Now we are back with another reading from Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist. From part two — Diagnosis Requires Sensibility and Craft:
The good editor's attention is focused on two things: the doings in the novel—and his reactions to those doings. He is on the alert for symptoms. But he must do this passively—leaving the task to his sensibility, not his intellect. If he registers no nasty symptoms that need removal, the editor should just rejoice and happily accept the thing as it is. He must banish any cerebral analysis of the displayed craft; he mustn't go looking for "rules" that have been broken.
Registering symptoms: Let's say the editor is reading a novel about five people who graduate in the same college class and go their separate ways. His sensibility notes that the thing seems to cough along with little sense of increasing momentum, just a rowboat surge and sag. The editor should immediately look for one of the usual causes of that symptom: once they have left college, the lives of the five don't braid, don't entwine into a humming cable of circuitry. The test exposes the fact that each life is separate from the others, and each time the author switches from one character to another, ignition is cut and the narrative RPMs drop toward zero. There have, of course, been successful novels with parallel but separate storylines that may finally come together only at the end. But if such a structure is successful, then diagnosis should never be applied, and its only allowable question—"Could this be the fault that needs remedy?"—will never arise. (A hint: When a novel with multiple discrete storylines nevertheless succeeds, notice how often all the characters are reacting to the same general situational energy-source—they're all in the same burning high-rise building, sinking ship, plague-stricken town.)
The setting helps out
It's sometimes tempting to describe solely the circuitry between characters and think the whole situation has been defined. "The situation is Ron is gay, and his boss, Ralph, hates gays." "The situation is a priest and a whore are isolated together." But situation is always more than just the way characters goad or attract. There's always some situational factor in the setting—"Ron's father owns the company," "Ron is dying of AIDS." And: Can the priest and the whore leave their isolation at will? Are there pressures of external danger or opportunity? Is there a clock ticking? How Laura the millionaire corporate president and Peter the mountain climber interact depends on their setting: Are they in her sixtieth-floor corner office, or on an Alp?
Author develops the optimal density of story
All that seems obvious, but there's value in saying it out loud, because there is a tendency for the writer to be too focused on an initial ingenious "high concept" situation. Consequently he fails to go beyond the polishing of a knockout three-line "pitch" (this "pitch" may be aimed at only one too-willing buyer—himself). Thus he fails to develop early enough (or ever) the optimal density of character and situation.
If the how-to-write books agree on anything, it's on the necessity for an issue, something at stake. Even the "portrait novel" usually requires that the sitters have desires either to gain something or to preserve something. The "novel of ennui" that arose and died in France had an issue—the desire for a desire. The issue was too vacuous, it was zero calories for the reader, no nourishment, no heat, and, like a celibacy cult, it was doomed.
Ah yes. Some situational factor that provides richness or suspense. Is there a clock ticking? Amazing how that adds zest to a story.