Book Review: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell

My editors (intelligent friends who love to read) kept coming back with major flaws and harsh criticisms. And I'd have to pick myself back up, dust myself off, and try again. And again. And again. My book is almost done, but it took me 30+ edits (at least, 5 of them being major revisions) to get something worthwhile.

I think the hardest part about the criticisms was that I didn't know how to fix what was wrong. That's when I learned that talent is not enough. You have to study your craft and you must apply skill to what raw talent you may have. Like woodworking, sports, and music, writing takes effort, practice, perseverance, and applied skill

I started studying some great writing resources. Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell was one of these. Now I understood not only what I did wrong and why but also how to fix the problems.

In this book about self-editing, you will find detailed information about many aspects of writing with practical examples from great writers as well as writing exercises that you can use to practice the techniques.

Practical Advice
Read. The more you read, the better you understand the craft. Bell gives detailed descriptions on how to, not just read, but study good books to understand what made them good.

In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin talks about how he studied good books and practiced his own writing endeavors to exhibit the qualities that he admired in other authors. So the best way to learn to write is just to read and write. For the rest of your life. It is an on going endeavor, just like a runner must continue to run to keep in shape.

Character Development & Dialog
This was--and is--one of my biggest challenges, making characters that sound real but aren't carbon copies of myself. In my first draft, everyone spoke like me. Everyone sounded just like a grammar book, like my ninth grade English teacher with perfect prose. One of my editor's complained that there were no interruptions (as if everyone had perfect manners); there were no fragments (as if everyone could speak as though they were standing on stage); there were no distinctions in character's personalities in their words (as if I only really had one character--me). And after he said all this, I realized everybody said exactly what I wanted them to. I had boring plot-driven characters rather than a great character-driven plot.

Bell talks about these kinds of problems, describing how to create real characters that jump off the page. He talks about characters with attitude--with grit that makes us root for them and wit that makes them personable and a certain amount of charisma that makes us love them. Then he tells you how to do it.

Plot & Scene Structures
Many high school and college courses talk about the three-fold plot structure, but this book also tells you WHY it works and HOW you should use it. I patted myself on the back on this aspect because I already had those elements in my story, but scene structure was another problem altogether for me. My scenes were wishy-washy at best. They weren't spell-binding.

Scenes need structure too. You need a hook to grab your audiences attention at the beginning of every scene, you need varying levels of intensity throughout the scene, and you need to end the scene with a push to make them keep reading--something that makes the reader feel like they have to know what happens next, like they can't put it down. Bell tells you just how to do that.

There are many ways to create point of view within a book, and this chapter helps you build a correct viewpoint and ensure that you don't make POV mistakes (i.e. give inside information about a non-POV character). Readers should only see things from the perspective of one character at a time, or they will feel the author's presence. Once they feel the author's presence in a story, it no longer feels real. The magical storyland that you've created falls apart around them.

Show and Tell
I have heard this said from many different authors.  Show what happens rather than summarize. Don't say "She grabbed the hammer and threw it at him, yelling and snarling and shouting obscenities." Say "'You make me sick," she screamed. The hammer thunked the wall beside his head." Okay, I can handle that. I think I can tell the story without turning it into a boring summary.

Actually, no, there is more to it than that. There are times to tell and there are times to show, and Bell does a great job of telling you how to do it. There were things I would show that I should have told, like long scenes wandering through the forest, and there are scenes I should have shown, where I could have put some great action, character development, and dialog.

Other Areas
And here are some of the other features for learning to write contained in this book:

  • Developing a unique voice & style
  • Writing description & settings
  • How to handle annoying exposition
  • A complete revision checklist
Check the book out here at my store or get it from your local library.

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