To see what fiction-editing craft might be, start by looking at the faults it’s intended to detect. There are two kinds: surface faults and internal faults. A surface fault is local, as immediately evident to the naked eye as a skin blemish. You can point at specific words that constitute it. Most surface faults do not produce delayed reactions.
They include failures of diction, grace, freshness, materiality, credibility, pace, vividness, understandability, interest. These dermal components—blemishes and triumphs together—because they are on the surface, don’t require special craft to detect. They require diligence, solid training in English, a good sensibility. Given these qualities, any editor can tweeze, scrub, and buff, so that at least the skin of the script will be acceptable to the eye.
The largest, the most basic faults, the internal failures, don’t betray themselves with one smoking phrase. They don’t, in general, lie on the surface of the novel. They can’t be recognized at once as faults. They may have no obvious fixed address in the manuscript; often, indeed, the problem is that something has been omitted entirely. And sometimes they are composites, an element becoming a flaw only because a succeeding element doesn’t consummate. This means you can’t possibly recognize it as a flaw when you first read it: A “promise”, tacitly made by the author to the reader early on, can be an enhancing enticement; but if it is thereafter ignored, not resolved either by fulfilment or surprising, justified reversal, it becomes a flaw in the book. What qualifies it as a flaw is that ultimately it leaves an unwanted negative feeling in the attentive reader. Irrelevance is in effect a failure of promise.
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 unnameable 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. Since these causes don’t lie on the surface, they’re harder to identify, like a missing vitamin, an allergy, a secret spinal bend. The patient lives, but is listless and halt. And, woefully, the patient’s doctor often doesn’t see the condition as something wrong and remediable. We wish he had more snap, but that’s just the way he is. The diagnosis of these ailments requires more than dermatology. Identifying the bug, the chemical imbalance, the anatomical fault, can defy the most determined scrutiny if the examiner relies solely on intuition. What’s needed is an analysis that is canny, informed, fundamental, sensible, technical, systematic, and thorough. What’s needed is craft.
From Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist (2006).