Saturday, February 05, 2011

Problems an editor can't fix

In addition to writing children's books, I do a lot of editing, and when it comes to fiction (non-fiction is completely different in this way) I've concluded that there are some problems that an editor just can't fix.

An editor can take a good idea (even if the person can't write at ALL) and help the author make it better. She may even be able to help the author find the story. But she can't make a dull story, or point of view, interesting, or turn well-written description into a story -- she can't give the author something to say.

When it comes to something to say, people either have it or they don' can help them write it, or even figure out what it is (I've done this with illustrators, and it's fascinating and inspiring -- to me, anyway!). But you can't give it to them or teach it to them.

I'm mentioning this because I think this pretty basic idea -- having something to say -- is often lost in the discussion of 'story arcs' and the like. What do I mean by something to say? An angle of vision-- a way of looking at other people and the world that's your own -- fresh and original -- deeply felt (or I guess very amused or just fascinated could count too?). If you want to write fiction, an editor can help you craft that into a story with a beginning and a middle and an end and all the other things that make books satisfying for readers. It's a lot easier for the editor if you have those three already, but even if you don't, an editor can help you find them.

And she can suggest ways of making the story more intriguing or faster-paced. She can suggest how to make it richer or deeper by adding add a secondary plot or more characters; or suggest that a different point of view might work better.....but the sad fact is that not everyone who wants to write has something interesting to say.

It has to start with that, not with wanting to have a book published. There's a big difference between those two points of departure!


Timothy Power said...

I don't know why this post strikes me as brave, but it does. :)

Libby Koponen said...

Thanks, Timothy! It's so odd that you say that, because of all the posts I've done, this is the one that was the hardest to put up after it was written. I kept wondering: should I?

I don't know why either but you're very perceptive and thank you!

Jenny Torres Sanchez said...

I think this is something that needs to be said, even if most may not want to hear it. It's purpose really--not as in becoming published or fulfilling a dream (though those things are nice), but rather the purpose of the story. Why it's a story that needs to be told and why people should read it. I think you're right, an author should know this at some point in the process.

Thanks for the post.

Libby Koponen said...

Thank YOU, Jenny!

And thanks for adding "at some point in the process." That's insightful.

It's true--you don't always know this when you start out, but it does become clearer as you go, IF the book is worth writing!

alvinaling said...

This is a great post. Yes, an editor can tell you what's wrong with a ms (most of the time), but the problems might not actually be fixable in the end. I don't want to read a ms and think, "So what?" at the end.

Libby Koponen said...

Alvina! Yes! That's it in a nutshell.

"I don't want to read a ms and think 'So what?' at the end."

THANKS. I will be using that line.

Margaret South said...

Great post. When I work with writers, however, I always make sure they know what they're trying to say before they start writing--that's what story structure is for. When you look at a story arc, you're looking at where the character is headed. How they will change as a result of the events in the plot. If you discover new ideas during the process (and most good writers do), you can adjust yor story as needed, oftening deepening the work. But I advise having some idea of where you're going before you begin writing. Time is our most precious commodity.

Connie said...

Hi Libby! This post is so spot-on. There must be a reason for the story to exist. You've just nailed the heart of it.

Libby Koponen said...

Aw, thanks, Connie! I like your way of putting it, too: "There must be a reason for the story to exist." I will be using that line, too. :-)

yamster said...

I sometimes used to tell people at writing conferences to keep in mind that getting published is not the only reason to write. After all, not everyone who sings has a recorded album, and not everyone who plays the violin performs with a major symphony. Sometimes you should write just for yourself, just to write!