Editing, part 2

The previous post was about mechanicals, and other than being for editing fiction it was very general.

Even so I made one working assumption I want to expand before I go on with this post.

I based things on the assumption of a three-act story, even though I made off-hand comments to indicate there were more. Look, the reality is that identifying the act structure is one more element that can fall into an editor’s set of mechanical tools.

The classic three act structure goes something like this.
Act one: setup through initial crisis.
Act two: complications and consequences of initial crisis that increase demands on main character. Normally ends at commitment point, no chance of going back, no options, the point of no return. Not quite where it all comes together in the worst possible way.
Act three: Primary crisis (culmination of the initial crisis and it’s consequences coming together) to dark moment (you lost, sucker), resolution to climax, climax, denouement.

The most common alternate structure is the four act structure; the norm for (US) television shows.
Act one: setup through initial crisis (yep, just like the 3 act)
Act two: complications and consequences that take us the crisis (and often with a New Event, one that may or may not have been foreshadowed. Enter the Real Villain, for example.)
Act three: Recognizing all attempts to resolve were wrong, start over this time coping with the real problem, go toward resolution.
Act four: Climax (yes, it opens with the climax, though it may be multiple scenes and even chapters) and denouement.

Oh – the easy way to ‘see’ the structure in US television shows is to watch where the ads occur in so-called one-hour shows. Commercials are the intermissions between acts. They’re never – well, never prior to syndication – shown where they’ll interrupt the act itself. So you’ve got the ad after the intro/preface/teaser. You’ve got the ad at around the fifteen minute point, the one around the half hour, and the one around the 45 minute point. Oh, and sometimes a break that creates a wrapup (denouement) to mirror the teaser in front.

Are there other structures? Absolutely. But their lack of commonality means that the basic editor doesn’t need to have them in the basic tool chest. The editor needs to recognize (in the reading, not in the analytical tools of the last post) how the scenes and chapters contribute to the arc of the act, what the general purpose of the act is, and whether he’s dealing with a natural three or four act structure. (And as I said, With practice recognize if maybe this is a two or five or more structure.)

Again, that’s general toolset. What I’d really like to mention in this post is one of the ‘above and beyond’ skills you expect from the editor you’re using.

A huge element that comes only with experience and familiarity is the genre assumptions and the conventions both to cue and cope with those assumption.

Yeah, that was vague. Here’s an example.

Science Fiction and fantasy always have infodumps. We the reader need a clue about the technology or the relevant other world characteristics or how magic (at least nominally) works. In simple, we the reader need the clue so we can appropriately suspend our disbelief. Maybe it’s a huge “as you know” briefing. Maybe it’s “quotations” preceding every chapter. Ideally it’s worked in subtly and as a necessary part of an event.

Romances have conventions for identifying That Man (and in the reverse romances, That Woman).

So-called Urban Fantasies (which are more often than not a blending of fantasy and romance set in nominally ‘today’) have an almost rote opening. “I’m in a miserable spot, magic’s a factor, and by the way (or else why I’m miserable) I’m either in a bad relationship or not in a relationship. Oh, and screw you, world, because I’m a non-conformist.” yes, there’s intense irony in that last clause – see Steve Martin’s non-conformist oath.

And the list goes on for every genre and the various established sub-genre. Your editor needs to know your genre. Or rather you expect your editor to know your genre. Again, not only to help you meet the conventions but also to know when, how, and why to avoid the conventions. You can, after all. And in fact you should, at least a little. But when avoiding it’s useful to slip a wink to your reader that you’re doing so intentionally.

Now here’s the thing that’s kind of fun; your editor doesn’t need to be an experienced editor of your genre. All they have to do is be familiar with it.

A good editor of genre x can pick that up by reading a bunch of books from genre y. How many is “a bunch”? It depends. They need to read enough to identify the conventions, the typical elements and phrasing. Some can pick that up from reading the “top ten” of the genre. Others will need as many as a hundred copies to know whether it’s convention or just idiosyncracies of a period of writers.

Now I’m helping the writer here, not the editor, so the recommendation I have is that you take time to identify the conventions. What’s in the “generic” of your genre? Is it in your book, and if not why not? (Just because you want to be different isn’t enough unless you’re just writing for yourself. If you want readers you need to help THEM get past the absence.) You can test your editor to see if they know your genre. The easy way is “what are some of your favorite books in the genre?” Ideally they’ll rattle off a few that tell you they ‘get’ it. If they don’t, you need to press them a bit. Ask them if they know the conventions of the genre. Use what you’ve learned as the basis of your testing.

If they don’t know that they still may be good ‘basic’ editors – don’t flee (unless you’re paying them direct). But darn well make them explain why they’re recommending changes in, and don’t take them automatically. Instead consider them in light of what you know of genre conventions. Some – several, if they’re decent editors – will be good recommendations regardless. But you’re not going to get the extra twist for your genre, and you’ll sometimes get recommendations that go against genre convention.

If you are (or intend to be) an editor, make yourself stronger right here. Do exactly what was recommended for the author. Take your genre and make a list of the constraints. If you don’t read that genre but want or expect to, read several works with an eye to identifying those constraints. Know what would be in the generic of the field. Make, if you can, a parody, since genre parodies almost always work by either exaggerating or reversing the conventions. At a minimum make the effort to know what makes it “this” genre instead of “that” genre. It will make you better, and it will help you make the stories you edit better as well. It will be noticed, both by other editors and by writers.


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