Editing beyond the basics (part 5)

The greatest commandment to writers is this: Thou Shalt not Bore Thy Reader. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt not break thy reader’s suspension of disbelief.

It turns out I’ve got some more mechanicals, and I’ll get to them. But it’s time to step back and look at them from the “Real Editor” direction.

As I’ve already indicated, the “real editor” stuff isn’t really a separate job. The Real Editor is a copy editor and a proofreader and a host of other things as well. The main difference, in fact, between the real editor and the rest is focus. The others are looking at cleaning up the story to clean up the story.

The job of the editor is to help the writer keep the greatest two commandments. The goal is that the reader who reads the first paragraph will surface for air as he finishes the last, suddenly realizing he’s ignored everything for the past mumble hours while following the protagonist and other characters in their journey.

The second job of the editor is to have that happen for as many readers as possible. And that’s where things start getting interesting.

See, for the past several decades the aim of the editors and the publishers who employ them has been at the Fat Head (as opposed to Long Tail). Massive Bulk sales over small slices. That wasn’t, and isn’t, a bad thing in most ways. As a writer you’d prefer your book reach thousands instead of hundreds.

The problem, of course, is that it also meant a book that the editor (and publisher) rejected any work that would ‘only’ appeal to the hundreds. That in turn meant we got tales of Margaret Mitchell’s multiple rejection slips for Gone with the Wind (to name one example).

This, in turn, exposes both the strength and weakness of the editor: the assumption that he knows what the masses want. More often than not, he’s making the book into something HE likes, and ‘just knows’ that the masses agree with him. Good editors are right. Bad editors are, unfortunately, usually right enough to stay in the job. On the other hand, bad editors are why we can have hope of doing the job without relying wholly on the big publishing houses.

I’m going to run through a bunch more mechanicals. I’ll also hit some generalities. Unlike most of the rest these aren’t as clean and clearcut as preceding tools. Hopefully, however, they’ll still be of use.

The two biggest sins that break the commandments are boredom and confusion. Now, I may have confused by mentioning balance so many times. After all, total balance is boring.

The balance for which you are striving is a dynamic balance. It’s the balance of a dancer or a martial artist, for whom rest is another action. A runner is in balance despite the fact she is moving forward, and one in perfect balance is a joy to watch. Perfect balance for your book means everything pulls the reader forward and through it with no mindless thrashing, no ungainly falls.

Confusion comes when the reader finds themselves trying to keep track of too many pieces, or having to work too hard to sort what the writer is saying. The more you add the more you must help your reader juggle, while at the same time (balance) you must avoid giving away your twists and reveals or so swathing them in assistance you bog your work and make it boring.

With those in mind let’s cover some things – some almost mechanicals – you should have and avoid.

When you change things, let the reader know. Back in mechanicals I said that when POV changes a new scene should begin, even if it appears to be a continuance of the same (prior) scene. I’m going to expand it here. If POV (acting character), location, or time changes it is a change of scene. Something must be done to tell the reader this has happened, whether with a main break or a few words. (Use the name instead of a pronoun for the character, name the location, say “later”, etc.) For most audiences you don’t need a clue-by-four, and in fact if your story is good they’ll live with the bump in the road. But why make them do this unnecessarily while they’re trying to keep track of the various characters and subplots anyway?

Beware of absurdities. If the story is in Miami your protagonist and his team probably shouldn’t get trapped by a blizzard. Now that’s kind of extreme but it’s to make a point. If you don’t know police procedure and you wing it for your adventure tale you will probably do things wrong, and everybody who has experience with the procedure will have a break in their concentration. They’ll have to decide if they’re willing to continue or if your faux pas is worth throwing the book at the wall.

Oh, a touch of anectodal observation here. Wallthrowing is, in some ways, a compliment. Yes, the common complaint is that the error is so wrong it caused the rage. But here’s the thing to keep in mind. It means the story was good enough the reader WANTED to keep going. You see the other, and far more common reaction to being yanked out of the story by this sort of error is to realize you’re bored and put the book away never to think of it, or worse of you the writer, again.

There’s also the repetitive quest syndrome. Yes, the Perils of Pauline were the same thing episode after episode, so sometimes it works. But kill [number] [monster], return for reward, rinse and repeat kills computer games and the principle will kill your story.

Voice. Ah, voice. If you read a passage of conversation and you can’t tell if it’s monologue or conversation (and how many people are involved), the writer has bored you. Funny accents aren’t necessary. Choice of words (simple, complex), length of sentence, use (or lack of use) of adjectives and adverbs, cadence, all are different between people. If nothing else there are verbal tics. Just balance any of these with a need to help your reader keep moving forward.

A technique that has been around for a long time is to open obvious then just remind. So if your character has a stutter, the first time you’re introduced you s-s-s-see the st-st-stutter every s-s-single t-t. Time. But after that you use it no more than once or twice per scene. Just enough that the reader goes “Oh, that’s Harry” without wanting to reach for the whiteout and ink pen. Same goes for accents.

That’s not true for cadence and word choice, of course. In fact if it weren’t for the way it makes the reader work to figure out what’s been said, keeping the stutter or accent constant would be better. That’s why in general using either crutch isn’t recommended. It’s a heavy tool that requires a light touch, like trying crack eggs with a sledgehammer.

Speaking of cadence and word choice, I’d like to conclude (finally, you say) with a discussion of the author’s voice. The most challenging part of editing an author is identifying the author’s voice; the cadences, the word choices, the structures, and all the rest, and then helping clear the parts where the voice is muffled.

Boy, is that subjective. And yet in the end that is the ultimate joy of the editor.

See, if the author’s voice shines through and all the mechanicals are strong (or when violated are done so with intent to enhance), then the book will succeed. See, for example, the Great Gatsby which at first was considered a flop.

I may touch on editing again in the future. However, if you have more interest I’m going to make a recommendation.

See, I don’t like the Great Gatsby itself. But I became enamored of the backstory, the story of its development, and the role a legendary editor can play. You can see many of the things I’ve recommended above, not necessarily in quite as much black and white, by seeing how Maxewll Perkins helped F. Scott Fitzgerald get the book out. Fitzgerald was a writer already so didn’t need most of the basic cues. But the insights, the guidance: do not bore, intrigue and invite and entrall the reader, and specific points of where and how to do this…

Find Dear Scott, Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, edited by John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer. You might have to ask for interlibrary loan at your local library. Teachers recommend reading great writers to learn writing. The same applies for editing.

Take care and have fun.


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