Every time I pick up Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print by Renni Browne and Dave King, it’s like drinking a hot tea with honey when you have a scratchy throat. Soothing and helpful. There’s no snarkiness here, just wisdom and common sense advice told in a clear and friendly tone. There are even little cartoons by George Booth to keep you smiling as you slash and burn pieces of your manuscript.
My copy is literally yellow with age and use. Assigned reading in the early semesters of my fiction writing program ten years ago, this one stays within reach on my desk, with dogeared and paper-clipped sections for quick reference. Loaded with examples, the authors never talk down to the writer or say anything discouraging, and they keep quiet on the slim chances we all have of fiction publication. Consequently, the soothing part is just being allowed to go in to your work and revise the heck out of it, based on their recommendations. There’s a tighter focus on what to do and how to do it because they leave reality checks and opinions to the Noah Lukemans of writing guides and inspiring words and tones to the Anne Lamotts. Just last night, flipping through the guide for some tidbits to mention in this post, I reviewed the chapter “Easy Beats” and realized I better edit (again) the dialogue in the second half of my novel to get rid of the extraneous beats. I’m forever having characters sigh or nod their heads or take off or put on their glasses, because I don’t want them just standing there awkwardly; but Self-Editing says no, let the dialogue “crackle” with its own tension, keep the beats to a minimum, don’t slow the pace too much. And I trust this book, so it’s back I go with the delete key at the ready.
Oh, and if you don’t know the term “beat,” don’t even worry. Not only do the authors explain every term at the beginnings of chapters, they do it in such a painless way that you never feel amateurish or inexperienced. Beats are the physical activities character pursue as they talk and move in a scene, you read. Ohhh, yeah, your writer head thinks. I have those. And if you have too many, like me, you read the rest of the chapter for pointers on making beats more worth their while, and then you go revise.
Other chapters detail breaking up dialogue and interior monologue for better pacing, editing out repetition, resisting the urge to explain every little thing, and one of my favorites, making your writing more sophisticated. This has to do with eliminating the overuse of exclamation marks, italics for emphasis, and -ly adverbs, as well as keeping a tight leash on metaphors when the action or reveals need to take center stage (ooh, I need to be reminded of that last one a lot). The authors are flat out solving the mystery here on how to have a writing style, because once you rise to a higher level of sophistication in your writing, your voice can start to show. Voice is an elusive enough thing for writers. Thank goodness Self-Editing can help you clear away the obstructions in your voice’s path, and allow you a chance of honing it.
One more note on the soothing effect of this guide: it’s one of the few I’ve seen that offers actual suggested answers to the end-of-chapter writing exercises. What a great way to douse any Inexperienced Writer Panic. Sip this book, and get back to work.