Using what’s in a story to edit it

A question newer editors often ask is, “How can I edit a manuscript and suggest solutions to problems without turning my recommendations into ‘here’s how I would write it’?”

And I have a lot of advice about that, including understanding editorial methodologies and frameworks, but my main piece of guidance is to use what’s already in the story.

If there is a problem with the conflict in the ms I’m editing, and I’ve noticed that Miranda and her sister often squabble, I will recommend that the author consider building that squabbling out into an actual conflict that gets in the way of Miranda reaching her story goals.

I don’t say, “Hey, you should introduce a third character who is . . . a kidnapper! Yeah, yeah, and . . . instead of Miranda being a bank teller, she should be an investment banker so she has money! And her sister can get kidnapped and . . . .”

The first is using what’s already there to improve the story and the second is my being an unwanted coauthor.

In particular, I look at the world-building, because this is where many solutions arise. What do I know of the story world and its rules? How can the author use them better?

Here’s an example from my own writing. In The Mage of Motor Avenue, the original ending had the protagonist kill the villain in self-defense, but I didn’t like that ending because it just didn’t seem plausible that Lois (the protagonist) couldn’t figure out another way.

The villain had been experimenting with animals and turning them into animal-weres and I wanted Lois to stop him (permanently!) but that ending just wasn’t working. It just wasn’t a thing Lois would do.

So as I was revising, I paused at the scene where a tiger-were hurts one of the others. This scene was about creating emotional stakes for Lois and the tiger-were was just a tool to create an emotional situation for Lois. I mean, it might as well have been a kitchen knife or an improperly extinguished cigarette butt for all that it mattered. It just so happened that it was a tiger-were who did it.

But the tiger-were was there. And I realized that a tiger-were that has already hurt one character could certainly be relied upon to hurt (even kill) another, and so I set the tiger-were on the villain. This took the burden of murder (even in self-defense) off of Lois and put it on an amoral party. It was also, I realized, a kind of poetic justice for the bad guy.

I didn’t impose something from outside the story (a lightning strike or a lucky accident) but used what was already there.

This is the same kind of thinking I apply to authors’ stories. I show authors how to use what’s already there to solve their story problems. That helps avoid the feeling that I’m telling them how I would write their stories and also gets them sleuthing for other solutions in their own ms.

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