisher for where the journal article was written and going forward that publisher has now change their policy about referencing people.
As for myself, I have to be careful with what I write about. Since I a writing a novel that will be referenceing an experiment on the International Space Station, I cannot write about an actual experiment on the ISS. Not because I can be sued but also because I can be imprisoned. I had to create and designed my own experiment that does not exist (Which can be hard since I am not an engineer). (Also it has to be cool and somewhat believable.) NASA has released a lot of documents on the Web but all the stuff I actually write has never been released to the Web.
When I was reading Wendy’s post, I thought “Wow, I wonder how this would affect Lori?”
Poor you, that you’d have to go through all that trial and heartache with someone who you trusted. That’s awful.
Definitely a cautionary tale for professionals who reference clients or patients, especially since you pursued this at great cost to yourself in terms of lawyer’s fees and in terms of your potential reputation as a fellow writer.
And cost is not only in terms of money, you must have had second thoughts about contacting a publisher– worrying about whether they’d remember your name and somehow perceive you as “high maintenance” if you, one day, submitted your own writing to them. And yet you pursued this because your privacy was that important to you. As writers we need to heed this.
As I said– complicated!
The good thing is that her book was a small publisher that only publishes spiriual non-fiction. It has no connections to any large publishing houses or any publishing house that deals with fiction.
Also, my former spiritual director as a “fellow writer”; please, that would be an insult to any professional writer.
Wendy, I have a question about lawsuits on behalf of someone who’s dead. In my MS, let’s just say Kit Carson is not spoken of kindly. So any descendants of General Carson may perhaps feel he was portrayed in a negative manner (or, you know, truthfully) and be upset by my words, but they have no legal grounds to sue me? His is the only real name I use, in this book, but the next one will be heavy in the use of real names. So I had better have all my ducks in a row.
I am not a lawyer and if you have a concern, you need to get a professional opinion, but let me stress that according to law, you cannot defame someone who is dead.
I have experience from the perspective of being used as a basis for a character in a novel without my permission.
What irked me, beyond the complete distortion of the event which the author refers to, is the utter lack of talent on the part of the author!
It wasn’t so much an offense against me, as a slap in the face of literature. 🙂
Usually we would consider it an honor to be named or referred to in a book but, you are right, if the book is an embarrassment because of content (let’s say overtly and uncomfortably violent or sexual) or because of quality, it would not be such an honor.
Using someone as the “basis” for a character is not dangerous, legally, unless that person can be recognized. If we write fiction we always base characters on people or mannerisms we’ve observed. It’s just when we draw a character from someone and it’s so close as to be recognizable. We just need to be careful to create composites.
A celebrity in our midst 🙂
Wendy, I was also surprised at the number of brave souls willing to share their stories around the table. Talk about being vulnerable.
As writers do we need to get permission to refer to a location such as a National Park or a specific business?
No. I’ve never heard of permissions needed for locations.
And you are right about writers willing to be transparent about their own stories. I’m guessing that would be a sign of health, of healing.
Where businesses are concerned, are they treated the same way as National Parks? TIA.
Excellent article, Wendy. As an online publicist, I can attest to how hard of a sell memoirs can be. The few times I’ve represented them, the interest was low. That’s what deterred me from writing my own story about growing up the butt of everyone’s jokes as a kid: teased profusely from the day I entered school to the day I graduated. Now, that would be considered bullying; but in my day, we just had to deal with the fact that some kids are mean.
What I’m hoping to do is write some of those experiences into a novel for middle grade readers. Not sure how to weave them in, but I plan to make everyone unrecognizable. The mean girl or girls in school seems to remain a popular trend, and like The Dork Diaries, it’s good to see the protagonist get the better of the mean girl(s) in the end.
That’s exactly how to think about using our experiences. It’s grist for the mill but shouldn’t be served up in its original pre-milled form. 🙂
“You cannot be sued on behalf of someone who’s dead.” Do you know if this is also true in Europe? I ask because I dabble in historical fiction, and while most of my long-dead characters were public figures, I suppose some of them might have descendants who could take some form of personal offense.
This discussion is both timely and important. Thank you so much for your words of wisdom!
This is where all this gets so complicated. Not only is European law different but in libel, every state may have different laws.
In your case, I can’t see any potential problem but if there were, your publisher would probably catch it in the edit stage.
“If you’ll look at your book contract you’ll see that you are responsible for everything you write. Not your publisher. Not your agent. You.”
I’m not surprised at all. Thank you for pointing it out. I think that we writers have to be aware of such things whether we’re published or not… and be aware for the entire duration of our careers.
As for people in my novels, I’m afraid I have an active imagination and have lots of made-up characters I’ve been inventing in my mind since elementary school when I wrote my first comic flip book full of stick figures LOL. I think the day I can’t invent any new characters, I’ll stop writing fiction. Maybe then I can finish the devotional book I’ve been tinkering with for a decade.
As for people I know, I value their friendships too much in my real life to write them into my novels for any reason (at this time — I’ll get permission if I have to). So far nobody has asked me to put them into my novels yet. Maybe they don’t think I’m going anywhere with my writing career ROFL.
Great comment, Jan. Our made up characters are far more interesting than sticking to a real life character, right?
Indeed! Imagined characters also tend not to sue 🙂
Great advise, Wendy.
I am a writer of fiction and I keep the Jassin/Schechter book on my desk, right at my fingertips.
One of my wisest purchases at the Mt. Hermon Conference.
This is one of the first reference I recommend to every new writer.
Even fiction needs to be kept in check to avoid legalities.
Yes. We need to be aware but not let it freeze us.
I run into this when I speak–the quandary of how much to say to show what God did in my life vs. that much of it is deeply entwined with my ex-husband’s. I spoke in Feb. to a Christian women’s club about Whose Your Daddy?–Finding Your Way to a Father’s Love. I used my adopted daughter’s desire for a father but brushed over any details that would have identified her birth mother, who lived in that very town, but I did use a statement my ex-husband had said as we divorced to prove a point.
First and foremost, I try to make sure my heart is right with God and what I say is out of pure motives. Also, I stick to facts instead of commentary. Afterwards, I asked his cousin, who was in attendance, if it was awkward, ready to apologize. She said it was done right. Whew.
But I know it’s a tight, skinny rope to walk.
Wondering if you suggested to any of these fine folk that they might want to tell the lessons and discoveries they’ve made through a fictionalized version? The Familiar Stranger was my vehicle to show what God had taught me about forgiveness. As time has gone on, I’m more and more relieved I didn’t write a memoir type about that because only God knows the end of the story!
Fiction is a great way to use our experiences to create a compelling story but we still need to be careful not to draw characters that can be recognized.
Wendy,thanks so much for this post–a real eye opener. Have been aware of some of the issues surrounding narrative nonfiction and memoir writing, but you really spell it out in accessible detail. Am in the process of editing a narrative nonfiction work which includes composite characters. It has also been many years since the original wounding experiences so there has been plenty of time and distance to pass through the healing process. However,this gives me real pause…much to ponder and pray about…
And you have the right approach– check to make sure enough time has passed and then spend some time pondering. Sometimes we write these stories as part of our own healing process.
Sylvia A. Nash
I’m a rabbit chaser, and I apologize for chasing this one, but this whole discussion brought it back to my mind. It does have to do with permissions but in connection with the acknowledgments section at the front of books where everyone is thanked for every contribution to the publishing of the book.
This question sounds silly, but I’ve learned no question about this business is silly if you don’t know the answer! Do we need permission to thank someone for their help?
I recently self-published a couple of books, and I had gotten advice and helpful information from a lot of people on a lot of topics. Some of those people are well-known and experts in their fields. I wanted to thank them publicly, but I didn’t want to embarrass anyone if my books were not received very well or mention them when they might not want to be mentioned in connection to a book that was self-published or dealt with anything that made them uncomfortable. So I took the chicken’s way out and did a blanket thank you to everyone without naming anyone (except for one person with permission for each book).
With the second book, I thanked the person who gave me permission to use the cover photo (that was with his permission, too). But for a number of reasons, I added something to the thank you–“for his permission to use the cover photo, especially for doing so without having read the book.”
Am I being too obsessive about this?
Good question, Sylvia. I can’t imagine anyone would object to being thanked and if the book was “not well received” no one will see the acknowledgements, right? 🙂
Mary Keeley is currently shopping my memoir, Breathing Underwater. It literally took me about twenty years of writing and re-writing to get it to the point where I (emphasis on I) was comfortable with it. My mother had given me a lot of information about she and my father’s background and abusive experiences she went through with him. When I gave her a copy of the final product she asked me to change everyone in the families names. I had only changed the names of those who had abused me growing up. She said it was hard for her to read things that happened to her and her kids -afterall, she’d lived through it already once. I changed names out of respect for her – all except mine. I have also written under my ‘adopted’ name ‘Montgomery’, which I attained long after I left my home town and the abuse I endured, so you’d think no one from there would know who I was, but I found that to be false. I was on a book tour for my biography on former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and someone from my old Jr. High recognized me on the t.v. during a news stations coverage of my book signing. My former classmate came to my book signing and bought some copies of my book and no doubt told everyone we went to school with what I’ve done with my life. One of my abusers is dead; another is on the verge of dying; and the last one in likely in prison (where he was last time I checked on him – for abusing his sister and another child). I feel like I’ve covered my bases, but the truth is it’s still something I worry about. Maybe I need to go back and change the city and state? Any suggestions Wendy?
You’re going to want to put these questions to Mary. You’re lucky to have an agent who has worked on both sides of the publisher’s desk. Mary was an acquisitions editor and also worked with permissions for the Christianity Today family of publications. She’s going to have the answers for you.
. . . yes I agree. Sometimes it’s a “dog eat dog” world out there pun intended) or for those of you who write Picture Books, “It’s a bunny eat bunny” world out there.
I have a question, Wendy…
Few years ago, I was harshly bullied and violently assaulted. This person destroyed my life, publicly lied about me destroying my reputation and my life long work. I am now in big hardship (should I say poverty) in a time of my life where I should be enjoying the fruits of years and years of hard work.
She also sent a letter full of lies to the pension office so terrible that this office cuts a dear friend of mine old age pension — as he helped me to move out of the grasp of this lady — forcing him to live in misery for 4 1/2 years now. And many other things too but… just to say that I have huge amount of proofs that she destroyed publicly my life and the one of this dear old friend.
Friends who know the story are just pushing me to write it as it will do — they say — a bestseller and quite a movie 🙂
I am writing a book about it… it would be my first one for adults. Not in a spirit of revenge or nastyness but to help young and less young to go through those difficult moments in their lives. Many suicides in youth and adult are the results of bullying, like the one of that beautiful young girl in Canada few days ago.
Now… writing it in a non-fiction style is very risky, I think but, if I write it as a novel, based on a true story… what are the risks? Of course names, town and else will be fictious ones so…
Some advices, please… What do you think?
Thank you so much for this article
Great post. Thanks for sharing the copyright resource.
Karen DeArmond Gardner
Wendy, I agree abuse is a tough subject that no one really wants to talk about however as long as we keep it secret it will keep us sick. So many women have been damaged by abuse of all kinds. What they need is a message of hope, to know there is life after abuse. Honestly I don’t want to tell my story, what I want to tell is how to live after abuse. I have heard over and over no one wants to buy a book about abuse – which is odd since up to 50% of women in church have been abused. To ignore this market and to keep heaping shame on the subject will not make it go away, it will only allow it to continue. So my question is how can the publishing world take a risk – show those of us who are not famous or well known to bring healing and light to a very dark subject. Tell us what we can do, not what we can’t. You gave some really great ideas on how to write which is helpful to me. But we need more. We need agents who will fight for us with the publishers. http://www.KarenDeArmondGardner.com
Lee® Women’s Pants Save Up to 40% Plus Free Shipping on All Orders $50 at Lee.com!
Shopzilla – Lululemon clothing Women’s Pants Shop for Lululemon clothing Women’s Pants at Shopzilla. Buy Clothing & Accessories online and read professional reviews on Lululemon clothing Women’s Pants. Find â€¦
This is prohibitive as it kills creativity.
As Stephen King said, writers are a conduit, novels flow from the pen, it comes from creative intuition.
If someone can write a book even a novel, about abuse, that helps other people, why stifle creativity by thinking of lawsuits? The abuser is not a creative person, they behave destructively. The author who was abused, probably read a lot of fiction in order to become an author. It seems a shame too deprive future generations of a good book, due to litigious abusive people. There are many novels about abuse, from the classics, yet those authors weren’t sued, what is the difference today?