The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

JACK THE HACK: How do you know whether you want to write a memoir or a novel, and what’s the difference?

JACK THE HACK _writingtipsJack Scott is back with his monthly column for all of you wannabe authors who are hacking away at travelogues-cum-memoirs (cum-novels?). For those who don’t know, he was a Random Nomad for the Displaced Nation way back when we started this site. After an expat experience that was literally something to write home about, he and his partner, Liam, have traded in the dream for a less pressured existence back home in the UK.

—ML Awanohara

Hmmm… Is it easier to turn expat stories or travel adventures into a memoir or a novel, and how does one decide?

As with all such questions, the answer is a resounding “it depends”.

Let’s look at some definitions:

Memoir (noun) – a historical account or biography written from personal knowledge.
Travelogue (noun) – a film, book, or illustrated lecture about the places visited by or experiences of a traveller.
Novel (noun) – a fictional narrative, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.

So it seems that travelogues and biographies can’t be novels because, by definition, they’re based on real events by real people in real places.

Does this matter?

I think not.

False dichotomies

For me, writing a memoir is like telling a story and every story, even a real-life one, needs order, pace, plot, a compelling blend of highs and lows and a sense of purpose.

I learned some valuable lessons from David Steddall, the English teacher at my South London grammar school back in the big hair, bell-bottomed Seventies.

“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end,” Mr Steddall would say.

We’ve all heard the mantra, haven’t we?

Mr Steddall seemed to like my essays, even if they were sometimes a little risqué in a post-pubescent, hormone-raging kind of way. He would often give me top marks and have me recite my work in class. His encouragement gave me confidence—a confidence that lay dormant for thirty-odd years until a little sun-kissed nourishment breathed life into it like rains in a desert.

I’ve stayed faithful to Dave(as I now think of him)’s cause. My own memoir has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not a random series of observations like a diary. Who’d want to read that? Let’s face it, I’m not Anne Frank, Kenneth Williams or Samuel Pepys.

Make it work!

Here’s the trick. Just because a memoir can’t be a novel, it doesn’t mean it can’t be written as if it were. The greatest challenge is to give memoir a plot that readers will find convincing and engaging enough to make them turn the page.

For me, that meant very little fat. One of the first tips I picked up from my publisher was to dump storylines and characters that weren’t key to the main event or didn’t add interesting flavour. I tackled this by creating a story board, much like they do in the movies. This meant I could identify gaps in the narrative, ensure continuity and shoot down the flights of fancy.

Does this mean it’s not true?

Well, as I wrote at the top of my first book:

This book is based on actual events. To protect the privacy of the persons involved, and in the interest of narrative clarity, some names, characterizations, locations, conversations and timescales have been changed.

This was necessary to protect the guilty, avoid a brick through my window and keep me out of the courts. The end result is that all the characters are true, if renamed and heavily disguised, and all the events actually happened, though not necessarily as chronologically written. Once I accepted this, I could let my imagination run riot and had enormous fun assembling the pieces of my life abroad like one huge colourful jigsaw.

I admit, though, I may have left some little gems on the cutting-room floor.

It’s the risk you take.

Glossy travelogues and expat classics

Most people are familiar with the lavish and beautifully crafted travel book, heavy enough to stop a burglar or prop open the living room door. Every coffee table should have one.

But I don’t really think of travelogues as memoir as their primary purpose is to inform the reader about foreign places in words and (often) pictures.

As for the kind of expat book that has ended up appealing to a mass audience—Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Chris Stewart’s Driving Over Lemons come to mind—the formula calls for lots of descriptions of majestic landscapes as well as a plot centered around building a dream home out of a hovel in the rolling hills.

Which leads me to …


My advice to the budding expat writer: find your own angle; don’t waste your time reinventing the wheel.

In my case, I wrote about the (sometimes grubby) reality of expat life from the unique perspective of a gay man in a Muslim land. It’s something no one had done before, and why would they? There weren’t many of us there.

* * *

Readers, any comments, further questions for Jack the Hack? He’ll be back next month with some more writing tips…

Jack Scott’s debut book, Perking the Pansies — Jack and Liam move to Turkey, is a bitter-sweet tragi-comedy that recalls the first year of a British gay couple in a Muslim country. For more information on this and Jack’s other titles, go to his author site.

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s “Capital Ideas” post, by Anthony Windram.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

Images from top, clockwise: Hand with pen /; Boats in King’s Lynn, Norfolk /; Jack Scott, used with his permission; Turkish boats /

14 responses to “JACK THE HACK: How do you know whether you want to write a memoir or a novel, and what’s the difference?

  1. slowfoodbali May 8, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    Thank you for these tips, Jack! I’m feeling pretty good about the progress of my memoir abroad and its niche. I’m still drafting. Can you please share advice about how to find the right agent to market your memoir to publishers and/or the relative merits of that route versus self-publishing?

    • Jack Scott May 9, 2013 at 10:55 am

      I don’t have an agent as I was fortunate to find a small niche publisher who took a punt on my book. It’s an interesting question though which perhaps I could explore in my next article (after I’ve given some thought!).

  2. lindainexpatland May 9, 2013 at 1:59 am

    ‘The greatest challenge is to give memoir a plot readers will find convincing and engaging…’ Yes, yes, yes.

  3. Erin Moran (@essentialerin) May 9, 2013 at 2:50 am

    These are some great tips! Thanks Jack the Hack, and I’m really intrigued by your book “Perking the Pansies”. I’m just about to officially start my memoirs, after putting the project on hold for far too long! Thanks for some inspiration,, keep the posts coming!

    Erin | Quintessentially English

  4. Temma May 19, 2013 at 6:59 pm

    To find an agent, check the acknowledgments pages of books you admire. Authors often thank their agents and editors by name. If your book seems anything like that book, the same agent may go for yours.

  5. Pingback: A Novel Idea | perkingthepansies

  6. backtobodrum May 21, 2013 at 7:44 am

    Whatever you want to call your jottings Jack, they are great and please hurry up with the next book.

  7. davidgeebooks May 23, 2013 at 5:33 am

    Hi, Jack. I recently read John Irving’s latest novel JACK HOLMES AND HIS FRIEND (reviewed on my blog). In my view he’s one of the greatest living writers. This new book – it’s about a bi-guy with a liking for transsexual romance – reads like a memoir. A novel disguised as a memoir or a memoir disguised as a novel: ALL options are open to us literary people!

  8. Cinda October 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm

    Word on the street is that memoirs sell far better than novels.

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