We’re discussing the way in which effective editing takes place, and have divided the act of editing a work into some non-traditional categories based on the broader subject of Fictivity, which encompasses everything to do with fiction.
These approaches to editing are not entirely exclusive to Fictivity, of course — but they are rarely found outside it. That’s because they are based on a comprehensive understanding of what fiction is and how it works.
The first kind, Listening Editing, is all about the stance taken by the editor — not, as is often the case traditionally, the evaluative and opinionated stance that most writers have encountered (or will encounter) from editors at some point in their writing careers, but rather the receptive position in which an editor takes on board the entire work and ‘listens’ for its core meaning.
The second kind, Controlled Editing, is when an editor states the central meaning back to the author without commenting upon it or going off into various other aspects of the work. This has the effect of focusing attention and liberating the author, who perhaps for the first time gets a grip on what he or she has been working on. This can be revolutionary for writers.
As an example of this, I think of the time when I used to direct plays. At some point during rehearsals, once the basic blocking and set design and so forth had been done, it was usually the case that the actors would have a degree of command over their own roles and scripts but lacked a sense of what the play as a whole was about. This would mean that the rehearsals had a somewhat mechanical feel — as though the thing was just ‘going through the motions’. I would hold a meeting at this precise juncture and explain to them as a group what the playwright was trying to communicate, centrally and conceptually, with the play. It was usually something simple, something which would be, once put into words, obvious to everyone. As soon as that core meaning was stated, all the actors’ performances would improve. That was because they now understood their part in a larger whole. But prior to that being said, they had often no real overall grasp of what they were doing other than saying their lines and moving some props about.
What happens for individual writers when they hear someone state the core meaning of their own work back at them is often similar: instead of storytelling occasionally feeling burdensome or passionless, scene after scene, the writer perceives that there is meaning behind everything written. Fiction of various kinds tends to get revitalised under those conditions.
The third type of editing is what arises from the above, which is Guided Editing, when an editor encourages elaboration of that central conceptual meaning. This can easily wander off the track, hence the term ‘guided’: an editor has to know what he or she is doing and to be able to keep the conversation on-topic. But writers, under this kind of guidance, then tend to expand upon their original core concepts and see ways of connecting further elements within their own work, inevitably resulting in a strengthened piece.
What is happening beneath the surface here is probably going to interest any serious writer, but it requires a certain level of technical know-how before it all make sense.
As described in the book How Stories Really Work, a successful piece of fiction is driven by ‘vacuums’ — losses, threats, gaps, mysteries, missing elements and so on, which both motivate characters and drive plots forward. These vacuums draw the attention of readers through the story while also sticking them like glue to each page. The ‘unputdownable’ feeling that readers describe when talking about a good book is almost an actual physical force, a magnetism, created by the cumulative effect of all these vacuums.
The core vacuum, which lies at the heart of any successful plot and forms the core of any worthwhile character, is the central ‘nuclear reactor’ which pulls the story through to its conclusion. Luke’s questions about his father in Star Wars, the French invasion of Moscow in War and Peace, Pip’s infatuation with Estella in Great Expectations, the HYDRA infiltration of SHIELD in Captain America: The Winter Soldier are examples of the kind of thing, examples of something evident within any successful piece of fiction, whether short story, novel, film, play or even poem.
When, under the guidance of an editor, a writer is encouraged to elaborate upon this core vacuum, what is happening technically is that the writer is seeing ways of making that core larger — connections come up, linkages are spotted, ways of making the story more streamlined around its core are perceived.
This leads into the next kind of editing, Trimmed Editing. This usually takes place over a period of time, once the core meaning has been elaborated upon with Guided Editing. In this case, the writer goes away and revises his or her work according to what has come up and the editor’s role becomes a more long-distance one. Nevertheless, though a writer is left to his or her own devices at this stage, Trimmed Editing makes sure that the thing doesn’t wander off the track — regular communication with the editor as the work develops ensures that the core concepts remain clearly in view. This assists the writer, who naturally tends to drift.
Think of the editor at this stage as the steam engine which helps drive the ship to port when, left to the use of its sails, the vessel may wander off course, driven by the writer’s winds of imagination.
Primary at this stage is the trained editor’s communication skills, because of course a writer is in charge of a writer’s work at all times, but a writer can occasionally lose sight of the ultimate ‘harbour’ or goal as they are busy developing a tale. An editor, working at one remove, as it were, can help a writer hugely —but occasionally a situation can arise in which a writer becomes convinced that a new idea or course of action will get the ‘vessel’ to ‘port’ more easily or more swiftly than that course of action being continually prompted by the editor. The editor's particular communication skill involved we can call ‘responsive communication’, and we’ll take a closer look at it next time.