What It Takes

What It Takes

Editors and Resistance, #1

By Shawn Coyne | Published: July 7, 2017

I’m going to take a break from my wonky analysis of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and give you my take on Steve’s post from Wednesday, “Report from the Trenches, #1.”

The central question I want to explore is “What form of Resistance do Editors face?”

Well, like the hedgehog, Resistance knows one important thing about the editorial process…

An Editor is a midwife. The only one who truly knows her value is the birther.

The Big R lies in wait inside this truth.

As Steve wrote, about 18 months ago, he sent me a global idea for a new novel.

And I ABSOLUTELY LOVED IT.

Why?

I’ll skip the commercial considerations…why it could be a huge hit!  Suffice it to say that for someone like me who loves to think about the current cultural gestalt (the general “State of Story” we’re living in today) and the underlying need for our collective anxieties to find relief through compelling, but meaningful, story, Steve’s idea struck me as uniquely familiar.  That phrase “uniquely familiar” is my favorite way of saying that a particular story innovates a primal genre.

That is, we go on a Story carpet ride because it’s familiar (we expect to have certain emotions stoked and they are) and then just as we start to think we know what’s coming next, it pulls the rug from under us and gives us the thrill of uncertainty…with the cathartic finish line leaving us exhausted but relieved. I’m not alone. There’s meaning in this world after all!  Whew!

That’s nice, but here is the personal reason why I loved Steve’s idea. It’s perfect for him at this time in his creative pilgrimage. He’s confronting some big internal monsters in a unique way for him…in a genre he loves.

How do I know that?

My relationship with Steve is the second longest in my life. Yep, the only other person that I’ve had a longer partnership with is my wife.

Steve has seen me at my best and more importantly, he’s been with me at my rock bottom, when I’d lost faith not only in my profession but in myself.  Mine own private all is lost moments. And vice versa.

No, we don’t give each other pep talks. We’ve never have Movie of the Week heart to hearts. Don’t forget that Steve’s a Marine and my finishing school involved retrieving ring pull cans of Iron City Beer for unemployed Steelworkers who kicked each other’s asses just to pass the time.

We just keep working together. We laugh about the darkness we both dive into again and again and again, knowing we have another guy in the foxhole with us even though we’re three thousand miles apart. He knows that I know what he’s going through and I know that he knows what I’m going through.  Who cares if we ever have a hit…that’s enough.

So what is this writer/editor thing?  What is the foundation of this relationship?  What is the secret sauce that accounts for twenty odd years of working together?

I want to highlight that last sentence.

Long term collaborations in book publishing are rare…Perkins and Fitzgerald/Hemingway, Robbins and Didion, Gottlieb and Caro, Howard and Palahniuk… The reasons why they’re rare are innumerable.  The business is just not built to encourage this sort of relationship.  That’s because there is no amount of money or appearances on bestseller lists that compare to them. Which is dangerous for a corporation.

Here’s a clue about one of the ingredients of the secret writer/editor sauce from Steve’s post on Wednesday:

Shawn’s notes started out positively. He told me the things he liked about the manuscript. I knew what was coming, though.

So what was coming that Steve knew?

What was coming was the thing that tore me up to write…the proving ground where I had to battle Resistance every inch of the way.

SUBJECTIVE TRUTH

What does that mean?

Let’s start with the first thing I had to give Steve.

OBJECTIVE TRUTH.

Objective truth uses universal laws as its operating system. It works the facts, just the facts.  It’s hard to debate the truth of gravity or rain or simple harmonic motion.  Although there are always those who will.

The Story equivalent of objective truths are all of those Story Grid things…genres, conventions, obligatory scenes, value shifts, inciting incidents, progressive complications, crises, climaxes, resolutions, points of no return, hero’s journeys, etc.

I didn’t invent that stuff.  I pulled it from years and years of research of story structure from the brilliant thinkers who came before me. Sorry if you’re not convinced about them. I hope you find peace living in your magical story land where all efforts are precious and beautiful and perfect.

And sorry for all of you who think that there is an audience for a book just because a writer put a lot of hard work into it…  If the book does not abide millennia old story structure principles, it will not last. No chance.

Remember, as Steve so wisely wrote, “Nobody Wants to Read Your Shit.” No matter how hard you worked on it. No matter how much you hope that your art is sublime the way it is, if it doesn’t tap into the thousands of years of Story structure while at the same time adding its own innovations, it will not live a long life.

Could it become a bestseller?  Sure, but you have a better shot at winning the lottery.  Why not just play the lottery?

Great art is immortal.

If that’s not what you dream of creating…something alive after you’re dead…I don’t want to work with you.

The best editors identify and delineate all of a draft’s flaws by citing objective story truths.  There’s really no debating when a writer doesn’t deliver a scene that is required for a particular genre.

Again, please spare me the amateur dilettante arguments. I don’t care about the book that broke the rule and was a bestseller.  I guarantee you it will not be read or thought about by your children.

Citing OBJECTIVE TRUTH is the way an editor tells the writer WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIS STORY.

These criticisms are the things that a writer will first accept as truth.  Editors providing this fundamental service to a writer are priceless. They’re not enough of them.  We need more. A lot more.

Telling a writer what is wrong with his story is the editor’s craft.  It’s an indispensable skill. It can be learned. Like shooting free throws or doing knee replacement surgeries or dovetailing.

Back to Steve’s post,

If Shawn’s notes made eight points, I found I could accept two.

Those first two points Steve is referring to are the “Objective Truths” about his draft that I laid out for him.

It’s where most editors sign off. And that is absolutely fine.  The value delivered doing just that is worth years of a writer’s life, simply because they’ll learn not to make the same mistakes over and over again.

So what about the other six points that I put in my editorial letter Steve found difficult to accept?

These are the Subjective Truths.

That’s the secret ingredient that keeps a writer and editor in the same trench year after year.

Giving a writer his Subjective Truth about the writer’s work is the editor’s art. It’s why I show up every day. To do more of it, better than the last time I did it, to push the envelop a wee bit further out with each new project.

And it’s art just as hard to deliver as a writer’s. I’d argue it’s more difficult because of that thing Resistance knows…

An Editor is a midwife. The only one who truly knows her value is the birther.

 

Posted in What It Takes

14 Responses to “Editors and Resistance, #1”

  1. July 7, 2017 at 4:29 am

    Man…

  2. Mary Doyle
    July 7, 2017 at 6:13 am

    After I read Steve’s post on Wednesday I commented that he is lucky to have you and we are lucky to have him. I echo that today — we are lucky to have both of you! Thanks so much for pulling back the curtain on your editorial process.

  3. July 7, 2017 at 6:17 am

    Those of us out here truly know your value, too! Thank you!!

  4. July 7, 2017 at 6:33 am

    OK, recovering from your tsunami of truth, I’m thinking, “this must be the dividing line between art and craft…” I don’t want a heart surgeon doing art on me, or anyone. I want skillful craftsmanship, or don’t pick up the scalpel. Am I getting your point, Shawn? This is priceless education you’re giving us. Thanks for that!

  5. July 7, 2017 at 7:05 am

    Shawn, it’s so valuable for us to hear your perspective. Thank you. As writers, we can more easily identify with what Steve is going through, because we’ve been there.

    But this is not an industry for the faint of heart – and yeah, nobody wants to read our shit … especially if it misses the mark on reader expectations. This post is an excellent reminder that our editors are on our side and want our manuscripts to be the best they can be.

    Oh, and love the analogy of the editor as midwife. 😀

    Thanks again – to you and Steve!

  6. July 7, 2017 at 7:39 am

    Love reading your posts, inspiration and directness much appreciated. Also love the midwife analogy!

  7. Amber
    July 7, 2017 at 7:51 am

    I don’t understand. What is Subjective Truth?

    • July 7, 2017 at 7:59 am

      Steven King sells millions of books.
      Objective truth.
      Steven King is the greatest writer ever in history.
      Subjective truth.

      That’s my take, anyway.

      I think when it comes to editing and story, there’s lots of subjectivity about obligatory scenes, rising and falling action, and so forth.

      If not for this subjectivity we wouldn’t need Shawn and could just run our work through Grammarly…

      I venture to say that even Shawn has to guess sometimes and shoot for the green and not the cup.

  8. Larry Pass
    July 7, 2017 at 9:40 am

    I’ll elaborate a little on the comment I left with Steve’s post.

    When you write software, there’s a lot more Objective Truth feedback — it doesn’t compile (the computer can’t make sense of what you’ve written), it runs slow, some parts don’t accomplish what they’re supposed to (that ought to be a small green rectangle, not a big yellow one). There’s no argument, no “Well, that’s just this computer”.

    But even, with software, there’s the fuzzier Subjective Truth: Is it user friendly? Does it even do anything anyone would want? If the answers are No, that’s feedback the programmer may find it harder to accept. “Well, I think it’s user friendly.” “I think people will love it.”

    And, of course, if the reviewer doesn’t have the experience or instincts to back up their opinion, the programmer may be right.

    That’s why Steve is so lucky to have someone like Shawn,
    a) who has the experience and instinct
    b) who Steve knows darn well does have it.

    • July 8, 2017 at 10:33 am

      Larry: I’m an “analytical creative” and erstwhile coder and software tester, and this analogy solid gold for me! The Story Grid has demystified (dare I say codified?) the craft of story-writing, but it has absolutely NOT destroyed the magical, inspirational, creative-art side for me. I think I’ll be borrowing your software metaphor to use with writers who balk at the left-braininess of Storygridding their work.

      Thanks!

  9. July 7, 2017 at 2:49 pm

    As an aspiring author, this was the best blog entry I’ve read, period. There is nothing I’d love more than to have someone like Shawn in the foxhole with me wrestling with the demons.
    But the message:

    Great art is immortal.
    If that’s not what you dream of creating…something alive after you’re dead…I don’t want to work with you.

    Makes it worth putting my butt in the chair, overcoming resistance, and writing every day.

    Thank you for the great post!

  10. Melany Franklin
    July 8, 2017 at 2:54 am

    Thank you for another great post! I am working on the first draft of my first novel and Storygrid is hugely important to me in my battle with resistance. I don’t have to listen to the little voice telling me that my novel isn’t good. I know it isn’t good – yet. But I also know that down the road I will be able to use Storygrid to fix it.

  11. Julie Murphy
    July 8, 2017 at 10:47 am

    Thanks for your view from the trenches, Shawn.

    The leveling up of both you and Steve is, well, humbling. It’s clear to see why you make a great team.

    Not only did your interaction teach us to fish…I feel like I had a chiropractic treatment on my brain and now both hemispheres are aligned.

    More, please!

  12. July 9, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    In some ways, I feel like the editor’s job is to bring us back to a solid story format, and perhaps the hero’s journey, when we get off course. During writing, a writer can go off course, and wander into unintended territory, which can be good because a writer could discover new things and new ideas… But sometimes, it goes wrong. So, the editor brings us back on track, without destroying our egos and ideas.