Some of my authors are starting their books from scratch and I am the ghostwriter.
Others have already started writing, or have written the whole thing, and are looking for me to tidy-up or ‘edit’ their work.
This can be tough.
Memoir could not be more personal and when I come along, asking what this means and what that means, authors occasionally feel affronted – either that I am criticising them or worse, that I have not understood their world and never will.
I had one author back away completely when I started poking about. I was very sad because the book, an adventure, had the potential to be amazing. It was very well-written, full of great anecdotes and valuable information. It could have sold well. It just needed a polish. But my duster was too much. It’s still a great book, but it’s not as great as it could be. The book was big and the author was paying me a reasonable sum of money. I don’t know what he thought he was paying me for. What would have happened if I had given it back, after some months, untouched? He might have been delighted. I would have been paid. It would not have been ethical and the book would be (and for all I know, still is) the poorer for it.
I don’t seek stuff to change for the sake of it. I’m thrilled if I come across a whole chunk that doesn’t need me. There are so many great storytellers and capable writers out there. And I always read the memoirs I’m going to be working on in advance and give the author an idea of just how much twiddling there will be.
But it’s tough. And I get it. When I was a journalist I was quite sensitive about people editing my work. More so about them asking questions…
“ISN’T IT OBVIOUS?!!!” I’d ask myself when the queries came back. Well, no, obviously not.
I once spent ten minutes trying to get a soldier to explain to me what a ‘treeline’ was. He couldn’t or wouldn’t say ‘woods’. Had he forgotten what he called them as a child? I doubt it. To him it was obvious and he was annoyed that it wasn’t to me, because it was part of his special world. It’s not that I replace military terms with civilian ones, I just need to write it in a way that moves the story along and doesn’t lead the reader to having to pause her reading while she has a quick Google.
Sometimes I need more feeling from an author. Recently, I was working with an author who’d had an affair with someone else’s wife. In a scene where he came face to face with the husband, I added in brackets: HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN YOU MET HIM?
GUILTY!!!!! Wrote the author in frantic pencil and told me that that one question alone had made him consider telling me he couldn’t go on.
I was aghast. I hadn’t meant to question the author’s morals. I just knew that for the reader, that was quite a dramatic scene and they’d want to know how our hero felt.
I now explain that I’ll be asking questions in capital letters to differentiate them from the original copy, but that I am NOT SHOUTING.
Apparently that wasn’t obvious.