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Thursday 9 October 2014

Becoming Our Own Editors

"Writers today have to be their own editors because it’s so hard to find a real editor, meaning someone who understands story structure and can help the writer whip her work into ready-for-prime-time shape. The breed has become extinct, alas, at most publishing houses (or those who carry the title of editor and have the chops are so busy with material acquisition, marketing, and internal politics that they don’t have time to sit down and work with their writers in the old-school, Maxwell-Perkins, hands-on manner.)

It’s probably a good thing that we writers have to be our own editors. After all, who if not us should be responsible for the shape of our work?

But how do we become our own editors? What skills do we need? Where can we acquire these skills?

The editor’s primary creative contribution—i.e.,the skill that you and I need to master—is this:

The editor understands narrative structure. He knows what makes a story work. He understands genre. He knows that every story falls into a genre, and that every genre has conventions. He knows what those conventions are, and he understands how to use them.

Have you taken Robert McKee’s class in Story Structure? Take it. Take his class in Love Story. Take his class in Thriller. Whatever he’s teaching, take it.

Read Stephen King’s On Writing.

Read writers’ blogs.

Read everything you can on the subject of story structure and story analysis.

Keep reading. Keep watching movies. Learn the skill of editing the same way editors learn it. Study stuff that works (and stuff that doesn’t) and ask yourself, “How did the writer do that? How did she achieve this power, this emotion, this meaning?”

When you and I find a book or movie that we love, we have to read it and watch it over and over. Take notes. Ingest it. Pick it apart page by page and frame by frame till we understand how it works as well as the writer or filmmaker who created it.

Shawn’s concept of the Story Grid wasn’t handed to him on a platter. He figured it out on his own by reading and thinking and reading and thinking some more after that.

Can you analyze Hamlet?

Can you break down Blade Runner or The Usual Suspects or Taken 2?

The task is not impossible. It’s fun, particularly if you love the material. I can watch movies I love over and over and read the same books again and again.

Shawn’s concept of a “grid” is an excellent way to think of story analysis. We lay the story out on the operating table and we “put a grid over it.” The grid is like a template. It represents the archetypal version of Story.

There’s a grid for thrillers and a grid for love stories and a grid for police procedurals. Each one is a genre, and each genre has its unique conventions. When you set the Love Story grid over your love story, you are checking the anatomy, the architecture of your work against the universal, classic dimensions of the tales of Romeo and Juliet, Tracy Lord and C.K. Dexter Haven, Thelma and Louise.

Does your love story have the same moving parts that Shakespeare used? Do they appear in the same order?

Have you invented something new? Great. What is it? If it defies convention, how? What makes it work?

What editorial-type thinking does, what a concept like Shawn’s Grid does, is it gives us poor benighted writers a tool to analyze that pile of pages that we’ve pounded out in an ecstasy of unconscious inspiration. Our first draft is done. We’ve got our story. We’ve been working so far, as writers should, with our right brains—our instincts.

Now we switch to our left brain.

We zoom back to 30,000 feet.

We view our story impartially and objectively. We evaluate it alongside an imaginary model of the Universal Story, just like a Ferrari mechanic tests the engine of a new Testarossa against the engineering sheet from the factory.

Does our Love Story have lovers who are drawn to each other powerfully and passionately?

(We’re using the Grid now, checking the elements of our story against the conventions of the genre of Love Story.)

Is there a force that is keeping our lovers apart?

Do we have a moment when the lovers get together and cosmic sparks fly? When in the story does this moment come?

Do we have a moment when the lovers are pulled apart? When does this moment come?

What force produces this estrangement? Is it external or internal? Both?

Is there an All Is Lost moment? Does it come at the end of Act Two or deep into Act Three? How is this moment resolved?

Do the lovers come together at the end? How? How did they overcome the force that was keeping them apart?

(We’re our own editors now. We’re asking ourselves the same questions an editor would ask us.)

What is the theme of our love story? What greater issue (social, political, religious) has brought our lovers together and what issue is keeping them apart? How is this theme reflected in the crisis, the climax, the resolution?

An editor might say to us, “Watch The Way We Were. Pay attention to the political/moral/social ideals that Barbra Streisand holds that are irreconcilable with the worldview held by Robert Redford, even though Babs and Bob love each other desperately. Watch how these forces are introduced into the story and how they evolve and become more and more prominent, until they become inescapable and must be faced by the lovers. Ask yourself how this connects to the movie’s theme.”

Do we in our story have forces like that and are they as powerful, as real, and as clearly delineated?


Maybe that’s why our story isn’t working.

I know this sounds daunting. It is daunting. But this arcane art, the skill of the editor, is—more than talent, more than luck—what separates real writers from wannabes"

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