Conceptual editing for fiction

There’s much to think about here. You can certainly make the artistic case that for fiction the editor must give a much freer hand to the writer. We are, after all, speaking about Literature here when we speak of novels. (Say: LIT-ra-chuh.) The writer is creator here, the God role. Who dares edit? We’ll keep that issue in editing fiction in mind as we go, letting it temper big decisions, being humbly aware that the editor did not have to face that blank page.

As always, I start with the reader. And these hard days you have to think of the reader as buyer. Who will buy this book? We covered that in earlier acquisition ruminations, but that too must be kept in mind by the editor as juggler. Three balls in the air: writer (Father), reader (Son), editor (humble ghost). So, as the editor considers the overall story of this piece of fiction, she must consider what reader it is aimed at (age, sex) as well as what genre it might be placed in. If it’s a literary novel, the writer may be more likely to prevail, if a genre novel like a Western or a romance or a mystery, the reader usually reigns. Of course there will always be the unclassifiable, and here the editor must step carefully, first considering that most authors feel that their work is beyond categorization. But I tell them, yeah, but librarians will do it anyway. Be prepared.

Keeping the reader in mind will help the editor make sure of consistency. This becomes more of an issue in copyediting where we have to remember to keep a character’s eyes blue all the way through the book if they start out that way. But even in conceptual editing, consistency rears its hobgoblin head. The tone cannot jump from deep to whimsical, serious to silly—unless of course that is part of the author’s design and it works within the context of the whole.

Story: that’s what a novel tells. Aristotle had it right with insisting on a beginning, a middle, and an end, with rising action, a climax, and falling action. The editor needs to make sure that the tension is created, holds, and is released. Beginnings are always hard. The writer has to establish the characters, the time, the place, the feel, and get us hooked into what’s going on without boring us before we get to the real action. Some writing guidelines tell the author to do that by first having a walloping action scene before anything else. Well, maybe. Sometimes that works. But I’ve read way too many manuscripts that start out with something either preposterous or truly awful in the attempt to hook us in. I’m usually just put off and don’t even want to read the rest.

The conceptual editor will have to make sure the whole story gets told, that bits don’t dangle at the end (unless this is a series and you want to hook readers for more). This is particularly true for mysteries. We have to find out whodunit, and it has to be consistent with all the details all the way through.

Character: They are people and must feel, think, and behave like real ones. Real ones aren’t always consistent, but in a story they need to be consistent enough to make the action work. The editor will note if a character suddenly does something out of character just to make the plot work. There’s always that tension between character and action. The editor will see that one does not exist merely to serve the other.

Editing fiction is a pleasure—the icing on the editorial cake—not that editing botanical keys is not tons of fun (wherein you spend days checking Latin names and learn the meaning of words like dentate and scandent). And working with fiction authors is usually a pleasure too, unless they take the God role too seriously.

Here’s my animal photo today. It’s turtle hatching season around here on the Gulf coast of Florida. This little loggerhead is heading toward the water. If you live near the beach, be sure your outside lights are off at night or little guys like this one will head the wrong way thinking your light is moonlight on the water.

Leatherback turtle

June Cussen

— June Cussen, Pineapple Press