“A good editor can make a respectable writer remarkable, just like a good parent helps a child become amazing.”―Justin Alcala
I have been working a great deal lately on editing fiction and memoirs. Both require a delicate touch from me as editor: in both, I strive to preserve the voice of the author.
The difficulty with this is that I must show them how to improve their writing while avoiding imposition of my voice in any way. This is where Microsoft Word’s Track Changes and Comments come in handy.
With the author’s permission granted, I make suggested changes to the text, always explaining my changes if I think the reason behind them might not be clear. This might be a grammar point, or it could be a change for impact, for emphasis. Anything I change or suggest is in their power to accept or reject.
Often, I make changes from passive to active voice, which is a concept that takes time to understand. The way I explain is that passive writing is “newspaper reporting” in which this happened and then that happened. More active writing will show what is happening in the moment, rather than reporting it in the past.
If necessary, I will make suggestions about character as well. All too frequently, authors have their characters do something or say something because they “need” them to do or say that to move the story along. But sometimes the author hasn’t clearly considered what the CHARACTER might want to say or do in that instance. Given their own voices, characters can surprise us with their reactions. Where we thought they might be acquiescent, they have another opinion. If, as writers, we allow the character to develop and grow with the story, it often impacts the story in marvelous ways that we had never considered, sometimes turning the book onto a completely different track.
I also discuss motivation, pointing out holes or lack of reason for characters to behave a specific way. Understanding the WHY behind a character’s actions or personality can improve the story and plot significantly, broadening the possibilities for that character within the story. Rather than answering, “I just see him that way,” an author can look deeper into the character and find his or her motivations, the driving force within him or her, which in turn can open up a wide range of story enhancements. I suggest that a character is not just evil because the author needs him to be evil, that is boring. And unimaginative. Rather, I encourage the author to create a backstory for the main characters, and even the supporting characters, so that the author can more fully understand how a character might act.
That is the way to surprise yourself as an author, and certainly to surprise your readers.
The author’s intent is to tell a compelling story, whether in fiction or memoir. To do that, the author must resist becoming predictable. As an author, you must seek the “other perspective,” whether character driven or in response to an event. Rather than walk blithely down a paved path, why not go in the same direction, arrive at the same point, by hopping on rocks in a river? Keep the reader guessing, or at least interested in the journey.
Those are the sort of suggestions I make as an editor. Each story, each memoir, is unique. I help authors to find the uniqueness in their story. Once we find that, the book is immediately more powerful.
That is the gift of a good editor.