Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Writing how-to: There is no "try", do or do not.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King
Published by The Editorial Department, 1993

It’s almost enough to scare a non-published writer away from the whole business: “Self-editing is probably the only editing your manuscript will ever get.”

But maybe that’s a good thing. Sink or swim, as they say. If you’re not willing to do the serious work to make your manuscript the best you can, you’re probably not offering something to the readers that’s worth their time. From what I’ve been seeing on the bookshelves, too many authors are getting published way before their manuscripts are good enough.

They also say that the best way to learn editing is from editors, and these two have enough cred for me.

I decided to take my writing as far as I can. I’ve spent my own money (earned from a part-time job) on books for research, spent untold hours on the internet for research, spent years writing various parts of my current Work in Progress: to chuck all that because I’m not sure how good I can edit my own stuff would be a colossal waste. Besides, Neal won’t let me.  He's laid a geis on me.

He guilts me into continuing by telling me that he depends on me to tell the story, and keeps ranting that it must be told. He can’t write it in his dimension and transport the manuscript to mine, so I have to do the writing work.

*sigh* I had no idea, many years ago, that people I can’t touch and can only see sometimes would completely take over my life. “Nobody told me there’d be days like these.”

I do have questions about the relevancy of a how-to book published 17 years ago. I don’t agree with everything Browne and King say, though I don’t know if conventions have changed or I just don’t grasp the point. Either is possible. ;)

But this is still a great book! Browne and King don’t talk down to writers, they say there’s more than one way to do things, and something I really like is that they give exercises using real manuscripts. At the end of the book they offer their answers, adding that somebody reading out there might come up with a better way to do it. It’s fun to rewrite John le Carré or Lewis Carroll. There are examples from workshops Browne and King have given and examples of early drafts of well-known novels.

To illustrate how different people see the same writing, they include reviews of well-known authors or books. I get a perverse kick out of reading a less-than-glowing review of Anne Rice. But chances are that because she’s established a fan base, she’s going to keep selling even if some people think her writing is slipping.

“Self-Editing” also offer checklists, synopses of each chapter in the form of bulleted lists. This is great for reminding yourself of the high points, but I’d recommend rereading the whole book periodically anyway. Like a gripping novel, this book doesn’t waste time or words. It tells you exactly what you need to know and why, because in writing, you have to know why you’re doing or not doing something.

Browne and King helped convince me to keep writing and to get better at editing myself. They also confirmed - unintentionally on their part, I’m sure - that while a writer can aim to please as many readers as possible, she or he will never please everybody. Even among his immense fan base, Isaac Asimov sometimes disappointed. Even he had manuscripts turned down.

I really don’t think there is one perfect way to tell a story, because every reader puts their own spin on it. If I spend ten years on a project, and have it published believing I’ve gotten across every point and every scene exactly “as the story demanded”, there will still be people who don’t like the whole thing, people who will say I used too many adverbs, people who say I used too much internal monologue and people who say I didn’t use enough. I can’t put my vision of the story into peoples’ heads. Moviemakers can’t do that either. I’ll get as close as I can, I will wrestle and fret and rewrite, but I’ll still expect that some people just won’t get on board. That’s fine, I’m not happy with everything I read either. There will always be a bunch of authors to choose from.

But I digress. I also like Browne and King because they realized the contributions of the company pets to the book project were at least as valuable as what the humans offered. As somebody who deals with unauthorized lap landings from one of the cats while I’m trying to write, this is important!


  1. I bought this book over a year ago. I bought I used for $5.00 and it has been the best five dollars I have ever spent in my life. If I lost eh book, I'd buy it again in a heartbeat-full price. Great book to learn the basics. Their explanation of POV was by far my favorite part. Two thumbs up!!

  2. Hey Laura, nice of you to stop by :)

    Yeah, the book is a keeper. I like how Browne and King keep what they say real. They don't throw grammatical or publishing terms around that would just confuse a lot of us.

    Happy writing!