Self-editing is an important skill for writers and authors of every level. It will never replace having a great editor work on your book with you, but it will make you more proficient and should save you money.
Today we review Self-Editing for Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Is this the right book for you? How can it help you fix the common problems and help you tackle the complex issues of editing in your work?
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Today on the show we are reviewing the book, “Self Editing For Writers” by Renni Brown and Dave King. I’m Clark Chamberlain and in a world plagued with poor punctuation and terrorized with terrible text messaging one man dared to stand in defense of the suffering syntax, that man is my friend and co-host, Peter Turley. Peter how’s it going today?
Peter: You know these intros, they kind of remind me of you know when an actor does a warm up?
Peter: Well it’s like trying to work all parts of your mouth, that was impeccable delivery.
Clark: Thank you, I only worked on it for two hours this morning, just going over the lines again and again.
Peter: I would cut that down.
Clark: I have, so I’m getting much better at it.
Peter: Can you do it while drinking a glass of water and stuff?
Clark: Ooh, I’ve got to try that and I could do like a ventriloquist would. So what have you been up to this last week?
Peter: I’ve been reading a really good book. Yes, “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.”
Clark: That’s so interesting, I have been reading that book as well and I thought we should do a show on it.
Peter: Well that’s why I’m here, so.
Clark: It’s not just our witty repartee?
Peter: That too. No I hadn’t heard of this until you mentioned it to me, unlike some of the others that we’re going to be doing. It’s a great find and I really enjoyed reading it this week. It’s definitely made its way up there to one of the more useful writing and editing resources I’ve got.
Clark: Yes, it really is and I’m excited to be able to talk about this today and share some of the things that you’re going to be able to get out of this week. There’s not a lot of books that I recommend that every author should have on their shelf, and really, honestly after I got to this one, this is one of those books; it really needs to be there.
But we before we jump into that entirely I just want to say that I will be off for the next couple of weeks and Lesley Watts from Writership is going to be co-hosting with you.
Peter: Yes, so that should be good. We’ll miss you, we’ll get by.
Clark: It should be professional, I’m guessing that’s…
Peter: Well, 50% more professional.
Clark: That’s right, 50% more professional, 50%.
Peter: Don’t worry, I’ll maintain at least half of our unprofessionalism.
Clark: OK, good because I think that’s what our viewers and listeners have come to expect.
Peter: I think so. Especially this week, we got to go live with a few technical difficulties, so we ramped it up this week, which is always good.
Clark: Hopefully you guys will have a really good time on the show and then I’ll be back in July.
I’m going out for my annual training with the military so we get to go spend a couple of weeks out in the desert. Which is always fun, right?
Peter: That’s going to be a long two weeks, we’ll miss you.
Clark: You’re going to be like in the south of France or something.
Peter: I’m guessing you won’t be able to listen in will you? You won’t get a —
Clark: There will be not be any —
Peter: Just wait there guys; I’ve got to watch the show.
Clark: We’ve got to stop shooting for a few minutes. No I wish I would be able to listen in and definitely there’s not any kind of cellular reception to where we’re going. But I’ll be excited to see the shows when I get back. So, see how those go.
Peter: We’ll be thinking of you.
Clark: Alright, let’s get into this today. If you can see this, if I’m not completely blinding you out for those that are watching this. “Self Editing for Fiction Writers, How to Edit Yourself Into Print” and this is by Renni Brown and Dave King and you can pick this up; order it from your favorite bookstore; get it online. It has e-book form and print form. I would suggest probably picking up the print form — this is probably something you’re going to want to work through.
I didn’t read the print form; we’ll just say that. It’s difficult, and as well, any book like this should really be read with like a highlighter in hand, or two or little post-it notes like you’ve got there.
Clark: Yes, so I definitely —
Peter: Because you want to find your favorite bits don’t you, the bits that work for you and bits that… So that when you go — because it’s a reference book after all — you don’t have to flick through the whole thing again, you can just be, which bit resonated with me, and you can see it at a glance and you can’t do that on the screen.
Clark: You cannot. I think one of the things that you’re going to really find with this book when you pick it up is that — it’s broken down; it’s got twelve fantastic chapters in there. But you’re probably going to have one thing that’s going to stand out. You’re like — yes, that is the skill I need to improve — and the great thing about this book is you’re going to be able to do that.
I love how they work in several examples in each chapter. Let me just tell you what the chapters are. They talk about Show and Tell, Characterization and Exposition, Point of View, Proportion Dialogue Mechanics, See How It Sounds, Interior Monologue, Easy Beats, Breaking Up Is Easy To Do — which is all about formatting — Once Is Usually Enough and Sophistication In Voice.
There’s a lot of great stuff in here and each one of them’s going to have several examples in each chapter. It has a checklist at the end of each chapter for things that you can look for and then also exercises, which I think is really cool.
Peter: Yes. What I liked about the fact that there’s multiple examples, is that — sometimes I’d read it, and I’d read an example, and it wouldn’t quite connect, or it wouldn’t quite get the point across in the way that sort of I was thinking. But then there’d be another example that kind of explained it in a different light. Or sometimes there’d be quite a classic example, from an old classic then a more modern example, which I think is important because obviously writing styles change over time.
It did really well at pointing that out and saying — this style, you would have got away with it once and here’s an example of it, but now it’s better to this.
A lot of books didn’t do that and I know that the last one we looked at, although that was great, was a bit more limited in its scope of examples compared to this book.
Clark: Right, exactly. I think this is certainly a more thorough look at editing, especially editing specifically.
That’s one of the things that I think that really is lacking in the writing world today is — we have so much stuff on the craft of writing but we have a very limited amount of really good reference books on how to edit and make the work better. This one does an excellent job of showing this type of stuff.
We have several examples in here that we wanted to go through and just talk about in some of the different chapters and things that you can look forward to.
One of them, Characterization and Exposition — this happens along several times on the Writership this last week. Leslie Watts and I spoke about a book that had this huge section of description, where it was really, like a laundry list — … and he was wearing a brown shirt and his pants had mud on them and this… and his brown hair and his green eyes and his this and the this… — and it just kept going on and on and on. It was an entire paragraph of a character description.
This is one of the things that I think everyone can do better, that we can put in, and I love how they have this checklist of taking a look at what you’ve done in the work.
So, in this checklist I’ll just read from it and this is in the chapter — Characterization and Exposition —
Look back over a scene or chapter that introduces one or more characters. How much time, if any, have you spent describing the new character’s character? Are you tell us about characteristics that will later show up in dialogue and action? How about character histories? How many of your character childhoods have you developed in detail, can some of these life stories be cut?
Then the other two bullet points is —
What information, technical details, character’s past histories, backgrounds on locations or families do your reader need in order to understand your story? At what point in the story do they need to know it and how are you getting this information across to your readers? Have you given it to them all at once through a short writer to reader lecture?
— which is what was talking about from Writership Podcast.
If the exposition comes out through dialogue, is it through dialogue your characters would actually speak, even if your readers didn’t have to know the information?
In other words — does the dialogue exist only to put the information across?
Peter: Those checklists are just fantastic aren’t they? We’ve talked about this, and we’ve talked about — with character description, less is more.
It’s easy to talk about it on a Podcast like this. But when you’re going back and you’re looking over it and you’re trying to think about these things, sometimes you don’t really know through what lens to view your own work.
That checklist just gives you a solid framework to look back at a chapter and ask yourself those questions as you go through and kind of make it a little more black and white what you need to cut out and what you need to stop doing.
Clark: Yes, exactly. I really think, especially taking a look at the character histories we develop, I think that that’s really important for the author. The author needs to know all the information about the characters — where they grew up, what’s happening — and of course you’re putting in a lot of time creating that and you feel like it’s super important, and it is important for the story, but is it important for the reader? I think that’s one of the cool questions that it asks in here, is — when is that important? When do they need to know it, and how are you going to deliver that information?
Peter: There’s a line in that chapter I think where it says in regard to characters — watch what they say and what they do.
I just thought that line that was great advice because it highlights the fact that we might not be aware that we are using exposition through character; we might not even be aware that’s what we’re doing. But when we go back and we look at what the character’s saying and doing alone, then we can start to notice these things and be like — I need to cut that out.
It just points out how these things can slip into our writing without us even noticing it.
Clark: Yes. I think that exposition is great when you can put it into places like dialogue and not just drop it in on top of people. But exactly; it has to sound right.
Looking at how your characters speak — I’ve just got done doing an alpha read, and that was one of the things I really notice is, how characters sounded the same, used the same kind of dialect, same type of words, same type of length.
Even in the point where you’re trying to be clever and bring in this exposition in a good way with a good dialogue, the question is — does your character actually speak that way? Would they actually take the time to say these things? Is it in their character?
I think that’s really cool to bring that stuff forward for the author when you’re going through and editing this.
Peter: Yes, Skipping a little forward here, but it touches on that in the dialogue section, saying — is this normal for that character? — because sometimes I think dialogue can… Author voice can slip through a little too easily sometimes and all the characters can sound the same.
So I think that question — is this something that that character would usually say? — is something really worth thinking about every time you’re looking at your dialogue.
Clark: Exactly, so that you can go back through and you can take a look at these, and you can say — no, you know what, that really doesn’t sound like them — and then try to work out how you could put that exposition in there. Because there is exposition that’s very important for the story; we got to understand stuff that’s going on. Mystery is always great but at some point we need to deliver that.
That was another point in here if you missed it — that idea about when, when do you do it? — We have a tendency to over-stuff the front end of a book with the exposition and the information and the characterization where some of this could be left for later, middle and end of the book even, for even the largest surprise turnarounds.
Peter: Yes. Exposition definitely is important and does have its place.
The checklists, but also the exercises that they give you to then practice apply in these checklists, really help you hone these skills.
There’s one part where it says, when looking at dialogue — is it exposition in disguise? Obviously, there is a place for it and there is a time when you want to do it. But have you done it sneakily, without realizing it?
Have you had a character say something about another character just to expose a certain fact or a certain part of the history and you might be — oh, yes, I can just cut that right out and do it a different way; do it later — but it doesn’t leave you on your own to make these decisions. Each chapter provides a bunch of exercises at the end, that you can look at and practice these skills, practice them on the exercises and then you can go away and do it on your own work.
Clark: Yes, exactly. Let’s give you an example of this and this is in the chapter — See How it Sounds.
This is what we’re talking about with Exposition in Dialogue, and it says —
“Dear” she said, “I realize it seems unfair of me to tell you this now, after eleven years of marriage and three children, but I’m not the woman I’ve led you to believe.”
For myself, working managing editor here at Raven International, I get a lot of stuff that comes across my desk for submissions and I have read this; I have read this so many times, this type of exposition that’s really clearly exposition. Would anybody ever say that?
Peter: It takes away… It’s trying to be mysterious but what it actually does is completely sabotages any chance of reader intrigue.
Clark: Exactly. This could be another way that you could do this and it gives a couple of examples. It didn’t fix that one but it brings up a different way that you talk about things without talking about them.
The first one is a bad example. Again —
“I don’t know what you’re thinking about going into a place like that. Are you alright?”
Then new dialogue tag —
“I’m fine, I really am.”
Although that sounds pretty normal, it can be a lot better, where it could be done like this.
The first dialogue is —
“What did you think you were doing, going into a place like that?”
Second dialogue —
“I’m alright, really.”
The first person is clear enough, but the second gives that little bit of misdirection, doesn’t have them ask the second question because your secondary character in that conversation could do a misdirection that didn’t even respond to “what are you doing in a place like that?” They went with it — I’m really alright; you don’t have to worry about me — so it’s kind of deflecting.
It’s cool when you can take a look at this and how you can re-shift the focus between the two characters so it can sound like a more realistic conversation.
Peter: Yes. I think one way it kind of gives of doing that is — asking if you could cut the attributions at all, and says a good way to check the strength of your dialogue is to cut the attributions entirely and then ask yourself — does the dialogue stand up on its own?
If it doesn’t then it suggests that the dialogue might need rewriting, and if it does then that’s great. You kind of avoid things like ping ponging direct address it says, so I’d be like, “Hey Clark, how are you today?” “Well Peter, I’m fine, thanks for asking.” This back and forth as a way to get away with saying, “said Clark” or whatever. It can slip into just this back and forth direct address. It says, strip it all; strip the tags and the addresses. Then see if the dialogue stands well on its own, and if it doesn’t then the dialogue is weak and it needs looking at.
Clark: Exactly. Especially because once you’ve gotten 25% of the way through… As a reader, if you’re 25% of the way through and you can’t identify the voice of a character by that point, then absolutely. Because that’s where we have some of the biggest struggles, is making sure that our characters are sounding unique without sounding ridiculous, like by tossing in weird phrases that they say all the time. But definitely looking at whether or not it actually sounds like the character.
That was one of the problems that I was having in this last alpha read, was not knowing who was speaking. Because there wasn’t any dialogue tags which is great, but the voices were distinctive enough yet. They were getting more distinct by the end but they weren’t distinct enough towards the beginning to know who was who.
This is a great exercise to be able to do that and I love how they’re giving this fantastic advice in a way that I had never thought about before. I had never thought about — what would it look like if I take out all the dialogue tags and how would it read?
Peter: Yes. Sometimes you have to read a big meaty chapter to get to a point like that. But these chapters aren’t even that big; are they really? They get straight to the point. It opens; it says what the problem is; here’s an example; here’s a couple more examples; here’s your checklist. It’s straight to the point.
Clark: Yes, because that’s for me, this is the non-fiction that I love. I know that a lot of people like to get inside the head of the author, who’s writing the book and know about them and how they came along with this, and me, I just like to be like — get to the point of how to fix my problem. I don’t have time and that’s what this book is all about.
I’ve got another example here. This is going along with reading things out loud; we’ve talked a lot about reading out loud.
Here’s the original passage, this one from a workshop dialogue that they were doing, and this is a submission that was sent into them. —
“I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow,” Ann said.
“I thought it would be nice to drop in.”
“Stan, I just got in five minutes ago. I’m fixing myself something to eat and I’m going to get some rest.”
“So what you’re telling me is that I’m not wanted, right?”
So it’s very clear in here, you’ve got only two characters so it’s easy to tell who’s speaking; it’s clear how they’re feeling. But I love how they change this up. It’s very small changes, but it has much more impact.
This is how they changed it. —
“I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow,” Ann said.
“I just thought it would be nice to drop in, that’s all.”
“Stan, I just got in five minutes ago myself, all I want to do is fix something to eat and get some rest.”
“Are you trying to tell me I’m not wanted?”
“You got it.”
Can you hear the difference on that and how that’s improved between the two?
Peter: It’s astounding isn’t it? It’s only through applying little tiny things. Everything is snappier; it’s less wooden. More importantly, it achieves what I think that the author is trying to achieve in the first place.
I’m going to jump to the checklist in this to see how it sounds, because I think they’ve got some really good ideas in here for dialogue. Because I know that’s one that a lot of people struggle with. They feel like — hey I write terrible dialogue; it’s never what I want it to be.
So here are some really great tips, things to look for in this checklist.
First bullet point —
First read your dialogue aloud; read your narration out loud for that matter; at some point or another you should read aloud every word you write.
As you read be on the lookout for places where you are tempted to change the wording, give in to this temptation whenever you can.
I love that.
How smooth and polished is your dialogue? Could you use more contractions, more sentence fragments, more run-on sentences?
Is your stiff dialogue really exposition in disguise?
How well do your characters understand one another? Do they ever mislead one another or outright lie?
How about dialect? Are you using a lot of unusual spellings or other lexical tricks? If you re-write your dialect for standard spellings, does it still read like dialect?
Peter: I notice there was one bit where it says — if a shortcut to make dialogue sound a little bit more like speech is to use contractions and it’s a sure fire way to immediately make your dialogue less formal. Because, I don’t know why and I’ve been guilty of it myself in the past, is to sort of when writing dialogue to suddenly make it really formal. You know like, the most formal sort of speech just because someone’s speaking. Whereas in reality we don’t speak like that at all.
Obviously we don’t want to be writing dialogue that’s quite as informal as we do speak because there’d be lots of “umms” and “ahhs” and things like that, but just look at the dialogue and just add a few contractions and see if it makes it feel a bit more real.
Clark: Along with that — is how we speak? If you listen to this show, you’re going to hear us do a lot of “umms,” “ahhs,” pauses, going back and forth and things, small talk. All that is real. But when you put it into work, into your writing, it doesn’t sound real.
I remember being in a writer’s workshop; this was one of my first ones I ever did; it was a short story workshop. I put in this, what I thought was this really powerful argument, that these two people had; I took it from my own life; these were real words that people were saying, and they’re like, “it doesn’t sound real.” I was like, “but it is real, because this was actually what really happened.”
It’s getting to that point where you can make sound “real” even though it’s really “artificial.” Because it’s not how the way we normally speak but it’s how it sounds like we want it to sound when we speak.
Peter: Yes. Because if you look at the transcriptions of the show, where obviously the whole show is typed out in text, it’s really weird. It makes for quite a strange read. You know, one person will say something and then the other one will be like “yeah, yeah” and then say something. If you compare that to dialogue, it’s very jilted isn’t it? There’s a lot of flowing with not as much happening.
I mean obviously it’s all happening on the show, I don’t mean to say that.
Clark: Every word we speak is golden truth, Peter.
Peter: Yes, it is. But maybe have a look at them, because I found that really interesting, looking back across those.
Clark: I do too, and it’s a great way to do this. There’s another one in here —
Peter: If we could turn it into dialogue, add a few dialogue tags and… [joked Peter]
Clark: There was one more with contractions, and that’s also sentence fragments and run-on sentences.
Sometimes we can break the grammar rules inside our dialogue to make it sound more like how we would normally speak. But it should be used in limited ways; it shouldn’t be every single sentence should be like that. But it’s something you can look at.
I think along your lines, all of a sudden you’re writing dialogue and you’re making it all formal — I think it’s because we’re trained. We’re trained when we sit down in front of a computer and we’re typing up a paper that we need to be as formal as possible in that paper. We need to step back from that and make sure we are sounding normal.
Peter: — and also, moving on perhaps more from the fundamentals then, using dialogue as a tool for increasing the tension within the novel, I think it talks about removing some beats. Trying to take out the bits in between that might portray an action.
So someone says something and then they walk over to the kitchen sink and then they say something else, taking out those unnecessary movements and distilling it to just the dialogue to really amp up the tension of a scene.
Again, some great examples in that section to show you just how to do that.
Clark: Along with any one of these things, understand that your work needs to have a good rhythm to it, a good flow. Having that work, having that amped-up feeling of tension because of the shortened dialogue works because you’re not doing it in every single chapter.
Peter: Every character that meets each other — they are just this dead, distilled, immediate back and forth. . . . tense.
That’s really one of the techniques that you’re going to have to develop over time, is learning — if I want this to be really punched up, it means I can only use it X amount of times because it’s going to be overused. If it’s overused then it’s diluted and it doesn’t have the same kind of strength.
It’s like, in the army — I always like to keep these shows clean as possible language-wise — in the army I have my army speak. I’m dropping f-bombs and things like that all over the place.
But really, honestly, I don’t use them as much as some other guys use them. Some guys use them three or four times in a sentence and it loses any kind of meaning. I use them as kind of jokes to punctuate emphasis, because I don’t say it a lot. So it makes it more funny when I do say it.
That’s what it’s all about is, finding the right spot to put something in that you haven’t used a lot before.
Peter: Yes. It retains its power isn’t it. So… You’d then have to come out with something even worse to kind of get that shock factor.
It’s the same in writing where if you write dialogue this way or every scene is really tense, then… Or even action, say you have a lot of action. To then get the heightened emotional response from the reader, you’ve got to amp it up even more, because you’ve kind of set the norm quite high already, which is obviously why it’s preferential to have fluctuations in tension and action.
Clark: If you did that, if you wrote like that, who would you be writing like? Would there be a movie-type producer guy, Michael something.
Peter: Escapes me, you know.
Clark: Speak to me, something about an ocean or a sea or a bay, maybe it’s Michael Bay?
Peter: It’s definitely no-one we’d talk about constantly in the show . . .
Clark: I’m always waiting for the cease and desist notice from his lawyers to come along. So…
Moving on to the Chapter 7. We’re not doing these chapter by chapter, but just picking the ones that I thought were kind of interesting. Maybe it’s because of stuff that I’m working on right now that it definitely got to me a little bit more.
Chapter 7 talks about interior monologue. It’s one of those things that makes writing so unique. You can’t have or your very rarely see in a movie, interior monologue. You don’t get that what’s happening inside the head. Like it described in here, if they write that out, you’ve got to have a really good actor to be able to portray that and to show that.
Certainly we’ve talked a lot about Show before — Show Don’t Tell — and amping that up. This is not about just describing something. But it gives you an opportunity to jump inside the character’s head and what they’re thinking.
So here’s one now, and this is a bad example. It says —
“Mike why are you here?” She asked this in what she hoped sounded like a neutral and reasonable tone. She knew how close she was to losing her defenses and made a special effort to pull back and regard Mike with professional distance.
“I need your help,” he said.
“Why come to me?” After all he knew she hated him.
“Because I trust you.”
Laura shook her head and pulled a notepad from the top drawer of her desk. “I’ll give you the names of three excellent therapists,” she said, head buried in the paper, “and you can chose the one you feel most comfortable with.”
“Not that kind of help,” his voice was commanding and demanding simultaneously. “No this is in the nature of police work.”
Laura felt herself become angry at him and his intrusion into her life, the sooner he left the better.
“Get to the point Mike.”
Yes. We get inside her head but what this is doing is causing these stops, these interruptions. If you were to read page after page after page of this, a reader is going to disconnect. So having this in — again, it’s not all the time — it can be very powerful, but when it’s there all the time, all of a sudden that dialogue becomes very stop, stop, stop and it just has no more flow to it.
Peter: Yes and you can even hear a few tells slipping across in that dialogue — “she felt angry.” That’s something that would be way more interesting to see than it is just to be told.
Clark: Yes, exactly. I wish they would have done a fix on that one. They didn’t on this one, although they do go on to talk about the constant interruptions in the interior monologue.
It’s such an interesting thing that can happen. Sometimes I forget; sometimes I forget about how powerful the internal monologue can be, because it is something that’s completely and totally unique to writing a book. It should be taken advantage of when possible.
I want to jump to the checklist on this one, and —
Peter: On that note, on the interior monologue. Again, there were a few things that I’d never considered as well in terms of narrative distance, and — are you using the right monologue for the narration of your story?
That’s not something that I’d considered much in the past — are you using italics? Are you adding thinker attributions? Is your narrative voice far away, but then there is a disparity between that and the way that the interior monologue sounds?
The book explains it far better than I’m going to do justice now, but that’s something I’d never thought of and I think this chapter alone makes the book worth buying. Because interior monologues are hard to get right, I think.
See what I did there?
Clark: — Peter thought.
It really can be a very significant choice in what you’re writing. First person point of view, you should already be pretty close; we already have that intimacy. But when we move over to third person we have more perspective and we lose some of that intimacy. So bringing this internal monologue in, especially in the third person point of view, can bring back some of that intimacy.
But yes, how do you do it? How distant do you still want to be. Is the narration an actual narrator? These are just questions that you need to ask yourself as you’re putting this together and hopefully you’re asking yourself this before you started writing it, but if your manuscript is done and you’re taking it back and looking at it, it might not have been something you even considered before.
Peter: Yes. Again, if you’ve got a particular style and it works and it’s working well, then that’s fine. Like a lot of the books and suggestions, they’re by no means what you have to do; but they’re just great for that divergent thinking, getting you into a mode of asking questions about your own work and looking at things in a fresh angle, which is what’s so important when it comes to self-editing is being able to look at your own work with a fresh mind, because that’s the hardest thing to achieve. Getting into that practice so that, as we’ve said before, you can send it away and it requires less editing afterwards. The more you can ask these questions, the better.
Clark: Here’s one more example of this. I like how they just keep breaking this down depending on how close you are with the point of view character and the intimacy with the reader.
So the first one —
Had he meant to kill her? “Not likely,” he thought.
“Had he meant to kill her, not likely.”
“Had he meant to kill her,” he thought.
Had he meant to kill her?
See how each one of those brings a different distance to it. When we have that last one — Had he meant to kill her?– that’s the most intimate one because it doesn’t even require tossing in the tag or anything at the end there; we know we’re in the mind of that particular character’s point of view.
Peter: Yes, that’s the closest to direct thought, out of the bunch of them.
Clark: The exercises in these are really cool because it gives you the possibility of going through and re-writing the scene and to fix it. Then of course in the back of the book, it has how they fixed it and so you can take a look to see what you’ve done versus what they’ve done.
We’ve got one more little section to go through here before we’re out of time. This is from the chapter, Breaking Up Is Easy To Do. We’ve talked about this several times in different episodes before. The idea — and sometimes you don’t get this as much in e-book but you definitely get it in a print book form — is how does it look on paper?
When you turn that page and you’ve got an entire huge paragraph and it’s the one single paragraph on the page, that can feel really daunting and it’s difficult for the reader to want to climb that Mount Everest to get through the next thing.
So this has a very good series of exercises to do, to look at for breaking up not only paragraphs, but also chapters and scenes. We’ll go through the checklist here and we can talk about this.
The first one is —
Flip through your manuscript without even reading it, just notice the white space.
Meaning that you’re going to need to probably print this off so you can get a really good look at it.
Just notice the white space. How much of it is there? Do you have any paragraphs that go on as much as a page length? Are there a lot of the paragraphs that run longer than a half page?
If one of your scenes seems to drag, trying paragraphing a little more often, because that is all about rhythm and pacing.
It’s all about pacing there.
Do you have scenes with no longer paragraphs? Remember, what you’re after is the right balance. Have your characters made little speeches to one another? If you’re writing a novel, are all your scenes or chapters exactly the same length?
Peter: I love that bit, “Have your characters made little speeches to one another?”
I think another good point from there is… Because obviously, the more white space, the easier it is to read isn’t it? Because I guess if you think of children’s books — a lot of white space. Classic English literature — hardly any white space.
But now, obviously it’s about maintaining reader engagement, the book being more easy to read. But one tip it says is as well as breaking up paragraphs… Obviously paragraphs as well, it’s not an essay and different rules apply.
You can make more stylistic choices with fiction. But also it says to have dialogue stand on its own, which also adds more impact to the dialogue but also increases white space. It’s just a little tool for the toolbox.
So for example, right at the end of the chapter, the chapter ends with a character delivering some news, so the last line is just that dialogue, like four or five words, standing on its own, no tags, no explanation, just the bomb of the revelation.
But having dialogue stand on its own in this little way throughout, is a great way to break up paragraphs further and to add in more white space and to really narrow the focus on that line. I think that’s why they say that “said” is the best dialogue tag because we’re used to seeing it, it almost becomes invisible to the reader. Whereas when obviously someone screams something or shouts, it kind of draws our attention to the tag. So by removing the tag and removing everything from around the dialogue, and adding white space, it’s easy to read and the words themselves stand on their own with a little more impact.
Clark: This also goes back to rewarding your reader, especially in the print version specifically here.
A test we did a few years ago with “Another Day, Another Name” is that instead of… It could have come in at 360 pages on an 8X5-sized book. Instead of doing that we added an extra 100 pages to the book and made the font just a little bit larger, made sure we had a little bit more paragraph breaks, a little bit more white space. It was a reward for how fast the reader turned those pages to get to the next part and it made a feeling of reward as they went through it.
The same thing can be said with doing it this way with your white space, because it’s making it easier to read. The faster the person reads, the better they feel about themselves. It’s like when you pick up a Atlas Shrugged and you get your magnifying glass out so you can read the book, through a page, you’re like I got through a page, I’m done for the day. But what if in a half hour period they can get through twice as many pages as they normally would? Think of the encouragement there — the idea of a “page turner” — that’s what it is right there.
So those of you who are in the self-publishing, who are doing your own; you’re getting the print book ready; please don’t make your choice for how you do the layout based on the cost of the print of the book. Make the choice based on how readable the book is. If it’s going to cost an extra fifty cents to print the book, I’m sorry you’re losing that extra fifty cents, but you’re going to gain more readership if the book is easy to read.
Peter: That’s great advice. As well, something that I’d never really thought of there with that idea of reward, from getting through more pages. That’s really interesting and profound as well.
Clark: That’s our profound moment for this one. And that was not in here, that’s something we did first, so you know.
But there it is. Just to sum this up. I love this book. This is a fantastic book, again it’s “Self-Editing For Fiction Writers” by Renni Brown and Dave King. I would definitely recommend that you grab a copy of this at whatever stage you’re at. If you’re just starting to write, it’s going to give you a lot of good ideas on how to put stuff together; if you’re at that manuscript stage it’s going to be awesome for you to go through and work on your manuscript there.
Peter: Definitely a “must have” on the shelf I would say — or the screen if you have to, but preferably the shelf.
Clark: Honestly, you’re going to probably get it cheaper in paperback, because they’re already in to the second edition, so you’re going to be able to find used ones. I believe the e-book is almost $13 for the e-book version. Pick it up; get it ordered. Use it, love it, all that kind of stuff.
Did you have anything else that you want to add here?
Peter: No. I was going to go into a little bit more of the…
Clark: We’ve got a few more minutes.
Peter: OK. I’ll touch on this last point because this is one more great point that I really took from it that I think is worth remembering. There’s a chapter on making your writing more sophisticated, and it’s the bit where it says — if you use actions weakly.
Do you remember the chapter? So it says — as she took off her gloves she said this — or whatever. Or — taking off her gloves she said this.– so adding the “ing” or the “as.”
It just says that a lot of publishers and a lot of editors will see that as weak writing, and a quick way to trim that up and improve that is to look to where you’ve used an action as a dependent clause and try and have the action stand on its own. So — “she takes off her gloves” — and then that stands on its own; then she says what she says. As opposed to — “as she takes off her gloves she…” — because you’re kind of skipping over the actions and making it a bit more passive.
But I just wanted to point that out. Some of these points you might have heard before but it does give you some really technical ways to improve your writing as well. If you want to go to that level and you want to start thinking about sentence clauses and passive verbs, then that is in there as well, even though the chapters are short. It is useful on a microscopic level like that also.
Clark: That’s a good one to end on. Again, pick up the book. You really will enjoy this. It’s going to help you. It might make you pull your hair out at some points because there’s going to be stuff that call into question how you’ve been writing, and that’s OK, because this is a lifelong process and continually moving forward.
No-one, even Stephen King is at a perfected level of being god-of-writing type of thing, so just don’t hold yourself against anyone else, this is all just against you and just make yourself a better writer with it.
Peter: You don’t need to master all of these. I just wanted to touch on that last chapter because just to show how comprehensive this book is. Try not to read it holding the standard of yourself to master all this stuff straight away. Maybe pick the thing that you feel that you’re weakest at or need the most work and just go with that and use it for that for now. It’s a very comprehensive book and it’s not important to get it all on the first read either.
Clark: Yes, exactly. You’re going to have it for a long time, it’s going to be a good reference for you.
Wrapping up the show. If you like the show please leave us a review on iTunes, a plus on Google or a like on YouTube. If you’re an editor who’d like to be a guest on the show, stop by thebookeditorshow.com and drop us an email. I’m Clark Chamberlain for my co-host Peter Turley, keep writing, keep learning and build a better book.