The Craft of Writing – Part 5
What the Book of Proverbs taught me about SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS.
by Kay DiBianca
Every morning I sit down with my bowl of oatmeal and cup of coffee and read a chapter in the Book of Proverbs. I can’t remember when I started doing this. Maybe somebody recommended it to me, or maybe I just came up with the idea on my own.
Now, I’m all about doing things the easy way, so since there are thirty-one chapters in Proverbs, I read the chapter whose number corresponds with the date. Therefore, I go through the entire book each month. (Okay, chapter 31 doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, but it’s still a pretty good system.)
The thing about the Book of Proverbs that interests me is the wealth of wisdom found in its pages. Practical wisdom. A soul-searching, character-changing experience in less than five minutes every morning.
“Good sense makes one slow to anger,
and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” – Proverbs 19:11
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches” – Proverbs 22:1a
“Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.” – Proverbs 16:18
“A dishonest man spreads strife,
and a whisperer separates close friends.” – Proverbs 16:28
I could go on, but you get the idea. The Book of Proverbs is surely self-editing for the soul.
I may not remember exactly when I started reading the Proverbs every morning, but I remember precisely where I was when I first heard about Self-editing for Fiction Writers. I was attending a panel discussion for new authors at my first writers conference. The subject was how to improve your writing, and one of the speakers said the book Self-editing for Fiction Writers was an essential addition to any writer’s library. So I bought a copy and started reading.
Talk about practical wisdom!
“To write exposition at length … is to engage your readers’ intellects. What you want to do is to engage their emotions.” – Chapter One, “Show and Tell”
“When you make the point of view clear at the beginning of a scene, you get your readers involved right away and let them get used to inhabiting your viewpoint character’s head.” – Chapter Three, “Point of View”
“Don’t open a paragraph of dialogue with the speaker attribution. Instead, start a paragraph with dialogue and place the speaker attribution at the first natural break in the first sentence.” — Chapter Five, “Dialogue Mechanics”
“The greatest advantage of self-editing … is the kind of attention you have to pay to your own work while you’re doing the self-editing. It demands that you revise again and again until what you’ve written rings true. Until you can believe it.” – Chapter Twelve, “Voice”
This was the kind of advice I needed to self-edit my manuscript before I sent it off to a professional editor. If you’re reviewing your work, take the time to get familiar with the lessons in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. You’ll be glad you did.
Renni Browne has been editing fiction and nonfiction for over 50 years. Before she became an editor for Scribner’s in 1966, she was a copyeditor for Time-Life Books, co-author of a novel, and assistant fiction editor for Woman’s Day. When she left Scribner’s, she worked part-time for a paperback publisher and a literary agent while reviewing books for Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly.
In 1968 she became senior editor at Stein & Day, where a number of books she acquired and edited over her seven years there landed on the New York Times bestseller list. She next became a senior editor at William Morrow, where she was encouraged to spend a great deal of time helping market her titles and cultivating relationships with literary agents but very little time editing the manuscripts she acquired—a trend, she realized, that was beginning to pervade the industry.
She left mainstream publishing in 1978 and in 1980 founded The Editorial Department, so named because it provided the services publishers had once routinely provided. In 1991 she and Dave King wrote Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, still the bestselling title on editing, now in its fifth printing and second edition from HarperCollins.
In addition to having co-authored Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Dave King enjoys editing everything from YA to harrowing memoirs, with romance, mysteries, and historicals in between. An independent editor since 1987, Dave is a former contributing editor at Writer’s Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer’s Digest Writing Clinic.
He’s also the organist at a local church, which gives him the chance to explore the connections between writing and baroque music. The independent musical voices of a fugue act in much the same way as the characters in a novel — intertwining to produce an artistic whole. Being able to hold several musical threads in his head at the same time has helped him untangle more than one complicated plot.
Welcome, Renni and Dave, and thank you for joining us!
DAVE: Thank you for having us. And for your introduction. It’s not often I get compared to Solomon.
How did you get interested in book editing and publishing?
RENNI: I started editing in college. I typed students’ papers for extra money and if I saw a phrase or word that could easily be made far more effective if it was already good or good if it wasn’t, I put a suggested change in the margin. I didn’t do this often and I did it only on papers where I felt the student was a good writer to begin with. I loved doing it.
DAVE: From the time I was about twelve, I developed the habit of rereading favorite books several times. I was also a habitual tinkerer from an early age, taking apart model trains and lawnmowers to see how they worked. I found that, on my third or fourth pass through a book, I started taking apart the story to understand how the writer created the moments I loved so much.
Then I rented an apartment in Renni’s home. At the time, I was writing science fiction short stories, which she was editing in return for yard work and repairs to the washing machine. (I was still a tinkerer.) She handed me a science fiction novel to read to see if it was worth working on. I wrote three single-spaced pages on how the writer could improve his plot. That’s when she began training me as an editor.
What made you decide to write Self-Editing for Fiction Writers?
RENNI: Literary agent Carol Abel saw me give a self-editing workshop in Manhattan and said, “Renni. That’s a book!” I was eager to do it once Dave King agreed to coauthor. He was a brilliant editor for The Editorial Department, he had the kind of mind that could turn SELF-EDITING into a self-help book (which I couldn’t have done in a zillion years), and he was a fine writer. Dave made massive creative contributions to every chapter in a voice so like mine I don’t think the writing style would help anybody (including me) figure out who wrote what.
DAVE: Self-Editing started life as a two-page workshop handout, covering the twelve most common stylistic mistakes that beginning writers make. I was actually brought into the project after the decision was made.
What was the most difficult thing about developing the book?
RENNI: Making fresh what would be obvious to many of our readers. Take our first chapter: Showing and Telling. I doubt there are many fiction writers who haven’t read show-don’t-tell hundreds of times. We had to write the chapter, even start off with it, because it’s so important. Of course, we were going to begin by showing. Dave backwards-edited a scene from Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, showed it to the reader, then showed the scene the way Fitzgerald wrote it. Point made. Brilliantly, in my opinion.
DAVE: There really wasn’t anything really difficult about developing the book. It just came together nicely.
You’ve both been in the editing / publishing business for a long time. How has it changed over the years?
RENNI: The most obvious change was the invention of the computer, which made the physical process of writing a novel easier. Writers could move a scene from chapter seven to chapter three, or make all sorts of changes without having to do a little retyping—or a whole lot of retyping if this was the final draft. But the biggest change to me is more interesting. The first big publisher to hire me was Scribner’s, where authors had editors because Scribner’s (like most publishers) had an editorial department. That was fifty-plus years ago. Over many decades I saw the withering of editorial departments at publishing houses, followed by their virtual disappearance. There are exceptions, like Farrar, Strauss, but most publishers do very little if any editing. Yet writers need editing just as much now as they ever did, and many fine editors had left publishers. And so, in 1980, I founded a book-editing company and named it The Editorial Department.
DAVE: The most obvious answer is the rise of e-publishing, but I suspect that’s just a symptom of something deeper. Major publishers used to maintain a solid midlist – writers who weren’t blockbusters, but who sold enough books to turn a comfortable profit. The search for good midlisters meant acquisitions editors were willing to take a risk on a new voice. It also made them the gatekeepers, who stopped books that weren’t yet ready for print.
Then the big publishers decided that there was more money in buying a book from an established writer for a million dollars, putting another million into promotion, and making five million in sales. It’s not bad as a business model, but it leaves midlist and beginning writers with no good platforms to launch their careers. There are still respectable smaller presses looking for the midlist guys, but they’re often understaffed and underfunded. Then there’s e-publishers, who are drawing in beginning writers with the promise of an instant book, for just a couple of hundred dollars down.
I understand the temptation e-publishing offers – your book is out in the world! The problem is, there are no gatekeepers. So the market is flooded with books that aren’t yet at their best. So a lot of writers e-publish, then spend immense amounts of time and money promoting their books and only selling a couple of hundred copies. It’s a frustrating system.
What single piece of advice would you give to new authors?
RENNI: Don’t self-edit your first draft. Let the story pour out, unimpeded by self-editing points, grammar, anything you’ve read or heard from famous writers, and so on. Story first, style later.
DAVE: Writing is hard. It doesn’t take long to learn the basics of writing well enough to write competently, especially if you have the help of a professional editor (ADVT). But to really develop the writer’s gifts – the insight into people you need to create layered characters, the awareness of how your readers will react to your story, the ability to make all the different aspects of your novel work together – takes time to develop. It’s probably not going to happen with your first manuscript, and maybe not with your second or third. Again, a professional editor can help, but it still involves a lot of work.
Other than your own books, what book on the craft of writing would you recommend to our readers?
RENNI: STEIN ON WRITING.
DAVE: Actually, I don’t read other writers on the craft of writing fiction. I’m a little concerned about getting into an echo chamber, where what I write reflects what other writers on writing think is important. (I think there’s currently too much emphasis placed on the first five pages, for instance.) So the writing books I draw the most inspiration from are about non-fiction, starting with The Elements of Style. I rely on my work with clients to understand what writers need most.
What are some of your favorite works of fiction?
RENNI: Oh dear. I love murder mysteries and so many of them nowadays are well written and have terrific characters–I read so many I can’t remember their names. I also read a lot of southern literature–I’m particularly fond of Lee Smith. And last year I reread Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.
DAVE: The Nero Wolfe books, if only for the dialogue. (“You’re Wolfe’s Archie Goodwin.” “No, I’m my Archie Goodwin. I work for Mr. Wolfe.”) C. J. Cherryh is brilliant at dropping readers into the middle of a complicated world, explaining nothing, and yet making things clear. And Sue Grafton is always fun.
I’ve read some of your blog posts. Which one would you recommend to readers of this blog?
RENNI: Can’t help you here. I don’t remember my blog posts.
DAVE: Just one? Hmmm.
I still find this one the most fun to read. And to write. Incidentally, that Poul Anderson example is going to show up in the next edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
Okay, just one more. This one was also fun to do. And the Stephen King example is going into the book I’m currently working on.
What do you do when you want to get away from writing and editing?
RENNI: Take walks, play with my cats, or—most often—read a novel I picked up somewhere that looked appealing.
DAVE: Garden. We’ve got a 50’ by 50’ kitchen garden, where I grow most of the vegetables we use during the year. I’ve also put a gallon of wild blueberries in the freezer so far.
My pleasure reading is also a little offbeat. C. S. Lewis once said that, if you want to understand humanity, read great writers. If you want to understand a particular era, read the second-rate guys, especially those who were popular at the time and are now forgotten. The idea is that second-tier writers were popular because they fit their times perfectly.
Years ago, I found that you can purchase seventeenth and eighteenth century collections of essays or sermons fairly cheaply – I picked up six volumes of The Spectator, published in 1756, for about $5 each. Reading one of these books is like time travel, taking you back to an era when people thought very differently than we do today. And the second-tier writers are often interesting people. So when I want to relax, I pick up one of these books and settle back into Stewart or Queen Anne England for a while. My current reading is a collection by Jeremy Taylor, once chaplain to Charles I, who was known in his day as “The Shakespeare of preachers.” This when there were still people alive who could remember the Shakespeare of theater.
Actually, I’ve written a blog post on this, as well.
Where can we find out more about you and your work?
DAVE: My website, www.davekingedits.com. I also write a column the third Tuesday of every month for Writer Unboxed. (www.writerunboxed.com)
Thank you, Renni and Dave, for sharing your expertise with us!