When I read a manuscript, I am looking for cumulative effect. Most obvious for its presence—or absence—in short story collections, this is the sense that the pieces (or stories), when taken together, form something altogether new. And what is newly created transcends (sometimes mysteriously) and is more powerful than the sum of its pieces. What I hope to experience when I read a collection of, say, ten stories is a sense that meaning and effect encompasses all ten, and then goes on to resonate or ripple outward, occupying a larger imaginative space than “ten of these.”
What Valerie and I are hoping to do with NA is to create—to be—cumulative effect. Because of the way we work together, because we share the view that there is no end to what we can learn, because we both work to tell writers everything we know, because we trust each other’s experience and expertise, and because we know well we have much to learn from each other—we feel we offer something greater than the sum of our added-up ideas and knowledge.
Editing—like writing—is a solitary endeavour. To really get inside a piece of writing, to apprehend the rhythm and shape and intent of the words on the page, is to enter something of a meditative state—and this has to be done alone and in a quiet place. (It feels to me that I am not just seeing as I read, but hearing too.)
Yet there is a way in which editing—like writing—can be collaborative. When Valerie and I first started talking to each other about our work as editors, I was struck by our similar sensibilities and approaches, and struck too by how much I enjoyed being pushed by this intelligent and sensitive and respectful reader to think more deeply, to focus more finely, to get closer to the kernel of truth of what I say to writers, and to examine more carefully how I say it. It was exhilarating to know I was doing more in my solitary work because of conversations I was having with another editor. It was a comfort and an inspiration to be suddenly (or so it felt) part of such a meaningful community.
And once we realized the effect we could have on each other, we developed a conviction that if we benefitted from this charge, this spark that pushed each of us to look at our practice in a deeper way, then a writer in need of feedback would have a richer experience too.
Editing (reading and feeling and noticing and articulating) is creative, and we are always examining our responses, looking for new ways in to understanding the process and results of writing, and motivating each other to be better. We transfer creative and critical energy back and forth between us, and and our aim is to share that energy with you.
We love to talk about writing—about the process, about the results. So let’s talk.
Bethany began by describing one of the qualities that sets a fine novel or story collection apart—cumulative effect, or the sense that “the pieces (or stories), when taken together, form something altogether new” whose “meaning and effect … resonate or ripple outward.” It’s an ambitious goal, one a writer must work to achieve. How do we hope to help writers build the kind of novel or story collection that surpasses its apparent possibilities?
Part of the answer is that we focus in our work on emergence. Emergence is a concept from game design that refers to the way, in a well-designed game system, many possibilities arise from a simple set of rules. Emergent systems are compelling because they’re unpredictable and have the potential for complex interactions. No other quality of a game is as important. Yet in terms of potential for emergence, game design has nothing on the world-expanding experience of writing fiction.
Facilitating this effect—of complexity arising out of simplicity—is at the heart of how we guide, critique and advise. Editing, for us, is not direction: we want to support the writer in their own exploration.
We hope our creative guidance will encourage an emergent experience for the writer. This might manifest as a feeling that the novel or story has lifted off, that its characters have developed minds of their own, or that the story is expanding outward in many directions. Or it might strike the writer as a feeling that the story has suddenly become easier to write or reimagine.
In workshops, we strive to support writers by cultivating a spirit of community in the room and by monitoring the delicate balance of honesty and generosity on which good collaboration relies. It’s an easy task—writers are nice people. And of course we’re all moving toward the same goals: achieving creative growth and making fiction that will be wonderful to read.
We’re eager to read what you’ve written.