Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On memoirs & editors: Robert L. Bacon

I’m reading and enjoying TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS, a memoir by Toronto psychologist Catherine Gildiner. That made me pay special attention to the following comments by a long-time online friend, editor/writer Robert L. Bacon, regarding his experiences with editing memoirs. I’m not sure about his contention that “memoirs are impossible to sell to a bona fide royalty publisher unless the author is a celebrity or a Holocaust survivor,” but his comments are still interesting and useful.


During the past year I've received a spate of memoirs to either edit or to critique.  Just recently, someone even phoned me to present material deemed worthy of the "life coaching" tag as a result of this person's "worldly" experiences.  I've often explained in my Newsletters that memoirs are impossible to sell to a bona fide royalty publisher unless the author is a celebrity or a Holocaust survivor, and I continue to stand by this contention.  My stance is not based on a bias against someone's wanting to tell the story of his or her own life, but the reality that this sort of narrative doesn't lend itself to much of any form of editing beyond correcting basic grammar.  To support this contention, I've also learned that memoir writers don't want their material revised beyond copyediting, so what is a developmental editor such as myself supposed to provide?  

To elaborate on that point, it's no different from when a character is "real" and I haven't been told this upfront by the author.  I edited a book some years ago in which a character was an absurdly despicable brat who was patently unlikable.  Yet this child carried a crucial story thread that ran throughout, and in the end was to "save the day."  The character was so unredemptive in every way that by the story's finish no reader would possibly care one way or the other.  I had no choice but to soften this child's rough edges.  However, the author was upset at my revision even though I'd discussed the suggested changes in considerable detail beforehand.  I later learned that this character was a relative whom the author always believed could do no wrong.  The writer ultimately "returned" this character to original form and, in my opinion, reduced the entire narrative to little more than pedestrian mishmash.

I've turned down memoirs by some really accomplished writers because of what I just discussed.  I had my first encounter with author "adamancy" when I changed the dropping of a plate of food at someone's feet to dropping the plate and the food on the other person's feet.  I was told in no uncertain terms that the physical plate had never touched Aunt Edna's feet, only the mashed potatoes.  (I altered this scene to protect the integrity of the client/author relationship even though in this case there is no nondisclosure agreement in force.)  I still laugh at this.  The primary issue involves what an editor can provide a memoir writer.  My answer is not much beyond correcting basic grammar and punctuation, and no one needs me for this.

Longtime editor Peter Ginna's book, "What Editors Do," is a compilation of material provided by more than two dozen respected editors.  I don't know if it's any better than what highly regarded editor Jerry Gross (who sadly recently passed away) wrote some years ago.  Any writer who's worked with a credible editor recognizes what the job entails.  In the simplest of terms, editing is the ability to make a story fluent from the perspective of continuity.  Accomplishing this, however, is anything but simple, and why I often spend a couple of hundred hours on a client's narrative.  Ignoring my drivel, Mr. Ginna's book might be worth a look, should anyone be on the fence regarding hiring an editor, and this has nothing to do with my being one of these unholy creatures.


Robert L. (Rob) Bacon, Founder

The Perfect Write®





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  1. Thanks to Robert Bacon for this mention of WHAT EDITORS DO. I won't claim it is "any better" than its predecessor EDITORS ON EDITING, but one of the main reasons for putting together this volume is that Gross's collection was last updated in 1993, and many of its chapters were older than that. It has no mention of Amazon (which didn't exist), the internet, social media, or self-publishing. But EDITORS ON EDITING is still well worth reading and it's still available.

    WHAT EDITORS DO does have a chapter on biography which includes some good advice on memoir. I would agree the market is tough nowadays--even for Holocaust survivors. But you can get published if you write something truly compelling, even if you are not a celebrity. That usually requires being unsparingly honest--and being willing to accept editorial suggestions.

    1. Interesting & useful thought. Thanks, Peter.