Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Drive-Thru Book Review: Self-Editing for the Fiction Writer

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How To Edit Yourself Into Print
by Renni Browne and Dave King
ISBN: 0-06-270061-8

I'm nearing the end of the digitization/first rewrite stage of my 2009 NaNovel. I'm pleased with myself, as this is the first of my three NaNo entries I've read completely and bothered to type into digital form. (I bottomed out in the first third of 2008's novel, and 2007's shall not be Spoken Of Here.) Revisiting a draft done in such a hurry is wince-inducing: beyond the obvious like fluctuating character names and all the "do in rewrite" footnotes, I find myself struggling with mixing dialog and action, wanting to spell out every character's motions in every scene, and trying to understand just what exactly is meant in writing books by "show, not tell." Self-Editing has come to my rescue.

I happened on this book two weeks ago when I was at the bookstore, flicked through the pages, and though it looked like a worthwhile read. My library had a copy, and I just finished reading through it last night. Chapters are (with my comments):

1) Show and Tell [examples of exactly that]
2) Characterization and Exposition [avoid the latter via the former]
3) Point of View [first person, third person, omniscient]
4) Dialogue Mechanics [just what it sounds like]
5) See How It Sounds [read your prose aloud]
6) Interior Monologue [how to do it]
7) Easy Beats [handling excessive "stage business" in your scenes]
8) Breaking Up Is Easy To Do [using whitespace for pacing]
9) Once Is Usually Enough [don't repeat]
10) Proportion [focus on what's important]
11) Sophistication [don't write like a novice]
12) Voice [your characters need distinction]

Each chapter presents before-and-after samples of prose, typically pulled from contemporary works (this edition dates from 1993), though peppered with illustrative text from classics. I thrive on examples, and this book did not disappoint, except for the nagging feeling that my own draft neatly illustrates almost all the "before" problems. Sigh. Exercises are presented at the end of each chapter, with an answer key in the back -- more examples, really, as they illustrate how the authors (both editors) would have refined the passages. I skimmed over these after reading the chapters in my eagerness to get to the next one.

The tone in the book is light and instructive, not scolding, and at least the first edition comes with the occasional cartoon from George Booth -- if you've flicked through a New Yorker magazine in the past decade, you've seen his work. They're not necessary, but fun (and often featuring typewriters, so hey, on-topic for the blog.) This is a very approachable work for novice and amateur writers, and I can see how applying the lessons from the chapters can make my own work tighter and more readable. Once I finish retyping it, that is.


Elizabeth H. said...

I just picked up this book from the library myself, thanks to your mention of it a post or two back. I'm looking forward to looking through it. Thanks for the run-down!

deek said...

I just sent a sample of the book to my Kindle. If it looks good, I'll have to figure out if I want to buy it on Kindle (less than the price of new) or delve into getting a cheapy on the used market.

mpclemens said...

@deek: Check the link I made on the ISBN to That's pretty much my source for used-book happiness if I can't find it locally.

deek said...

Thanks, Mike. I've never heard of, so this is a great tool to have in my book hunting arsenal!

J.A. said...

I teach writing on occasion and am always on the lookout for a good 'self help' book to recommend. Thanks Mike!

Anonymous said...

I can only learn through examples, except for my short attention span (this is why I failed chemistry 102). But I'll poke around my library and see if they have it. You've almost convinced me with hardly any words at all. (coincidence?)