Becoming Our Own Editors
Last Wednesday’s post ended with this:
The writer these days has to be her own editor. It’s tough, but true.
You and I have to learn the craft, whether we want to or not.
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 Shawn’s blog here on Fridays and at www.storygrid.com.
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.
If you haven’t signed up for Shawn’s new site at www.storygrid.com, please do. His book, The Story Grid, is coming in 2015. You’ll get it first if you’re signed up—and it will change forever the way you think about the challenge of crafting a working literary product and about your own role in the process.
The self-editing process is what intimidates me most of all. I’ve figured some things out, and am still grappling with others. Knowing that something isn’t working and figuring out the solution can be both frustrating and invigorating. What scares me is failing to recognize that something isn’t working, and allowing it to slide right on by, so I’m really looking forward to The Story Grid’s release next year. Thanks for another “keeper” post Steve!
Mary-Thanks for admitting this, I’m right there with ya. Self-editing is scary because we’re scared of being honest with ourselves about what’s been accomplished, and what’s left to do. Looking all the way down the path ahead is terrifying.
Going a step further, we’re usually so self-conscious that we end up abandoning a project because we picture a reader saying “what a fool, this sucks, and they don’t even know it.” Aka, we’re too smart for our own good most of the time. Steve has the magic formula when he tells us to “write quickly and madly from instinct” then alternate to short moments of contemplation. But if resistance starts to creep in, get back to writing ASAP, on anything, just get back to work.
I’m a big advocate of putting a story down for the night, then coming back the next day and looking at it with fresh eyes. (Or putting a story or project down, opening another project and getting engrossed in that, then returning to the original.)
For me at least, simple and elegant solutions to perceived problems often reveal themselves upon returning to the text, and it prevents me from being so close t the material that I get caught up in endless fiddling that (probably) isn’t any better than the original.
Once again, I am grateful for the high level of pain tolerance passed along to me both genetically and through upbringing. Ow, my brain.
I can do it. Especially with all this help. And it *will* be fun, dammit.
Thank you Steve. The ‘War of Art’ has helped tremendously, and now reading these weekly posts is the highlight of Wednesdays. Looking forward to Shawn’s “Story Grid”. For a moment, after searching his site, and the internet, a fear that he was keeping ‘the grid’ to himself arose. Cannot wait.
Oh, this post is so helpful.
I must get the story of my life down quickly before resistance creeps in. “Who wants to read a story about a cat overcoming adversity? Who told you you are a writer? You should have listened to your mother and spent the rest of your life catching mice.”
Actually, it was Mr. Steve who said I was a writer, in “The War of Art.” And my mother was wrong.
I look forward to buying “The Story Grid.” It sounds like an excellent book. Every story needs a story grid. Even a cats story.
All my best,
As I read this I was hit with the realization how this can 100% be applied to entrepreneurship too (an area I’m currently wading through chest-deep). That we need to master the skills of an entrepreneurial “editor.”
– Read people like Eben Pagan/Tim Ferriss/Free Range Humans
– Read top entrepreneur’s blogs
– Take courses from those who are making it happen in a style that inspires you (e.g. working out of a backpack while travelling the world)
After the creating instinctive impulse from an idea, zoom out to see how it will fit into an effective commercial model. See out there what works and why. You can frame by frame this too.
… until you finally “crack the code.”
Love this, thanks
I would advise writers to take this road only so far, with a good measure of introspection. Formulas create formulaic (and predictable) stories. What genre is There Will Be Blood in? What does that movie’s Story Grid look like? Truly original artwork comes from organic inspirations and a writer’s ability to pull from unique sources. I personally get bored when watching a romantic comedy or action movie and 2/3rds in, like clockwork, everything falls apart, because I just know it will all go right by the end, like a sitcom. It’s the reason there’s so many forgettable movies year after year, they are mostly remakes, reboots, and retreads.
Your job as a storyteller is also to create something original and memorable as well as you can, not simply to hit the optimum genre tropes to hook the widest audience. Surprise and suspense, arising organically from character and not a Robert McKee blueprint, should be at least as important as the three-act structure. Watch the short youtube video “Mr. Plinkett – The Truth of Averageness” for an idea of what I’m talking about. Just my take on the subject, always follow your artistic instincts as much as another writer’s advice. Thank you Mr. Pressfield.
I have been using Truby’s Anatomy of Story. Have any of you looked at it? Thoughts?
Time to get back to writing like a drunkard,
Steve – As always, very helpful!
Successful writing is about the ability to make the reader feel and understand what we the writer is trying to say. Some have that gift, most of us need to work at it; I find a great way to practice my writing is to write book reviews.
I write reviews for several professional magazines and writing a review is far more challenging than most think: I need to read and analyze the story from the eyes of those who read that magazine, then I have to craft the review to make it pertinent to those readers. If it’s a topic in which I’m unfamiliar, I might need to learn a bit more about it so I can accurately comment on the book’s point of view. And of course it needs to be interesting.
How is this pertinent to me as a writer? Because now I’ve read and studied a book from a writer better and/or more successful than me, so I’ve got the ability to say ‘what do I need to do to make my book as successful as his?’
Does it work? I think so, I know I’m a much better writer than I was when I started in 2003 – plus I’m building a collection of some great books!
Thanks so much for the clear direction and detailed example here. After reading Shawn’s Works/Doesn’t Work I tripped over an old favorite on Netflix: Tombstone. And I had a great 90 minutes (plus lots of rewind-replays) applying what I’ve learned from your blogs & podcasts to the story.
I mean, what an Inciting Incident! The bad guys aren’t just bad but true villians…the scene ends and you want them to die badly but not too soon. And then there’s our Reluctant Hero, who refuses to engage with them and the chaos they create. He’s able but entirely unwilling, so when they do push him too far by making it personal (and wow, do they) his vengeful wrath is righteous. There’s no sympathy for the villains, they brought this on themselves…and our Wrathful Hero says so to make sure we don’t miss that part 🙂 Also love that the villains’ perilous end was prophecied in the climax of the Inciting Incident. A promise kept!
I worried too much analysis would spoil the movie, but it makes me like it more. Excellent lesson, thanks again!
p.s. Any more of your favorite movies you’re willing to share? I’d like to try a few on. Your choices are 10-15 years ahead of mine, they’d all be totally new to me…
Shawn’s site is a delight. Story structure – I was breaking stories down instinctively as a pre-teen. One reason I read so slow. I go over good sentences, I go over paragraphs that resonate, I ask, how does this work? How did the writer get me here (without my noticing it the first time – or if I did, why was I so willing to go along)?
Every writer has to be an editor, and have an editor.
I’m gobbling this stuff as fast as I can…story structure, grid, and foolscap…but man it’s still hard.
I’m still deep in the trenches, and for a minute or two things were good, now I’m muddy again…and it feels hard. Work the problem, work the problem, is my mantra during these tough times.
Thank you and Shawn for all you do!
I tell my authors that the first draft is for you and editing is for the reader. I look forward to Shawn’s Story Grid. All signed up!
Yes, and then after you edit your own book, you can cut your own hair.
Well, Lauren, I already cut my own hair… so if the reverse is also true, that’s danged encouraging!
Great post as ever, Steven.
Self-editing is a skill we all need to tackle, whether we’re getting something ready to publish ourselves, or to submit to agents or publishers.
I love the Story Grid concept because it seems like it will help solidify a process that might be more unconscious for many writers. If we read a lot in our chosen genres we will know what works and what doesn’t work, but perhaps more subconsciously. When editing, being more conscious of the process and form of our story can only help.
I signed-up for Story Grid last week (great stuff Shawn!) and can’t wait for more.
As an historical novelist myself, I would be interested in seeing a story grid example for one of your works, Steven. That would be brilliant!
Cheers and thanks for all the great insight.
“Read Stephen King’s On Writing” – I totally agree. And BTW: Thank you so much guys for all your work. Highly appreciated and inspirational. M.
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