Part 19 of an intermittent series where I read or re-read the writing books on my shelf to see if they’re worth keeping. See previous part here
As promised last time I’ve moved onto the books I have about editing and revision. I also received and read the Pocket Workshop from Clarion.
As per usual the cover isn’t great (a constant theme – see all the other examples below and throughout these blogs). This is a mix of essays from writers who have all been instructors at Clarion West. As usual with a mix of voices the essays are of mixed usefulness. There’s enough here that’s made me shelve it – but potentially come a re-read I’ll decide it’s not reference worthy enough. They say – ‘like Carion this book is not for beginning writers’ but some of the essays are pitched at beginners (I feel). I found the essays on exposition by Tobia S Buckell and Diverse story forms by Henry Lien of most use.
In order to revise you need to identify what mistakes you’re making. I found this short book – The 38 Most Common Writing Mistakes by Jack Bickham – an entertaining and useful read. The narrative speed chapter is one I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere and made some lights come on when reading. I don’t think this is a must have but it won’t hurt you to read it. Like the Pocket Workshop I may decide on a re-read that it’s not reference worthy but I liked it enough on a first read to keep it. I’d say that you want to avoid the mistakes here (like ‘don’t describe a sunset’ on superfluous description) rather than spot them on an edit – but if you have made these mistakes you can edit them out. Some of the mistakes are on generally being a writer so not entirely an editing book.
In Fiction First Aid Raymond Obstfeld takes a different approach on writing Nuts & Bolts by identifying problems with fiction such as ‘low stakes/bland personality’ under character or ‘noticeable lack, or overbearing use of, symbols’ under theme (the book is divided into plot, character, setting, theme and the writer’s life). Each chapter has a symptom, diagnosis and a treatment Again this is more a precautionary rather than a remedy. Except if you’ve had feedback I think. You are unlikely to self-diagnose most of these problems (imho) but if you’ve received feedback from a beta reader that identifies a problem like “I didn’t think this character worked” you may be able to discern why using Obstfeld’s diagnosis and fix it using his treatment. I like it overall so onto the shelf it goes.
Revising Fiction by David Madden is built upon a series of questions (e.g. ‘have you used the device of interior monologue ineffectively?’) Although, again self-diagnosis is hard, this is an excellent remedy for when things are not working. It could even serve as a Nuts & Bolts instruction on how to use various techniques and tools before writing. I’ve referred to this book enough to know it deserves a place on the shelf.
The Last Draft by Sandra Scofield is another excellent reference. The first 50 or so pages give you a whirlwind tour of how novels work and the narrative elements that they are made from. Which lays the groundwork for the rest of the book on how to revise – first take a close look at what you’ve got, then make a plan, then follow the process and lastly polish. This is a comprehensive and accessible book with a set of tools that you can use to make whatever you’ve written better. I recommend it. However the ‘polish’ section could do with expanding. But luckily the next book: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King supplies just that.
This looks at the various narrative techniques/tools – show and tell, proportion, dialogue from a ‘fix it’ perspective. So once you’ve had your diagnosis you can apply the treatment as recommended in this book. There are some exercises but the most useful part – and the reason I’m keeping it for reference – is the checklist at the end of each chapter (which complement the questions in Madden’s book.)
It’s a shame that there isn’t just one book that does the job of teaching you how to revise and self-edit but of these books I’d say that you should buy yourself The Last Draft, Revising Fiction and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. However you can also skip the self-editing one if money’s tight as Bridget McKenna’s blog is a free (and excellent) self-editing resource.
One final editing book (not self-editing and not Nuts & Bolts) is What do Editors Do?
This is a modern version of Editors on Editing that I reviewed briefly in WAWAW 15 – like that book it’s a collection of essays from working editors on the craft of editing. It’s a lot more up to date than Editors on Editing and interesting to read alongside. There’s a lot more emphasis on commissioning and acquisitions in the modern version and, as ever, there’s a mix of good and not so good essays. I think if you were only to buy one you should go with this more up to date book. But I’m keeping both.
I’m now moving onto Nuts & Bolts of specific media – starting with how to write for comics, then theatre, then screen.
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