Three Dirty Birds Talk about Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

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The dirty birds are back, chirping about a new book. This time we’re tackling Self-Editing for Fiction Writers – How to edit yourself into print by Renni Browne and Dave King.

Kate: The first chapter talks about Show and Tell, which is a big thing that writers need to learn at the beginning of their career. Not just which one to use when, but to recognize when they’re using it incorrectly as well.

Ana: It’s probably the first thing you find in most writing books. And I recommend actually reading about this in a writing book, because when you get all your advice on this from the Internet, the Internet will tell you that telling is always bad. Always. You’ll go to hell for it.

Zoe: Yes, I liked the explanation of when narrative summary was a better choice than writing the information out in a scene. One important point they brought up was that it gives readers a chance to breathe, that it helps vary the “rhythm and texture” of your writing. Scenes are important, but one after another after another can be exhausting, and the reader can start to tune out if there’s no variation. Although really knowing when to use scene and when to use summary is an art you develop over time, through reading and writing and editing (and critiquing others!).

Kate: I like her explanation that in summary, you’re engaging your reader’s mind, and in scene, you’re engaging their emotions. Which brings us back to her comment that the first chapter is not the place for a lot of summary.

Ana: I wish a lot of beginning writers I critique would take this to heart.

Kate: I’ve seen a lot of potentially excellent science fiction and fantasy stories ruined by the big narrative summary of the history that brought us to this point. No, just…no. Engage me before you start throwing information at me.

Zoe: There’s also nothing more frustrating than going through four pages of a mundane, fully detailed scene only to have the thing you were actually waiting to see happen rushed through in narrative summary. I wish I didn’t have so many examples jumping to the front of my mind on this, but… *sigh* (And not just from beginning writers, either.)

Ana: So she gives an example of a book that was improved by having the events of weeks and months summarized in narrative summary instead of showing a few single scenes. I can’t help wondering how long that narrative summary ended up being.

Zoe: With a skilled writer, it could have been just a paragraph or two. You can get away with a sketch…but most people don’t even try to.

Kate: it’s a tough skill. I’m working on improving my command of it, but it’s a bigger challenge than it looks. Which is why you should practice it.

Zoe: Yes, you have to be able to pick out which events are the key ones, and then come up with something that encapsulates them. In an engaging yet tell-y way.

Ana: It’s something I considered doing with my last wip, where originally I needed a few weeks to pass where the characters could get to know each other, but it felt boring just writing it all out. It stopped the pacing dead, so I thought of summarising it. But then I ended up not doing it because I wasn’t sure I could do it right, or that it wouldn’t feel rushed… I ended up just changing the premise to avoid the problem altogether.

Zoe: That works! Browne and King also talk about not just scene vs. summary but the use of telling within scenes. This probably drives me away from more books than anything else, all the unnecessary telling when really the author should be showing me how the characters feel, think, and react. I don’t want to know that “she was scared.” I want to see her fear. I don’t want to know that she spoke “eagerly.” I want to see her tripping over her words or dropping things or whatever. Let me infer from that. Let me use my brain!

Ana: You know what really bothers me? Telling that follows showing. Like the writer does a totally fine job of showing me an emotion, only to name it again a sentence later just to make sure I really got it.

Zoe: YES! And when it precedes the showing as well. Don’t tell me what’s going to happen. Just show it.

Kate: It’s a good reminder. I’ve pulled quite a few things out of the latest revision, just because they reminded me about that. It’s not something I do anymore, but this is an older manuscript, and I hadn’t learned that yet.

Zoe: So did you guys do the exercises at the end of the chapter?

Kate: Eeeeh, kind of. I didn’t write anything down, but I looked to see what I would change. I think I was stopped by it because I was trying to stay within the same approximate wordage, and they don’t expect that. (This is a personal brain issue for me, and may not apply to other writers.)

Zoe: I skipped them because I do the same sort of thing so freaking often when I’m Amazon Look-Insiding books to read. (As you two, beneficiaries of my rewrites and rants, are aware.)

Kate: Some day, we need to talk about the benefits of reading bad fiction. Because I’ve learned a lot, skewering the Look-Insides.

Ana: If there’s new holes in my walls by the time I move out, it’ll be because of the Amazon Look-Inside…

Zoe: It’s more like a hole in my liquor cabinet here.

Kate: Ana just wants more windows. Me, I usually find I feel better about my writing. Even if I’m not always consistent, and some stuff gets past me, it’s good to know  I can recognize it, which gives me hope I’ll start recognizing it more regularly in my own. (Or, hopefully, discover that I’m not doing it as much.)

Zoe: I feel better about my writing, worse about the state of the world.

Ana: Yeah, that’s what the liquor is for.

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