Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King

This text is an invaluable guide that has earned an honored place on my shelf beside other excellent craft books. Browne and King provide honest straightforward guidance to becoming more objective and competent at editing your own work. Editors at publishing houses may be too busy to give a book the time and attention it may need, so it is in your best interest to present the best product you can to a publisher and to your readers. They do not disparage the value of having readers or working with a writers’ group, but they do say that teaches you what other critics may want you to write. They point out that some excellent writers may not be very good editors. Besides, “you want to write the book you want to write. The best solution is still to learn to edit yourself (Browne p. 3).”

The first chapter is devoted to “Show and Tell” in which they explain how to show your readers the action rather than resort to expository paragraphs. Telling can be useful for getting across the nature of your characteristics but writers should “RUE, or resist the urge to explain (Browne p. 16),” too much. RUE is the typical margin notation warning of not enough action. Character action is a much more effective method of demonstrating emotion. They advise to include “beats” which are physical action instead of describing. Using beats helps to vary the rhythm of the narrative and helps to “remind your readers of where your characters are and what they are doing (Browne p. 8).”

Browne and King provide “Checklists” to help the writer review their own manuscript and determine whether there are too many narrative passages. Read your work to see if you are “telling” or describing feelings instead of “showing” by using action scenes. Some writers may make the mistake of not using enough narrative writing. They may be “bouncing from scene to scene (Browne p. 20).” Try for a successful balance between action and narrative. These checklists at the end of each chapter are a concise tallying of points every writer should be using to review and revise their manuscript.

In describing characters, the novice writer must be careful to not confine the development of the characters by too much detail. Characters should be allowed to develop within the plot. Too much detail and definition can “box in” your characters and influence both how they grow and readers’ expectations. You do not need to write character summaries. Let the reader get to know them gradually (Browne p. 26).

The authors spend several chapters on point of view and the use of dialogue and later in the book they discuss voice which is, of course, related. The writer must determine which point of view works best for a particular work and characters. They reference William Faulkner as a master of voice and point of view but he chose what was appropriate for each story (Browne p. 219). Regarding dialogue, “Your characters come alive – or fail to - when they speak (Browne p. 83).” Writers must resist using too many explanations or mechanical tricks in dialogue if they wish to sound authentic. Telling how a character feels is “lazy writing.” Tighten your writing by cutting “virtually every ‘-ly’ you write (Browne p. 87).” Dialogue is an effective way to include action in place of, “he said.” Make an effort to have your dialogue sound like real speech. This is particularly important when your story includes foreign-born people. Stilted words sound like stiff characters. It is important to “capture the rhythms of real speech” and “to give a sense that the words you write are words real people would actually speak (Browne p. 112).”

I began reading the original first published edition of this book. I liked it so much that I decided to buy the new revised edition published in 2004. There were some elements I missed from the old version, particularly their examples from classic literature, but the authors included many newer more modern references that probably have greater appeal to younger writers. All illustrations are cartoons by George Booth of The New Yorker Magazine fame. They add a delightful and whimsical sense of humor to the text. An extensive section in the back, gives answers and responses to the exercises throughout the book making it a great tool for someone teaching the craft of writing as well as for writers. Browne and King also include an excellent index and a reference section that recommends other writing books.

In conclusion this book is a great resource every writer should own. It is written in a lively entertaining prose that keeps the reader’s attention while teaching them the basics of editing and revision.

Browne, Renni and King, Dave. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. HarperCollins. New York. 2004.

18 February 2009

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