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on 22 July 2009
There are three kinds of writing books.

* Those that try to tell you how to get published. These books generally claim to have found the magic formula to get publishers to accept your book. The problem with this - as the blog entry I linked in my previous post pointed out - is that there is no magic formula.
* Then there are those that try to tell you how to write in the first place. They tend to be a formula the writer found worked for them to get the words out and therefore assume will work for everyone. They won't but they will work for some people and at the very least they give insight into the creative process.
* Then there are those that assume you have a functiomal first draft, but that being a first draft it's rather crappy and you want to make it better. These tend to be the most useful kind - in my opinion anyway.

"Self-Editing for Fiction Writers second edition" by Renni Browne and Dave King is the third kind of writing book. And in my opinion it is possibly the best of its ilk. The authors are not fiction writers but professional editors. They know their business and it shows. And when I say they are editors I don't mean copy-editors or proofreaders. The cover nothwithstanding this is not a book about grammar and spelling. It's a book about rewriting and I really, really like it.

The book opens with a chapter on "Show and Tell" which not only gives the best explanation of this fraught and confusing subject I've ever read, but also explains when it's not just okay but better to tell rather than show. This sets the pattern for the rest of the book. They give you the guidelines but also advise you that sometimes it's fine to break the rules they set out.

One of my favourite things about this book is that at the end of each of chapter there are exercises. They give passages containing the problems they've highlighted in the chapter and you get to edit it. Their answers are in the back of the book, but they also say no two people will edit a passage exactly the same way. Practice makes perfect and this book gives you practice before you unleash yourself on your own writing.

There are other books and websites where you can get some or all of this advice, but I have yet to see one that is as comprehensive and comprehensible in its explanations as this one. It's a book to keep and re-read regularly.

Very highly recommended.
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Mistake 1. When you first start to write a novel you don't think you need much help -- you automatically assume (incorrectly -- in most instances) that your talents will instantly be recognised (and honed further by expert literary agents) and that your début masterpiece will instantly become a bestseller, enabling you to live the life of Harry in that dream cottage by the seaside you always dreamt of (typing your follow up on a state of the art iMac, in a lovely modern writing den overlooking the ocean waves).

Fast forward eight months to a year and (after boldly going where every amateur writer has been before you -- and collecting a slew of polite "thanks but no thanks" rejection letters, reality dawns and (determined to prove them all wrong) you then go out and buy every "how-to-write" book on Amazon with lots of 5 star reviews. Mistake 2.

The next 2-3 years is an incredibly frustrating process. The reason for this being simply that most of these "how-to"'s are padded out with so much airy fairy claptrap and pretentious codswallop that it is practically impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. The saddest thing is that you were already a great writer (though you may need to brush up your technical abilities and learn the basics of writing a novel) the fact that you were inspired enough to attempt to write a novel in the first place (with confidence in your ability and your own unique set of inspiration material) means that you already had something no other writer has: your own personality.

Mistake 3. Instead of sticking with your source inspirations (your gut writing instincts) you believe that you are not good enough and start to replace your confidence with the wealth of advice available. You let go of your natural writing mindset and replace it with one that is manufactured. Instead of plotting your novels as feels natural to you, you are writing them to a script (following plotting diagrams) -- the same with characters, dialogue, everything...

The great thing about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers is that it just gives you the bare bones. The basics. (POV, Showing and Telling, Exposition etc.) And covers them in enough detail to both make you into a better writer (ensuring you don't make basic mistakes) whilst still allowing you to retain your freedom of expression! I've read countless other "How-to"'s, and hardly any of them come close to this as the majority stifle your instincts. Of the ones I've read, I'd say it was a toss up between this and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (they both give you what you need without any distraction). Personally, I prefer this (as it is written by agents rather than an author), though they are both well worth investing in.

Finally, I should add I am not writing this as a published author, just as someone who has experienced the depressing reality of writing a novel only to have it rejected (and then embark on a mission to learn everything there is to learn -- my second novel (after looking back at them both after time) was a complete mess for this reason; whereas my first was much stronger in hinsight). In my opinion this book contains what you need to know (without all the stuff you don't). I'd also reccomened The Penguin Guide to Punctuation (Penguin Reference Books) (to brush up your technical skills) and to study Janet Reid's Query Shark blog (for great advice on how to approach an agent properly).
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on 18 December 2005
This is a outstanding little book for writers who are serious about improving their fiction writing. It has detailed chapters on "Show and Tell", "Point of View", "Dialogue Mechanics", "Interior Monologue" and other techniques which will help make your writing more professional. Each theme is illustrated with entertaining examples and each chapter includes writing exercises. So having worked your way through the text, you actually remember what the authors told you. The book is also extremely readable and admirably concise.
Conclusion: definitely worth buying if you want to improve your writing.
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I started reading this book about four years ago shortly after completing a novel. Then, I thought it was interesting but unimportant. Four novels (and a lot of good advice) later, I think it's brilliant.


The authors are not trying to make you a better writer, they are trying to make you a saleable writer in today's climate. Many of the great works of the past would not have made it through the modern editorial process (they give many examples of this). Quite possibly, in the future, the rules may change again. But, for now, Browne and King teach you the process of getting your novel into a shape that an agent or a publisher's reader will want to look at twice.

This isn't just (or even mainly) about getting rid of adverbs and 'showing not telling', which you can find on any 'advice for authors' website. Browne and King give a balanced picture of all the areas that might trouble your prospective publisher. The chapter on Proportion is especially important, particularly since the subject is often overlooked.

Actually editing your book using the checklists presented here will be a fairly painful process for most writers. Browne and King do their best to get us over that with frequent examples from their own practise, as well as exercises where you can get your teeth into someone else's work before starting on your own.

You may disagree with some, or all, of the things they advise. However, this is not a book about becoming a great writer or producing great fiction, but about overcoming the common issues which generate the all-too-familiar "we're sorry, but we couldn't see this fitting with one of our lists" letters.

Strongly recommended if you really want to be published.
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on 29 September 2012
As many reviewers have already testified, this is a very useful book for aspiring fiction writers hoping to get into print. The advice is generally sound, and the examples of what or what not to do are mostly clear and well-chosen. At the price, its excellent value for money.

A couple of minor criticisms. The book is written - perhaps to some degree unconsciously - for North American readers and possibly even a particular class of reader. That's not to accuse the book of snobbery, or even exclusiveness, but there's a lingering sense that something is missing.

The well-hammered points about the changing tastes in literary styles are not to be ignored, but don't necessarily apply equally all places, all traditions nor all genres. Examples abound of writers who have done the opposite of what the authors recommend, and pulled it off.

As for the cartoons, they are desperately poor - poky drawings accompanied by captions that resemble the lost wanderings of a dwarf species of spider - a kind of visual example of prose that is so bad you don't even attempt to read what it has to say. Oops.
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on 31 July 2008
I bought this book expecting a quick reference guide to the editing process I could dip in and out of. I was wrong; this book is much more than that. What it does is take you through every stage of writing, showing you mechanical systems, conventions and pitfalls encountered by most new writers, but written in such a warm, yet firm manner that you feel you are in the presence of true experts, who encourage creativity, but won't stand for sloppiness. The numerous examples are really useful and come from a range of authors, be they from blockbusting bestsellers or manuscripts from students attending on one of the authors' workshop events. So if you want a quick-fix book, this isn't for you; but if you take the time to read it cover to cover, the knowledge and understanding build and you finish with a much deeper comprehension of the editing art. It's well worth investing the time, as your book will benefit hugely from it in the long run.
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on 9 July 2013
If, like me, you are an aspiring writer serious about mastering your craft then I highly recommend this book but with a note of caution. The most useful aspects of the book are the checklists at the end of each chapter, comparisons of edited and unedited material and a clear writing style, which you would expect. I started reading it part way through writing a novella and became overwhelmed with all the techniques. I tried to unlearn old habits in the space of a couple of days which was a big mistake. As with learning any new skill, it pays to build up gradually, practice and be patient with yourself. In my enthusiasm I failed to do any of these basics.

Firstly I felt demotivated to discover that I had made so many classic amateur writer errors, according to the authors. I then made things worse by going through my story and stripping it bare of all life. My next mistake was to edit while trying to write new material which resulted in a nasty case of writers' block. Fortunately I decided to stop before I did too much damage.

My advice to any newbie writers, maybe lacking some confidence, is to buy this book after you've finished your manuscript to avoid disrupting your creative flow and be prepared for a bit of an ego bashing. But overall, it is an excellent resource for sharpening your writing style. I have certainly learned a lot from reading it and plan to use the author's professional services in the future.
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VINE VOICEon 13 May 2006
There's not much I can fault about this book. It's written in a friendly and easy-to-access sorta way, that didn't leave me (a beginner) feeling intimidated or overly patronized. The content is logically organized into various chapters, each of which are full of excellent examples detailing common errors, and what can be done to improve (as well as showing you examples of finished versions). There are also a lot of practical tips to help you identify areas in your writing that need improving.

I haven't finished my story yet, but I am very much pleased that I gave this book a try, as even though it is aimed at editing your work, it is still an excellent and very useful read for work-in-progress. Many of the points raised I have noticed already in my own writing, and have already begun to apply stratergies described to help me improve.
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on 7 July 2011
Don't be misled by the title: this little book is a superb read for anyone tackling a piece of creative writing, whether they feel they're close to publication or not. It covers all the points that distinguish good from amateurish writing, including such topics as show and tell, point of view, dialogue, interior dialogue/monologue, beats, and repetition, and it attempts to deal with more difficult issues such as voice and style. These are topics that constantly crop up in my own writing group and I've recommended the book there. It's copiously illustrated with examples from the literature, from writing classes, and from clients. There are exercises and there's a comprehensive index. When I think of some of the stuff put out by well-established authors I find myself wishing that every publisher had editors like Browne and King on their staff. The bean counters know the name will sell books but that doesn't mean their work wouldn't benefit from thorough editing.
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on 22 October 2006
Just a quick review. Can't add anymore than has already been said. I purchased a few how to write books searching for the Holy Grail, and now I think i've found it. Great how they give examples throughout the book. Other books I enjoyed were Steven King "On Writing" and "How to write a damn good novel" for the basics.
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