Unpacking Your Assumptions about Fiction

If you’ve ever taken a class from me, you know that I have a pathological hatred of using questions in editorial queries. By this I mean asking questions like, “What is Joe’s motivation?” where you are, or think you are, asking the author to address the problem of Joe’s lack of motivation.

Use statements instead of questions

I discourage such queries because they do not provide the author with enough guidance. It is fairly common for authors to respond to such questions by engaging in a conversation with the editor, either in the queries or by email, which is inefficient and usually doesn’t produce any greater insight for either author or editor than stating the problem in the first place would have.

To avoid the conversation, you just make your questions into statements. “What is Joe’s motivation?” becomes, for example, “Consider stating Joe’s motivation here.” But avoiding unnecessary back-and-forth with the author is only one reason why using statements is important. By taking a moment to turn this question into a statement, you can gain greater insight into the problem. Maybe it isn’t that the author needs to state Joe’s motivation here. Maybe the problem is actually that Joe’s motivation isn’t sufficient to the demands of his actions.

In other words, if Joe forgot his wallet at the corner market, he might flag a cab and go back to get it. If Joe dropped a quarter on the floor of the corner market, he’s not going to spend the money on a cab to go back to get it. The motivation is not sufficient, unless it’s a very special quarter.

Or maybe the problem is that Joe’s characterization and his motivation don’t match. Just because his boss said an unkind word to him doesn’t mean any ordinary person would hire a hit man to take care of the problem. But if Joe has, then the author needs to characterize him in such a way that this is clearly something he would do. In this case, “Consider stating Joe’s motivation” isn’t the answer. The answer is, the author needs to characterize Joe in such a way that we can believe his boss saying an unkind word to him would motivate him to hire the hit man.

All of these are different aspects of the situation that won’t be revealed if you merely rely on the question, “What is Joe’s motivation?” to do the editorial work for you.

Becoming a better editor

This is why I often say that turning questions into statements helps you become a better editor; you learn more about the problem because you’re digging deeper into it. But now I also want to talk about another reason to stop using questions in the queries. This is about unpacking your assumptions about stories and how they’re told.

At some point in your editorial career, you shift from doing novice work, where you don’t always notice what’s going wrong, to what I call “practitioner,” which means you are competently able to identify most developmental problems mss typically have and provide some suggestions for ways that authors can address these problems. But to move from practitioner to expert, you have to do more than understand the application of technique. You have to have a theory, a framework for your decision-making.

Figuring out your framework

By focusing on making statements in your editorial queries, you begin to unpack your assumptions about what literature is, what makes a story good, and so on. I often recommend using the three-party query template to provide sufficient guidance to the author:

  1. Identify the developmental problem
  2. Explain why it’s a developmental problem for this ms
  3. Suggest a potential solution.

Each element is important, but it’s #2 that makes developmental editing an art that no computer will ever be able to do better than you can. We can say “use fewer adverbs” (and so can a computer) but until we can say why that matters for this particular ms, we’re just repeating writerly wisdom we’ve heard from other people.

You have to make that knowledge your own, and the way you do that is to test your assumptions. What is your theory of literature? How does fiction work? What makes it successful?  What does successful even mean? How is this different from what makes it good?

And the way you test your assumptions about fiction is to state them.

Let’s look at “Joe’s motivation isn’t clear here” again. Once you make that statement, you can test it for accuracy. Is it true that Joe’s motivation isn’t clear? Or is it just that Joe’s motivation is insufficient for the task at hand?

Once you’ve decided that it’s accurate, you can further test your assumptions: Why does it matter for this ms that Joe’s motivation isn’t clear? You might say, “Readers will lose interest in a character when they don’t understand why characters do the things they do.”

So far, so good. We can say that, yes, we have given up on stories where we don’t understand the reasons why characters do the things they do. So, one of our assumptions about stories is that characters should have rational, understandable motivations for their actions (even if people in real life often don’t). As readers, we care about the causes of things. This helps us make sense of the world. It’s how we establish meaning. So this is a perfectly valid assumption.

Let’s look at the “readers will lose interest” end of this statement. It implies that readers have certain expectations of characters and that for readers to engage with those characters, to invest time in them, they have to understand them. Establishing motivation is a means authors use to help readers understand character. This is an important part of the framework of the assumption we’re making (the assumption being that it is better to show character motivation than not to show character motivation).

An example

Once we’ve established these assumptions, we can also see that they are, in fact, assumptions and not givens or hard-and-fast rules like purple is spelled p-u-r-p-l-e. If, for example, an author is trying to show that we do actions and then make up a story to explain them afterward, “Show Joe’s motivation here” isn’t the right guidance.

Recently, I was re-reading Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic, a comic fantasy, in which the main character, Rincewind, is something of an anti-hero. His main goal in life is to avoid anything distasteful, unpleasant, and/or painful—so of course all kinds of dramatic and interesting things happen to him, which he hates.

Every now and then, though, he does something brave, gritting his teeth the entire time. He never knows why he does these brave things. If we were to say, “Show Rincewind’s motivation here,” we would be misunderstanding how to apply the principle of “Readers want to know why characters do the things they do.”

In this case, the comedy of the story is because Rincewind has no volition, no goal; he is acted upon and not acting. He is a plaything of fate and he truly resents it—as do we all. So we identify with him not because we are told his motivations but because we feel his essential humanity. In the story, it may be implied that fate is the reason why Rincewind sometimes does brave things to save other people, but we as readers know it is because he is human. There is no need for the author to state this anywhere.

By unpacking your assumptions about story, you will learn when to apply various frameworks to the mss you are editing, which will help you help the author write their story to the best of their ability.

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