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Thomas McCormack’s The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (Paul Dry, 1988) is a standard guide for editors of novels. Similar (and better) works now offer a more schematic approach. I’ll review the related Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer (William Morrow Paperbacks, 1993) here later. As an editor of novels, I sought out this standard and even learned a few things—and all despite McCormack’s abrasive messiness.

After torching his industry and his colleagues, McCormack makes recommendations drawn from long experience. He is funny and self-deprecating, and he genuinely cares about fiction. While his ideas should be given more rigorously, McCormack finally gets at what makes bad editing and thus bad novels: a lack of sensibility, craft, and art.

The guide begins from a tricky premise: good editors have an artistic sensibility, and sensibility cannot be taught. In McCormack’s view, editors are born. And that birthright makes editors the taste buds of the intended audience. It’s imperative both editor and audience share taste. For this reason an editor who hates romance novels should not edit them.

This sensibility manifests as what McCormack calls “prelibation,” a craving for what the narrative suggests is next for the reader. (Imagine a mouth salivating at the thought of lemon-ade.) Sensitivity to this craving allows the editor to make two major revisions: eliminate insults to the reader’s taste, and remedy disappointments.

McCormack grounds his discussion in craft, such as in with pace and character relations. “Time factor,” a sense of urgency, should drive the plot and ideally make for a page-turner. “Circuitry,” the dynamic connections between characters, should be meaningful and not one-dimensional. But as with most practical advice, these notions are helpful yet forgettable.

McCormack is most insightful when he discusses “master effect”—a term I’m stealing. “The master-effect is the cerebral and emotional impact that the author wants the book as a whole to have,” McCormack states. The writer herself may have an implicit understanding of the master effect. But the editor needs to know explicitly what it is so she can shape the novel to that end.

Think of a Rube Goldberg machine: the editor must know it’s a mousetrap.

For McCormack, art is an unfathomable ocean that the editor approaches from the shore. New craft occasionally washes up, such as the modernist technique of stream-of-consciouness from occult séances. The writer’s task is to plunge the depths of this ocean. The editor, however, must sense when the writer should dive deeper. She must sense, for example, when to request a new scene or character—sensibility leads the editor to imagine what art the novel desires.

The structure of McCormack’s work makes it difficult to review concisely. He presents his ideas pell-mell while stabbing at shadows (past editing colleagues, one presumes). The book is divided into roughly equal parts. The first includes the major topics here. The second contains random observations that feel shouted backward as the editor storms from the room. Despite this messiness, the master effect of McCormack’s book is to give editors and writers a pugnacious hope for such absurd truths as sensibility, craft, and art.