Where I Turned to Learn How to Edit

Just about everywhere I could.

I asked seasoned book editors who told me that editing depended on what kind of Story was being told. You didn’t edit a Mystery in the same way you edited a Love Story or a Thriller or a Coming of Age novel. Each kind of Story has its own conventions and obligatory scenes.

There are also two kinds of editing: global editing and line-by-line editing. Copyediting is a separate discipline, a grammar, spelling, and punctuation checking stage that Story Editors left to the specialists. I breathed a sigh of relief. I didn’t much care for that kind of stuff. I wanted to decipher what made me burn through books like The Bourne Identity and Red Dragon far more than knowing the best use for a semicolon.

Okay, so editing first depended on the kind of Story being told, what Genre it fit into. That made sense, but weren’t there some hard and fast principles that all Stories had in common? Was there some sort of fundamental unit of Story that could be deconstructed? How would you do that?

Prior to entering book publishing, in one of my past enthusiasms after College, I studied Acting. During that humbling experience, I’d learned how to break down a scene. How to figure out what the intention of the writer was and then extrapolate truthful actions that I could take to make the purpose of the scene clear to the audience. At it’s most basic a scene starts one place and ends another. It starts with a positive (Man meets woman of his dreams) and ends with a negative (woman rejects man’s advances). Or it starts with a negative (rejected man meets up with his best friend for consolation) and ends with a positive (friend convinces rejected man to buck up and try again). It can also begin negative and end double negative (someone falls…and then gets hit by a car) or positive and end double positive (man wins a hand of blackjack, puts it all on a number at roulette table and wins big)…  A scene changes value. The value at stake in the first example is love.  In the second example it’s life. And in the third example it’s wealth.  That’s about it.

Simple, but I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where the scenes just never shift valences. They never turn. And when the words you’ve written don’t turn, they do not form a scene.

I was attracted to a newish Acting philosophy that came out of a bunch of classes that David Mamet and William H. Macy (star of Shameless) taught at New York University in the early 1980s. It was called the Practical Aesthetics Workshop. Mamet and Macy were (and still are) all about de-Bullshitting stuff. Mamet’s love of language and the crystal clear dramatic confrontations in his work always appealed to me. (Full disclosure, I am now David Mamet’s Literary Agent)

What Mamet and Macy put forth just made sense. They offered a means to make the theory of acting (how to authentically give an audience a truth while living in a lie of fake circumstances) practical. They gave me a process to make choices and then a means to practice those choices. They gave me tangible things to do so that I could get better on stage. If you want to get stronger, you don’t think about the proper way to life weights. You learn the proper way and then you actually lift weights. Pretty simple.

We need this approach for editing too. Figure out the work and then do it.

PAW is a stoic, blue collar, no talent required if you work your ass off kind of philosophy. And while I eventually abandoned my quest to become the next Daniel Day Lewis, the training proved incredibly helpful when I did find my calling. I’ll get more into what I learned at PAW and why it is such a crucial skill for an editor to have later on when I take a deep dive into the scene. But for now, suffice it to say that Mamet and Macy’s method to deconstruct the fundamental unit of a novelist, a playwright or a screenwriter’s Storytelling is a Godsend. Read A Practical Handbook for the Actor, the meat of what came out of Mamet and Macy’s lectures and the foundation of The Atlantic Theater Company in New York. It’s so simple, direct and easy to understand, it’s mind blowing.

Now understanding how to throw a knuckleball is one thing. Doing it well is another. Same with Acting. And writing of course. But understanding lends itself to repetition of action, which is the only way to get good at anything.

So with a skill I thought was a waste of time learning after I left the drudgery of living the starving New York Actor life, I was able to apply a rigor to analyzing scenes in the novels that crossed my boss’s desk.

I knew when a scene worked and when it didn’t. And that has made all of the difference in my career.

For new subscribers and OCD Story nerds like myself, all of The Story Grid posts are now in order on the right hand side column of the home page beneath the subscription shout-out.

6 comments on “Where I Turned to Learn How to Edit

  1. Jeff says:

    “If you want to get stronger, you don’t think about the proper way to life weights. You learn the proper way and then you actually lift weights.”

    Love this. Thank you for sharing this stuff Shawn.

    Quick question: you mentioned A Practical Handbook for the Actor — how does that compare with Mamet’s own True and False?

    1. Shawn Coyne says:

      Great to hear from you. Well Mamet’s TRUE AND FALSE is mainline Mamet at its best. It’s one of my favorite books because it has all of the telltale language and way of thinking of the master himself. That’s Mamet being Mamet.

      A Practical Handbook for the Actor, however, was written by the founding members of The Atlantic Theater Company and is very very practical indeed. There is no pontificating beyond directing the reader (they’re speaking to actors, but writers need this information even more than actors) to do this, and then this and then this. If you follow their advice, you will read through scenes like you never thought possible. It’s not mumbo jumbo either. It’s rational, reasonable and convincing. And it’s like less than 200 pages too.
      Thanks for joining up Jeff!

      1. Jeff says:

        Thanks for the reply, Shawn. I’ve already ordered A Practical Handbook for the Actor. But now I’ll have to get Mamet’s book too : )

    2. Tina Goodman says:

      I think that “life” weights is a typo. Correct?

  2. For the past month the universe has been schooling me in the art of the scene. It’s probably because I’m ready and I’m looking, but everywhere I turn, I’m reading one more thing I haven’t been doing right with my scenes.

    Glad I have a million books to write, so I can eventually get this stuff right.

  3. Cassandra says:

    I’m learning so much from every post I read. Thank you for all this awesome information!

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