By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 1, 2014
Continuing on last Wednesday’s subject of Nobody Knows Nothing:
Somebody has to know something. We can’t all be flying blind. It’s unacceptable for us to throw up our hands on the topic of our art and our livelihood.
But who is that someone?
In the book biz, that individual is called an editor.
“Editor” is probably the least understood profession on the planet, short of “movie producer.”
No one knows what an editor does. Does she spell-check your manuscript? Organize your book tour? Is it her job to get you on Oprah? Make sure that your book gets reviewed by The New York Times?
Or is she more like a story guru and diagnostician? Can she help make your novel work? Can she analyze its plot structure? Shed light on characterization? Can she identify the parts that aren’t working? Can she tell you how to fix them? Can she do for you what Maxwell Perkins did for Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe?
I got lucky about twenty years ago—career-making lucky—when a young editor at Doubleday bought my manuscript, Gates of Fire. I got lucky because that editor was Shawn Coyne. I’ve been riding his coattails ever since.
A great editor does all of the things listed above. But how? How does she learn her trade?
There is no such thing as Editors’ School. Harvard doesn’t offer a Ph.D. in Editing. Random House doesn’t teach it, and neither does Twentieth-Century Fox. As for freelancers, I’ve never met one who was worth diddly, and 90% of “real” editors are equally as useless. In many cases, they’re actually harmful. Their advice won’t help you; it’ll screw you up.
Again, this is not to knock editors. It’s just to restate that Nobody Knows Nothing (except a very rare few.)
How do those few learn their trade? Basically they teach themselves. They fall in love with Story and they set themselves the task of deciphering its mysteries. They read Aristotle’s Poetics. They study Shakespeare and Turgenev and Tarantino. They plumb obscure texts, they participate in seminars. And they read and read and read.
They ask themselves, “Why does Story X work and Story Y doesn’t?” What does The Godfather have in common with Oedipus Rex? Is there a trick? Is there a secret? How did Shakespeare do it over and over? What does Stephen King know that the rest of us don’t?
Great editors like Shawn develop systems. They evolve philosophies. They borrow principles from professional students/teachers of story structure. They steal tidbits from their own writers and from others. And they invent their own. Like scientists, they develop hypotheses and they test them against reality.
Shawn has a system that he calls the Story Grid. It took him twenty-plus years to work out. [For a preview, sign up for his work-in-progress site, www.storygrid.com.] When you give him a manuscript he says, “Lemme put the Grid on it.” He showed me the diagram once for Silence of the Lambs. It blew my mind. I thought I was looking at brain surgery. “You mean there are that many moving parts?”
As writers, we operate a lot on instinct. I do. I’m flying by the seat of my pants half the time. I’m doing stuff and it’s working, but I have no idea why. Or it’s not working and I have no idea why.
It’s the editor’s job to know why.
The editor’s role is to understand the architecture of the story. He has know which columns are load-bearing. He needs to understand surface tension and tectonic structure. So when he says to you, “Your obligatory scene is not paying off your inciting incident,” he actually knows what he’s talking about. And if he’s really good, he’ll be able to say, “Suppose you did X in place of Y?” In other words, he didn’t just tell you what was wrong but he told you how to fix it.
You would think that a writer who has spent the previous three years writing a novel would know what his story is about. Yet I’ve done it more times than I’ll admit and had nary a clue.
A good editor’s first question when he reads material is, “What genre is this in?” His second is, “What is this story about?”
When I get a memo from Shawn that starts with “What this story is really about is … “ I feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I know I’m going to be taken to the woodshed.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve had the privilege of working with someone who actually knows what he’s doing. I’ve had someone who can shine a light on what to me is often a mystery.
But there’s a problem implicit in this and the problem is that there aren’t that many great editors. How do you find one? I don’t know.
The writer these days has to be her own editor. It’s tough, but true.
You and I have to learn the craft, whether we want to or not.
More on that next week.