Sunday, January 13, 2013

Books for Writers #1 - Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Back when I was a reckless teen and computers trembled in my presence, I thought that my writing would get better just through practice. The word just is important here. I used to think that if I wrote a lot, about whatever I wanted, my writing would improve.

I was on the right track, I guess, but there were some major flaws in my logic.

While constant practice is an important factor, it's not the only thing you should rely on to get your writing in shape. You need to use different tools to mold the craft, because it ain't gonna fix itself!

My main advice to improve your writing is:

1) Read everything: good books, bad books. If you can discern between good and bad writing, great! Don't plagiarize other authors, but pay attention to how they show a scene, how they express the story on the page. See where and how they end their chapters. What moves you? Why? Go back and revise the scene and find the parts that especially caught your attention. The dialogue? The nuances hidden in the action?

2) Share: shed your fears and shyness and join a writing group. Critique Circle is a fabulous one. Put on your thick skin cloak and have other people critique your work--but also be ready to give critiques. I've learned as much giving critiques as receiving  them. The people on Critique Circle have taught me so much, any form of "thank you" wouldn't be enough!

3) Study writing help books: This is the point I'd like to expand in the next few weeks. We use textbooks when studying languages, chemistry and mathematics, so why not use textbooks to study how to write? In the next few weeks, I'm going to comment on several books that will certainly help you hone your craft.

This week's selection might come as a surprise. An editing book? Shouldn't it come last--after the writing is done? Maybe. Maybe not. This week's book is so great it can help you even if you haven't started typing up your story!

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is an excellent reference book with reasonable and well thought out suggestions. That's what I like most about it: the authors don't lay down the law. Instead, they gently guide the reader toward the stylistic conventions that work best.

I read this book when I was about halfway through the second draft of my debut novel Serving Time. The second draft could actually be better defined as a complete rewrite, so most of the material was new. After studying the tips and examples in this book, I applied all the new knowledge to everything I wrote--and improved the quality of my work. This is the reason why Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is the first book I'd like to share. If you skim through it before you've completed your manuscript, you'll immediately be able to apply the advice from then on.

In the twelve chapters that comprise Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Browne and King give advice on showing versus telling, characterization and exposition, point of view, dialogue mechanics, interior monologue, voice, and much more.

Each chapter contains example passages to highlight the main topic. Many times, the examples are taken from well-known works such as The Great Gatsby and Gone with the Wind, combined with edgier works such as Stephen King's Dreamcatcher. Sometimes the authors switch around elements in the examples to show different narrative possibilities. It's an interesting and enlightening approach.

At the end of each chapter, you'll find a checklist with the main points so you can make sure you're applying all the tips in your own work. For example, here's just one item from the checklist you'll find in Chapter 1: Show and Tell.

  • Are you describing your characters' feelings? Have you told us they're angry? irritated? morose? discouraged? puzzled? excited? happy? elated? suicidal? Keep an eye out for any places where you mention an emotion outside of dialogue. Chances are you're telling what you should show. Remember to R.U.E. [Resist the Urge to Explain]

What's more, at the end of each chapter you'll also find several exercises to practice what you just learned. An added perk is that the book actually contains answers at the back, so you can compare your answers to the solutions the authors suggest. Here's an example exercise, found at the end of Chapter 8: Easy Beats:

A) First, try editing out beats that don't work.

  "You're sure it runs?" Mr. Dietz said.
  I leaned against the fender. "It did last time I tried it."
  "Yeah, well, when was that?" He peered through the back window.
  I picked at some dirt under my fingernails. "Just last week. Here, listen." I pulled out the key, hopped in the front seat, inserted the key, drew the choke, popped it into neutral, and hit the starter. The engine sounded a few times, caught, and the sputtered and died. I pumped the gas once or twice and tried again. This time it caught and began to purr.
  "Well, I don't know. It sounds all right, but I don't like the looks of the body." He kicked the tire.

Overall, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is a pleasant and informative read. I highly recommend it to all writers, whether seasoned or novice. Everyone can benefit from the advice, examples and exercises. For more information, check the link in the book title above, or go to Renni Browne's website.

Happy writing!


  1. This is great advice! I've always been an edit-as-I-go-along kind of writer, perhaps even to my own detriment, but I much prefer to leave as little work as possible for the second draft. There's probably going to be enough to do, even with the tweaks along the way! =)

  2. Great resource, Nadine. Thank you.

  3. Uncle! I'll buy it! I usually balk at paying more for a Kindle version than a paperback, but I'm stuck overseas. Since publishing my first book, I've had trouble revising (indeed, finishing!) its sequel, so maybe this comprehensive refresher course is the kick up the backside I need. Thanks.

    And you are so right about Critique Circle. Without that welcoming, supportive community of writers (of all ages, writing levels and backgrounds!), I never would have gotten off that backside and published.
    --Lindy Moone (Lindymoon at CC)

  4. Thanks, guys! I'd like to point out that even though I'm recommending an editing book, I DON'T recommend skipping the helpful eye of an editor. This book is meant to help writers, but it is not meant to replace a professional.

  5. Hi Nadine! I found you through a comment you made on the IndeReCon site. Looking forward to reading more:-) I'm going to go check out this book as I just finished my first draft of my first ever novel and could use all of the help I can get!

    1. Hi Gina! Great to meet you! Yeah, I'm really excited about IndieReCon. I'm sure Self-Editing for Fiction Writers will really help you. It's full of useful advice.

      See you at IndieReCon! :-)

  6. This was the first writing book I bought. I loved it so much I hired Dave King to edit my first manuscript. He's brilliant!


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