Getting Out of the House

A writer I’ve worked with a couple of times as an editor dropped me a line last week saying thanks for the work I’d done on a book, and apologizing for (his words) making me work as hard as I had. When I reminded him that he’d actually paid me for the work and that I was totally okay with that arrangement, he responded that so many of the story and technical issues I’d caught for him in the text amounted to what he called “the obvious” — things he felt he should have caught himself, given the amount of time that he’d spend on the writing and his own editing and revisions. I responded with the following, which I repeat here with his permission.

Imagine you’re at home and you find yourself in a huge mother of a windstorm. It’s a bad storm. You can feel the walls shake. You can hear the windows rattle. You can hear the groaning of the foundation and the howling of the wind as it smashes against your four walls. But then the storm thankfully ends, and all that’s left is to assess possible damage and see what needs to be fixed.

Only you can’t leave the house for some reason. Maybe the storm came with flooding, which didn’t harm the house for the purpose of this analogy, but which prevents you from going out the door. Maybe you’ve suffered some traumatic injury and are doing the Jimmy Stewart thing from Rear Window. All you can do is assess the outside of the house from inside the house, sticking your head out the window to check the siding, looking up to the roof and down to what you can see of the foundation line. And in doing so, you’ll be able to check some areas of potential damage, but there’s always going to be a whole lot of the house you can’t see.

As writers, we spend all our time inside the house. When we create story, we live inside that story. We have to. It’s an essential part of the process of telling story — or at least the process of telling good story. We need to live within the narrative worlds we create so that our narrative voice is authentic to that world. We need to live alongside our characters so those characters can become as real as any of the people we live alongside in our nominal real worlds.

A writer that does the job properly is so focused on the interior of the story that someone poking around the outside of the narrative will always be able to spot occasional bits of the obvious more clearly. A good editor does that, noting the missing roof tiles and the place where the drain spout popped free. An editor notes which shingles are truly loose and which are just weathered. An editor looks for potential weak spots in the foundation that can’t be seen from inside the house, and gives the writer suggestions on how those weak spots might best be fixed.

If you’re a writer, spend as much time on your own editing and revision as you can. But don’t get uptight or frustrated over missing the obvious when an editor points it out to you. Even writers who are also editors (gives self-conscious wave) have this same problem of being forced to see from the inside out. Living inside the story is the best well to tell the story, so don’t fret that part of the process. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing your job. It means you’re doing your job the way it’s meant to be done.