A very good friend just came and stayed for three days. Apart from enjoying all things delectable – slathered bbq’d chicken (secret ingredient: smoked paprika), fresh sockeye salmon, steak in chimichurro sauce, washed down with Brunello de Montalcino and followed by snifters of Remy Martin… Wait! What’s this post about?
Oh yes. Between bites and slurps, we also discussed the novel he is writing, his first, though he has had a long career as a film and TV director, so understands story. It is interesting trying to help someone with their writing, assuming the role of editor and teacher too. I believe the primary role of the editor is to help you realize your vision and that really begins with clarifying what that vision is. What is the story you are trying to tell? Often, as in this case, some quite wonderful writing does not always lead anywhere. What’s the point of a beautiful description in, essentially, an adventure story? Or a great historical fact you feel you must use? Can you tick them off against the critical checklist, the most important item of which is: does this passage/page/sentence/word make the reader want to read the next one? If it doesn’t, if you lose the reader… well, then they won’t carry on and discover all the joys you have for them later.
Its a balancing act, for sure. But a lot of it comes down to the old saw: show not tell. Make it active. If you want to describe the beauties of the forest, make sure the starlight through the leaves is affecting the character’s state of mind and so his decisions. If you need the reader to know that they brought the biggest cannon in the world to Constantinople – show it firing and deafening everyone within a quarter mile.
Then there’s the difference between plot and story. How many people say to us writers “I’ve got a wonderful story for you” when what they have is a plot. The difference? I heard it described like this:
The King died and then a week later the Queen died… is a plot.
The King died and a week later the Queen died of grief… is a story.
I could go on and on… and no doubt will in future posts. But one thing helping others does is clarify what it is I like, and what I want my readers to get from my writing. Usually I don’t think about how I write when I am writing. Taking a pause to edit another allows me to consider and, as ever, strive to improve.