My most recent writing and editing project has been an autobiography. Not my own, not at my age. I’ve been part of a project to assist a local woman to compile all her journals, notes, previous memoir attempts, and all the other bits and pieces of her history. The question our team has come back to over and over is this: what is the story here?
A lot of the editing I’ve done has been fiction. When an author writes fiction, they have a story and direction in mind. There are exceptions of course: I had a writing professor in college who held that the greatest literature had no plot whatsoever. We didn’t get along so well. Back to the point though. Fiction comes with a direction built in. When I do content editing for a fiction piece, I am trying to help the author focus the writing on what strengthens that idea that he already has. It may need fleshing out in one spot, or it may need unimportant bits trimmed off, but the idea is there.
With the story of a real person’s life, it isn’t so clear. There is a lot of work involved in finding the story. A story isn’t just a series of events, it has a direction and a meaning (even a grey goo story where the meaning is “there is no meaning to anything”). There are stories in a person’s life, but they’re not always as obvious. Part of a writer’s job (with the help of an editor sometimes) is to give the reader just the parts they need to understand and appreciate the story. As readers, we don’t need to see each step of a character making dinner, or every time someone stopped to use the restroom, unless it’s relevant to the story or helps us understand the character in an important way. With a biography, we have to find what the story will be so that we can focus on that. Some of that may come from the subject himself: what did he think was most important in life? Into what did he put the most effort? What had the biggest impact on his experience and actions? As we learn more about the person, our direction may change – it’s changed at least twice in this project, homing in on what makes her life so interesting.
As editors, we have to develop an eye for this kind of thing. What draws people in, what makes this story worth reading? How can we emphasize those aspects? Then we go to the implementation. Where is the story thin, that it needs more details? Where do we need to cut out unimportant distractions? What are the most important events and people? Why are they the most important?
So how do we develop that? Do what you do anyway: read. Read everything you can find. Then dissect it: why was a particular book or story effective? What drew you in? That’s the difference between a consumer and a fellow craftsman. The consumer takes in the story, enjoys it or not, and moves on to another. A craftsman wants to understand how it works and why, and he works at it. There is no substitute for that. Find the story, identify it, and add the tools that brought it out effectively to your toolbox.