Gather ’round and saddle up kids, it’s time I shared my dirty little secret: I love craft books. While this may not sound like such a strange thing to the uninitiated, trust me when I say that books that purport to teach people how to write often take lots of flack on author’s forums. Some will say that they’re no substitute for getting your work critiqued by peers, or that they will use up time that would better be spent writing. Others will point to the fact that writing ostensibly has no “rules,” and worry that such guides will turn their beautifully artistic Garfield slash fiction into robotic, paint-by-numbers prose.
But personally, I’ve never ran with the “just write, write, write,” crowd. In my experience, most craft books read very quickly; I can usually polish one off in a day or two, and I’m not a particularly fast reader. They make an excellent diversion when waiting for a manuscript to cool, and they can help give you a fresh perspective when you do go back to attack that eighth revision. Of course, not all craft books are created equal, and that’s where the Craft Book Round-Up comes in: sorting out the good, the bad, and the ugly for your studying pleasure. Because hey, writing craft books is a craft unto itself, right?
For the first entry, I’ve chosen a book that falls squarely into the “good” column: Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. To be honest, one doesn’t really need to “find” this book; it’s sure to be handed to you sooner or later, because it comes up on every single Amazon frequently purchased list ever. And not without good reason: Browne and King have written an extremely helpful guide to self-editing, one which I wish I had read years before I “found” it.
The bulk of SEFFW (as I have affectionately dubbed it as of just now) is composed of tips and tricks for improving manuscripts, loosely organized into categories (showing vs. telling, characterization, dialogue, etc.). Note I said “improving”; this book won’t help if you’re in the weeds with plotting or trying to figure out a character weakness for your teenage romance heroine (hint: she’s clumsy). However, that doesn’t mean you should wait until you finish your novel to read it, either. Editing yourself into print may be possible, as Browne and King suggest, but you’ll have a much easier time of it if you learn what to avoid at the beginning. Also not covered are purely grammatical concerns: passive voice, run-on sentences and the like. If there is a key insight to be gleaned from this book, it’s that it’s possible to have an excellent low-level command of the language, as well as great high-level characters and plot, and still produce a crap novel because of all the little things in the “middle.”
What does the middle consist of? The tips themselves range from insights I haven’t seen anywhere else (such as the in-depth discussion of “bumps”), to basic tricks that for whatever reason never seem to get disseminated enough (the section on the overuse of -ing verbs and “as” is one I wish I could send to a surprisingly large number of authors who e-mail me for reviews). Most of the essentials of micro-editing are covered: long paragraphs, telling scenes, repetition, poetic phrases, ten dollar words, clichés, explaining dialogue tags, and on and on. It’s stuff that you felt like you knew already, but perhaps never thought about concretely enough to put into practice, until an editor’s red pen comes along to ruin your day.
What really makes SEFFW stand out, though, is the quality of the examples. Not only do we get relevant excerpts from classic novels (including an improvement on The Great Gatsby), but somehow Browne and King managed to convince some brave authors to share their rough drafts alongside paragraphs from their published work. Astounding. In addition, you get some handy checklists at the end of each chapter for those in a hurry, and some very useful-looking exercises which I didn’t do. And some cute cartoons. And all of this for only <whatever ridiculous price Amazon has marked it down to this week>!
I wish I could end this review by snarkily pointing out a glaring flaw or two, but (un?)fortunately, SEFFW is just too balanced, competent, and complete for that. Just don’t get used to this sort of treatment in the Craft Book Round-Up; we do have a long way to go, after all…