Have you ever experienced difficulty explaining to others how to do something you’re particularly good at?
I’ve been asked to write an article on “the editing process,” and I don’t know what to say. Other than a basic overview of the types of editing (structural vs. line, for example), what is there to say about How to Edit a Work of Fiction? You just… do it.
Part of the problem is that I don’t do “big picture” editing as a separate step from the writing itself; I don’t wait until the first draft is complete before adjusting any glaring inconsistencies or enormous plot holes, or before deciding that this one character would work better as two people to avoid “kitchen-sinking” the protagonist (I call this “the Buckaroo Banzai effect”: brain surgeon and rock star and physicist… or rock star and fighter pilot, in the original version of a sci-fi novel I could name — I know because that version of the protagonist made a guest appearance in a comic book once or twice, which could be taken as meaning that the lady journalist in the novel is just ‘talks to animals’ away from being a Disney Princess now — Murphy help us!)
Another part of the problem is that I don’t know how to explain copyediting other than by showing a source of rules/guidelines for grammar and punctuation, and saying, “Use these.” I mean, what else is there? You know the rules, you follow the rules, and when the rules don’t apply for whatever reason, you make an informed decision on what to do instead, based on the effect you intend. (If you don’t know the rules, all I can tell you is, “Learn the rules first.” I do try to help out with that — thus my “Writing Glitch” posts — but I can’t put the information into anyone’s brain for them.)
Line editing is even harder to explain, because there are far fewer actual rules for word choice and using one sentence structure instead of another, once you’ve got the basics of grammar and spelling and punctuation out of the way. (As you can see, I like to use a bit of repetition for effect. Some people insist that any repetition, ever, is Very Bad Writing. I suspect such people are adverb-phobes, too. 🙂 ) Even though line editing, just as its name implies, is down in the details like copyediting, it’s sometimes as much a matter of personal taste as is the big-picture stuff such as plot pacing and whether to tell the story in first or third person. Should you describe the high-tech energy shield as transparent or as see-through? I don’t know. What effect are you going for with the narration in this scene? Whose POV is the scene in, and what word would they use? Should you use short, simple sentences like knife jabs for a fight scene, or should you use complex sentences that sweep over one another like the massed movement of armies? Again, that depends on what you’re trying to achieve. I’ve seen both used to good effect: short sentences seem to “move faster” for many readers (but keep in mind that some find such sentences too choppy), but long (and properly punctuated!), complex sentences can give the impression of relentlessness, of action happening all around the POV character, or even of confusion (which is not the same as confusing the reader — don’t do that).
And then there’s the big-picture stuff that some people want me to explain. Should you adhere closely to the template of The Hero’s Journey for your novel’s plot? Oh, hell, no! Don’t mistake description for prescription! At the very least, please stop with that ‘If I follow this pattern, in what chapter should the Mentor die/disappear?’ nonsense. A great poet once said, “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” (I wish I had a relevant quote handy from another poet — the one better known for writing speculative fiction — but I can’t think of one at this time. Maybe it’ll come to me before I’m done writing this post… Yeah, something other than, “Trust your demon,” if that’s okay. Thanks.) Let me tell you a thing you’re probably not gonna like: The Hero’s Journey was never meant to be a template for writing fiction. It’s a tool for understanding stories, but even the myths that were used to formulate the concept don’t all follow the same pattern… and if you think about it, you’ll see a lot of well-written and popular/successful fiction that can’t be pinned onto that map. “But… this story has a Mentor character, and this one over here has the Descent into the Underworld, and…” Yeah, and all of them diverge in some significant way from that path, don’t they?
Here’s another thing you may not like: There are no cheat codes. (Shut up, already, brain! It’s old gamer slang, okay? Just because I’ve never played a video game doesn’t mean I don’t know people who have… *mutters something about World of Warcraft and trolls*) There are no set formulas that will produce The Perfect Novel for anyone who follows them, and there is no One Right Way to Write a Book. Part of why this is true is that there is no definition of a “perfect novel” that applies for all readers, all the time. There is no universal consensus on how much description a story should contain, nor what proportion of dialogue to action is best, nor what genre The Perfect Novel is. If there’s no agreement on what the goal is, there can be no agreement on exactly how to attain it.
The good news is, there is some consensus on how to know when you’ve attained the goal, at least when it comes to the “trivia” (please note the sarcasm quotes!) of grammar, punctuation, and using the best word to express what you mean. Part of why I focus on copyediting is that it’s relatively easy; there are only so many correct ways to use a semicolon (two, to be exact) or a question mark (only when you want to indicate an actual question), matching verbs to plural or singular nouns is rather straightforward, and although prepositions can be kinda tricky, they’re not impossible to learn. Verb forms don’t give a winged rodent’s backside about “current market trends” or what was done in the latest bestseller YA techno-thriller paranormal romance about alien invasion, the difficulties of being unpopular in high school, and why wise men just don’t know how it feels to be thick as a brick.
(Disclaimer: Much of the weird tangenting/’obscure fiction-reference humor’ in this post was set off by… someone asking me to write an article on a specific topic. Viewpoint shift, much? *shakes head*)