Installment III excerpting Thomas McCormack's classic about editing.
POV—and don't choke off the oxygen to my story !
Internal ailments in a novel can produce a wide variety of disappointed effects on the reader: a sense of the story's having missed some unnamable opportunity, of its not meeting us at the station, of its lacking a life-supporting temperature, of inertness, of inconsequence, of meaninglessness to events, of something, somewhere in the book, gone profoundly awry. Their causes include faults in the original setup of situation and cast; the misuse of "accident"; inconsistency of objective; defects in the characters' purpose, effort, action, promise, achievement, and interconnection.
Sometimes the generic remedy for a lethargic narrative is a "ticking clock"—that is, building an impending deadline into the storyline may provide the adrenalin needed. May. It's then up to the writer to create the specifics—the engaging, exciting, believable specifics that push the tense ticking beyond formulaic hackery.
Craft: Instinct tells you that something is wrong, and craft can tell you what is wrong. Young editors are taught very little in this area, and nothing systematic. When they are assistants, the explicit tutelage from their bosses, when it does have to do with analyzing the script, is likely to be fished out of a meager and idiosyncratic black bag of editing tricks the editor has collected. Each editor tends to have certain diagnostic specialties of his own—particular sorts of faults that he is highly alert to, and is wont to name again and again. Usually he has picked up these singular long-suits randomly—because of a personal bent of sensibility, or an early egregious flaw he once stumbled on in a novel, or some other accident of education (which is to say that editors are disposed to have a style, almost as authors do).
But it's a sign of something wrong when the contents of these editorial black bags are so sparse, trinkety, and various, with few common instruments to be found in any two of them. They call to mind a convention of clairvoyants, all of whom take as their basic lead the personality before them, but each using for the ceremony of his reading his own preferred conjuring device—cards, leaves, stars, 0uija.
Let's start by citing a typical, crucial element in the craft of narrative fiction writing: point of view. Editors will breezily comment that POV is child's play, that naturally one is on top of simple stuff like this. But one is not. POV is far more subtle, complicated, and permeant than the average editor ever suspects. He thinks, because he knows what "unreliable narrator" means, he is one savy guy about POV. He will say, "'Well, naturally you don't change the point of view abruptly, or three times on a page, so the reader doesn't know where he stands."
He will say this, but then seldom notice explicitly when it is done: Every week you can buy a published novel sharded by just such blunders. But POV is more than a question of holding the camera steady. And it's even more than the basic question of where to position the camera in the first place—though you do regularly see novels miscarry because of an elementary error in choosing first or third person, or the wrong eyes, or the wrong distance. Regardless of what POV is chosen, there is an almost unlimited density of sensation available to the lens—but it does not all pass through. The author imposes a filter, some part of which is natural to him and essentially unalterable; but another part is alterable at will, and when it is changed, the effect on the reader can be profound without his ever being able to specify the cause. I know of two novels of recent times that were seizingly successful right up to the final act, where an almost subliminal but nevertheless suffocating tightening of POV cut off a vital supply to the brain—and stunted the books. The authors have told me that in neither instance did the editor comment on this in the script. If you switch from Jane's POV to John's to Ralph's to the dog's and the result is like a dropped deck of cards, the editor may notice. But if, while maintaining Jane's POV, you zoom back so far it has changed from 'third person character-view' to 'third person remote-limited', the reduction in the 'personal' things he is hearing may give the editor a vague sense his partner seems different these days, and he may even register a new formalness to her demeanor. Still he is unlikely to think it's his duty to judge whether this is a good or bad sensation to give the reader, and he's even less likely ever to trace the cause back to specific POV filterings. If the rich flow of detail through 'her eyes' perseveres, but no longer contains in-skull reports of feelings and intentions, the sensitive reader will feel it, albeit without being able to name explicitly what's happening. In the two recent novels I mentioned, the reader feels the way he would if, without a word of harshness or explanation, he were quietly 'dropped' by a friend.