Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Does Somebody Know Something?

By Steven Pressfield | Published: October 1, 2014

Continuing on last Wednesday’s subject of Nobody Knows Nothing:

Maxwell Perkins, who edited Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe.

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.

Posted in Writing Wednesdays

13 Responses to “Does Somebody Know Something?”

  1. Mary Doyle
    October 1, 2014 at 6:51 am

    Christmas is still almost three months away, but “editor to take me to the woodshed” is at the top of my list. Thanks for this series – I’m looking forward to next week’s post.

    In the meantime, A. Scott Berg’s “Editor of Genius” about the late, great Maxwell Perkins is a terrific read.

  2. Sonja
    October 1, 2014 at 7:05 am

    I’ve always been a bit envious of your working relationship with Shawn….: )

    While I’m not at the editing phase yet, I drink up these posts like water.

    May we all be so lucky to cross paths with a great editor in our journey to become published writers.

    Thanks for all you do, Steve.

  3. October 1, 2014 at 7:25 am

    Dear Steve,
    Again, I laughed out loud. I clearly pictured Shawn taking you to the woodshed. Not helpful when my wife is still asleep.

    I think you’ve told us how to find an editor, someone who knows something over and over again. It is by Turning Pro.

    I believe that is when our tribe members begin to appear in our life. If you had met Shawn before, your product would not have been ready, nor would you.

    David Brooks quotes some smart guy about clock or cloud problems. This is a cloud problem–an emergent system. The only solution to an emergent problem is an emergent system–something in the gestalt, systemic, holistic–like Turning Pro. No study of the component parts will help with understanding, you must understand it from the whole.

    The image of Shawn taking you to the woodshed will keep me smiling all day. I find it delightful that even after so many wonderful stories, you’re still worried about that beating! Cracks me up.

    I guess is demonstrates that there is no there there. We will continue to grow, struggle, strive forever without a final touchdown, arrival, destination. Growth or atrophy. Those are the two available choices.

    Thanks again. Signed up for Storygrid.
    bsn

  4. Barbara
    October 1, 2014 at 7:34 am

    The American Scholar published a beautiful piece on this topic: “Endless Rewriting” by Helen Hazen.

  5. October 1, 2014 at 10:14 am

    My friend and editor Tom Bentley is all those things to me. I cannot imagine working without him.

    I’ve only known him a few years. Looking forward to what he does for my 20th book, a lot more years down the road.

    And looking forward to Shawn’s book, too. It’ll help me lighten Tom’s load by doing better work up front.

  6. October 1, 2014 at 10:59 am

    We see this a lot in the art program. Kids are used to images at their fingertips, tracing and copying. While not a useless exercise, it cannot possibly replace general understanding of proportion, perspective and the basic understanding of the human anatomy. Most kids can throw something together with the aid of the internet, but the true master studies the skeleton, the compass, the face. They can draw without the use of the internet or a picture or a projector.

    So as writers we have to learn structure. Inner workings. It actually comforts me to study these things. It doesn’t solve every tricky problem, but its really important.

  7. October 1, 2014 at 11:19 am

    After 56 years of reading, most of which I have been writing, and 35+ years of editing, I sometimes wonder if it might be easier to first become an editor, and THEN make the move into a published author… it certainly makes you appreciative of the entire editing function that way.

    I’m working on a project in an unusual genre – I refer to it as a “predictive autobiography” within which the author reflects on how they arrived at where they are and then projects the remainder of their uh, “career” if you will, in a book or even a book series.

    The difference in today’s world is the medium. If the author is a complete nutter geekster such as myself, “cross-channel” publishing mediums and marketing techniques rule the day, including PDF, audiobooks, large networks of “friends” aka digital marketers capable of pushing one’s new book to number 1 on Amazon in just 24 hours, Freeplane mindmaps, even entire online heuristic communities that magically morph into a much richer Editing-Body-Politic than has ever existed in the past.

    These use such (NOT Facebook, et al) advanced technologies as vBulletin, Joomla / JomSocial and Dolphin/BoonEx. And lets not overlook the SNAKE (fiber-optic connecting all the world’s inhabited continents) enabling publishing mechanisms like Google’s “Ya Think?” network also known as YouTube, whereby the entire GLOBE provides feedback (or lack thereof) within hours and days, rather than the traditional “you may be DEAD before the Homer gomer Simpsons get your idea” routine of the past 5,000 years or so…

    As AH proclaimed, it’s a brave new world

  8. October 1, 2014 at 3:36 pm

    Having been on both sides of the blue pencil, I agree completely. A good – great – editor is indispensable. I quoted the “Essay on Criticism” before, and there are guidelines for editors – often the same as for writers.

    A good editor keeps us humble, motivated and on-target. And Shawn is clearly one of the great ones.

    I really appreciate this post.

  9. matt
    October 1, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    How do the super-prolific writers (guys like Harlen Coben, Lee Child and as you mentioned, Stephen King) do it? Can they really be churning away at the typewriter that much? Or do they have a cadre of apprentices and pros/editors helping tow the line? I can’t imagine it to be otherwise.
    And frankly, when I’m peering down the long, strange hallway that might lead to the Great American Novel I’ve been dreaming about, and I make the mistake of considering that if I make it to the end of the hall it’ll be one novel … well, it’s daunting, frustrating, and … that’s Resistance!

  10. October 2, 2014 at 8:55 am

    I share your philosophy on following others’ advice, I do very little of that. BUT, some of us are lucky enough to encounter one or two special individuals who “get it” and we can’t explain why. I pay attention when those individuals speak.

  11. October 2, 2014 at 12:00 pm

    I can’t wait for The Story Grid. I’m a believer when it comes to applying systems to the creative process, and I just visited the Resources page of the Story Grid site and saw the Silence of the Lambs image you mentioned…whoa.
    I almost want to stop writing and wait for The Story Grid so I won’t have to re-write everything, but that might just be Resistance.

  12. Alexis
    October 2, 2014 at 7:00 pm

    Loved this post! I must say, before I launch into my experience with a great editor, that I also love your use of the feminine pronoun in your posts.

    After years of study with two writing teachers (both excellent), pouring over the “Borzoi Handbook” to learn what proper grammar is, reading, reading, reading, and writing, writing, writing, I got the prize–a truly remarkable line edit of the first chapter of my novel. The edit was longer than the chapter! On my side was the fact that it was my brother who did it for me.

    Before you roll your eyes, let me explain that Harry is the most knowledgeable man I know. At seventeen, he was visited by a representative from Yale who came to our small town in West Virginia to offer him a place in the playwriting department. Instead, he went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland and studied the classics. He could recite King Lear in its entirety when he was twelve and he has been a lifelong lover of Shakespeare. His own writing is extraordinary.

    I knew I could trust him because he loved my writing and would never have spent this kind of time had he not. That line edit taught me more about writing than anything before or since. I got it! I understood everything. It was astonishing revelation after astonishing revelation. He didn’t limit the edit to what was wrong but also asked many questions and made notes about what was working and what he thought was remarkable.

    This is one of the many valuable things Harry says about writing.
    “Craft never creates genius, but technique can expose a lot of talent.”

    I’m surprised that I’m doing this but here is an example of my early writing followed by Harry’s edit:

    “Everything Can Kill You” Prologue

    The mountain is disappearing; they are flaying her alive. Where her torso–solid, muscular, strong–(1) should be closely wrapped in that densely woven cloak of greens that she’s always worn, her skin is now exposed, red(2) and blistered in our equatorial sun. You can see her ribs and the black glittering veins of iron ore that were once(3) her life blood and have now become her downfall. She has always balanced on(4) her head thick masses of cloud and swirling mist that floated there, in all weather, like an angel’s hair underwater. (5)Now the cloud pours down over her skin, changing the weather below at her foot and in the village.

    The old people of Mapa say it is not good for man to change the weather. They say this is the job of God.

    Hàuke Massaquoi, West Africa–(6) journal entry, January 1979

    NOW, here is Harry’s edit:

    1. Great use of the dash.
    2. “red” modifies skin. You want to try to put it next to it. “Her skin, red and blistered, is now exposed to the equatorial sun.” Or you can write, “Her skin is now exposed to the equatorial sun. She is red. She is blistered.” The brain has to jump three or four hurdles to connect the phrase meaningfully. You won’t lose any poetry by doing this. You will always, in fact, gain more than you lose.
    3. I’d cut the word “once.” It makes the time when it was so more removed than it should be and weakens the sense of disaster.
    4. “…on her head the thick masses” I think a definite article there makes it immediate.
    5. “Now the cloud pours down over her skin, changing the weather below at her foot and in the village.” I’d make this into two or three sentences. “Now the cloud pours over her skin. Pouring down and around her delicate feet, the cloud changes the weather there. The weather in the village is different, too.” But how is the weather in the village different? Does it rain more? Is there no rain?
    6. Your first dashes are exactly right. After that, they’re a bit iffy. You must always ask yourself why you are using a dash. Many writers believe they are crutches. Me too. Although I use them all the time. The problem with dashes is that they seem to say, “The writer is vague about what she means here.” I suspect that what you means is, “Hàuke Massaquoi, journal entry, West Africa, January 1979.” But you could mean, “Hàuke Massaquoi, West Africa Journal, entry of January 17, 1979.” It’s hard to give up dashes. Very hard. Look at your first dashes and you’ll see how perfect those are. Anything less than that requires rewriting.

    It goes on like this for 21 pages!

  13. October 9, 2014 at 11:56 am

    “As for freelancers, I’ve never met one who was worth diddly, and 90% of ‘real’ editors are equally as useless.”

    Wow! Them’s fightin’ words. On one hand, you’re right. I worked as an editor in big NY trade book publishing for five years and for the past nine years independently, or what you’d call freelance. In my early days I reckon I was useless. But I study, and wrote a couple of books myself, in part just to make me a more empathetic editor, and now I know what I’m doing. Enough to know that this line — “A good editor’s first question when he reads material is, ‘What genre is this in?'” is *underwhelming*. At least in my book. A good editor’s first question is more along the lines of “What is the author hoping to accomplish here? What hopes does she have pinned to the success of this work?”

    Drill down to the most elemental answer. Everything follows from there.