Writing consultant and editor Sam Boyce on memoirs, purpose and author-editor relationships

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

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Writing consultant and editor Sam Boyce has worked with writers professionally for nearly thirty years, and has helped hundreds of emerging and established authors — as a literary agent, senior tutor of postgraduate Creative Writing, through various national mentoring schemes, and as a full-time, industry-trained editor. Sam has worked with whitefox to edit a range of books, including No Place to Lie by Helen Garlick, Hooray for the Next to Die by Michael Millar, Music for Three by Janet Savin, The Fractured Tree by Justin Wheatley, The Puppet Girl by Kati St Clair and Mother Country by Monique Charlesworth.

Hi, Sam. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an editor?

I became an editor through sheer necessity – I started in publishing as an agent’s assistant, and I was absolutely desperate to become a glamorous, successful agent too. It looked so effortless! But when I was given the chance to start building my own list the reality dawned that, as a complete novice with zero connections, market-ready novels weren’t going to fall into my hands. So I did what everyone in that situation does: mined what used to be called the slush pile for glimmers of potential and started editing like crazy, with as many writers as I could persuade to tolerate my amateurish attentions! It was those early authors who really taught me how to do it, and thank goodness for their patience! I worked as an agent for quite a few years after that, and loved every minute of it, but the initial work on a new manuscript was always the part of the job that gave me the biggest buzz, and it still does – I feel so lucky now that I get to do it all the time.

What do people often not know or find surprising about the editorial process?

Writers who are publishing for the first time are often surprised at how many separate editorial processes are involved in the journey from a decent draft to a polished, professional product. And also by the fact that one editor can’t do them all – I sometimes have to spend quite a lot of time persuading self-publishing clients with whom I’ve worked closely on the early stages that they’re going to get a much better copyedit from a fresh pair of eyes. Happily, I have a lot of talented freelance colleagues who I know will prove my point! In terms of the editing itself, I often find that writers new to the editorial process are amazed that I don’t have all the answers! Opening your work up to editing for the first time can be pretty nerve-wracking, and sometimes it’s comforting to imagine that all you’re going to have to do is accept/reject suggestions or obey/ignore instructions. Whereas actually what’s more likely to happen is that you’ll be asked some really difficult questions, and then be invited into a conversation about the implications of all the possible solutions. That collaborative space can be unnerving, but in the developmental stages, it’s definitely where all the best work happens.

You specialise in developmental editing and copyediting for a range of genres, including science fiction, fantasy, crime/thrillers, literary fiction and memoir. How is editing narrative non-fiction different from editing fiction?

In some ways, there isn’t much difference between a work of contemporary, realist, first-person fiction and a memoir. They both need a distinctive, authentic-feeling and consistently modulated voice, a strong dramatic structure, a compelling sense of purpose to the telling and plenty of immersive, sensory detail to bring the world to life. And, for me, the role that specific market contexts and audience expectations play in the editorial process is exactly the same: there are sub-genres within memoir that have their own narrative logic, just as there are in every branch of commercial fiction. 

As an editor, I think the big difference with memoir lies in the questions you don’t ask. With novels, I might spend an awful lot of time interrogating whether a character’s actions are credible – whether they would really say or do such-and-such a thing, or react in a certain way, and whether the story might be more powerful if their emotional trajectory were slightly different – with memoir, obviously, these are not areas for debate. 

Conversely, with fiction, I don’t tend to think much about why a reader might be coming to this novel – what their personal needs might be. But with the kinds of memoirs I generally work on, this is often the most important question. We are drawn to stories of other people’s lives for specific reasons: for healing and inspiration; for the feeling of having a fellow traveller through particular experiences; to deepen our understanding of certain social or political events, or to gain an insight into unfamiliar cultures. The shaping of that personal relationship between the narrative and its reader is, I think, the defining feature of memoir editing.

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More specifically, what do you find is really important to focus on during the different editorial stages when working on a memoir?

In developmental editing, the most important question for me is purpose – what, primarily, this memoir is going to go out into the world to do. Often people start writing a memoir as a way of understanding their own experience, so making the transition to an outward-facing concept of what the story aims to offer to the reader is key. Then that concept is honed and given expression through structural editing. In copyediting, fact-checking is a major obsession. The contract a memoir makes with its reader is based on truth. 

But memory can do weird things, and no matter how powerful a narrative is, if the author describes listening to the radio at a crucial juncture and hearing a song that wasn’t in fact released till the following year, the story’s credibility drops just a little with the readers who notice. Too many tiny glitches like that and – wrongly, but inevitably – doubts about the story as a whole will creep in. So I check absolutely everything that it’s possible to check. The other focus at the later stages is legals – flagging and advising on libel risks.

How do you navigate the author–editor relationship when it comes to something so personal, such as a memoir?

With every ounce of warmth and sensitivity in my being! Editing a memoir is emotional work, there’s no doubt about it, and as an editor, having your own support systems and spaces where you can really let off steam is important, especially when you spend a lot of time dealing with the darker side of life. We all think of ourselves as compassionate and non-judgemental, but for me, the absolute game-changer was a few years ago when I trained and volunteered with Samaritans. After a few night shifts on the phone, you tend to become fairly unshakeable in the face of human suffering – but more importantly, you become aware of just how much we all unconsciously filter what we’re being told through our own assumptions, experiences and worldview. For me, memoir editing is primarily a job of very attentive listening, and the skill of being able to deliberately get myself out of the way in that process is one I’m very grateful to have learned.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors currently writing their memoir?

Oh, I have so much advice! Most of it I’ve already hinted at: being clear about who you’re writing for and what you intend to give them by way of your story is probably the most important. The other major piece of advice I have is to remember that telling the truth is your job description, but you’re not in court – so telling the whole truth isn’t required. To keep yourself emotionally safe through the publication process, you may need to think about where you put the boundaries around what you are and are not willing to disclose. Then, notwithstanding that fundamental requirement for truth, not to be afraid of minor acts of invention when it comes to the reconstruction of dialogue and settings. Creating the colour and character that makes your story immersive often involves filling in the gaps in what you remember, particularly with scenes set in the less recent past.

And finally, what is a book project that you have particularly loved working on and why?

It’s impossible to choose one! In terms of memoir, you’ve already mentioned two of my absolute favourites – Helen Garlick and Kati St Clair. Helen Garlick’s No Place to Lie epitomises that sense of purpose I’ve talked about – it’s such an important and moving piece of work. And Kati St Clair is a truly unforgettable character with an amazing life – every conversation with her was an absolute blast! To the list of current favourites, I’d add Monique Charlesworth’s Mother Country – a beautifully elegant, intensely thoughtful account of a mother-daughter relationship layered with deceit. Monique is an exceptional writer, and it was a real privilege to work with her story.

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.