Pros: Entertaining, interesting, informative, useful
Rating: 5 out of 5
First published 3/15/2002
Note: I reviewed a now out-of-print edition of this book (the Amazon box on the left); there is now a revised edition (the Amazon box on the right)
There are few things more disconcerting to learn from a writing book than the fact that some of your teachers taught you all the wrong things. This was my experience with “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” – written by an editor formerly of William Morrow (as well as other publishers). Okay, to be fair, I only learned that in the section on dialogue. It was still distressing, though. And I did learn a number of other things – either things that I just hadn’t thought of consciously before, or things that clarified issues of writing.
“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” teaches you all the things you need to know in order to avoid a lot of the red ink that editors will scribble all over your manuscripts. Hopefully it will teach you a number of things that will help to avoid those faceless rejection slips, as well. While some of these issues are covered nicely in fiction classes, I find it odd that others often aren’t. It seems as though teachers of introductory level classes don’t bother because they know most of their students won’t be pros anyway and will never use this stuff, while teachers of intermediate classes seem to assume that you’ve already learned this material.
It used to be that publishing companies had more time to pour into coaching their writers; editors would catch most of these problems. Now it seems that more of these mistakes and typos make it into the final product, even if you’re published with a good company. Because they don’t have the time to put into editing your work, they’re less likely to take manuscripts that aren’t pretty clean to begin with.
This is where this book comes in.
The book works with plenty of examples, both made up and from real literature. The authors show us why we probably shouldn’t write like many famous but long-dead authors – standards of writing have changed, and what worked once is often considered “wrong” today. There are amusing examples from manuscripts the authors have seen. There are tricky examples to help you see where writing that is technically good can be improved upon. There are exercises to give you some practice.
The first chapter is “Show and Tell.” It covers the old idea of showing rather than telling – but it deals with concrete examples. It covers specific strategies, things to look for in your writing that indicate a problem, and so on. This is a very practical book! “Characterization and Exposition” helps us to see how we can get information across to the reader (such as characterization) without writing swaths of exposition. It shows us some “hidden” exposition types, and gives us some tricks for replacing exposition with something more interesting.
“Point of View” discusses the advantages and disadvantages of your various point of view options. It helps with strategies for making your different options work, and examples of what not to do. “Dialogue Mechanics” was my favorite; it debunks some popular misconceptions of how to write dialogue, and it does it so clearly (as always, with examples) that it was easy to see not just why the authors think they’re right, but the differences their advice will make to your writing!
The book goes on, with chapters on See How It Sounds, Interior Monologue, Easy Beats, Breaking Up Is Easy To Do, Once Is Usually Enough, Proportion, Sophistication, and Voice.
All In All…
It’s an amazing book. No rules laid down without explanation – this book is all about teaching you to understand your writing. Why things work, why things don’t, and most importantly, how to fix things. The suggestions come with concrete strategies and examples, rather than sweeping (empty) statements. If that weren’t enough, the book is full of entertaining anecdotes and even a few amusing cartoons. In short, every professional writer (or writer trying to walk down that road) should have a copy of this book nearby and well-read!