Thursday, January 3, 2013

Self Editing for Fiction Writers, Chapter One

Show and Tell

Some time ago, I wrote about "Writing to Sell" by Scott Meredith and how this book made a difference in how I write. I still think it is a fantastic book and should be a staple in every writer's libraruy. Last week I found another book while reading a blog by David Gaughran. David recommended a book titled "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. As I took a look at the book I figured I might as well see what it had to offer so I purchased it. It arrived Saturday. I read the first chapter today. I wish I would have had this book five years ago. I wish I would have had BOTH of these books five years ago. (For additional insights, check out Dave King's website here.)

As I read today, I decided I would blog about each chapter as I go through the book. I am going to list only the highlights, with a little comment as I go along. My comments will be in parenthesis. I am doing this primarily for my benefit, as my entire blog is primarily for my personal benefit. It's not like I have 100M followers who are impatiently waiting to discover what I am thinking about tonight. But by blogging on this book, I hope to drill the principles a little deeper into my cranium. So, for the few of you who may accidentally stumble on to this post, here you go.

Tonight I will be covering the introduction and the first chapter: Show and Tell. My apologies to Renni Browne and Dave King, who wrote "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I will be paraphrasing at times, which means I may get something wrong. I hope I got the points you meant for me to get. If not, well you can always leave a comment and point me in the right direction. Or tell me to cease and desist. But I pray you do not.
Writing and editing are two different skills, and even strong writers can make poor editors.
A word of warning: because writing and editing are two different skills, they require two different mind-sets. Don't try to do both at once. The time to edit is not when you're writing your first draft. But once the first draft is finished...use the principles in this book.

Chapter 1  Show and Tell
(Most of this chapter Matt Stover taught me in our brief email exchange two years ago. In the past, I have found that when I have tried to explain this concept to others, some just do not seem to understand. Perhaps that is my fault for not communicating properly. This chapter gives some wonderful examples and sage advice.)
(after giving two examples of narrative, which I will leave for you to find out for yourself) It's a matter of showing and telling...The first version is a secondhand report. The second is an immediate scene.
What, exactly, makes a scene? For one thing it takes place in real time.
Nowadays, literature is leaner and meaner and it's often a good idea to give your readers just enough detail to jump start their imagination so they can picture the setting for themselves. (I try to do this with my characters as well. I am not too concerned what a person looks like as much as what they do or say. I want my reader to see Uncle Willy when they read about Charley. This brings the reader into the story, making it personal.)

Scenes are usually harder to write than narrative. Many writers rely to heavily on narrative summaries to tell their stories.
Readers today have become accustomed to seeing a story as a series of immediate scenes. Narrative summary no longer engages readers the way it once did.

You want to draw your readers into the world you've created, make them feel a part of it, make them forget where they are. And you can't do this effectively if you tell your readers about your world secondhand. You have to take them there.

The first chapter is not the best place for narrative summary. (I learned this from Stephen King's "The Stand". From the first word on you are engaged in the story.)

One of the easiest ways to look like an amateur is to use mechanics that direct attention to themselves and away from the story. You want your readers to be so wrapped up in your world that they're not even aware that you, the writer, exist.

To write exposition at length--describing your characters' past or events that happened before the story began or any information your readers might need to understand your plot--is to engage your readers intellect. What you want to do is to engage their emotions.
Narrative summary has its uses, the main one being to vary the rhythm and texture of your writing.

Some plot developments are simply not important enough to justify scenes. (What I am doing is saving those scenes and publishing them as short stories, for free. If I end up with enough of them, I will publish them as a collection of back stories. I am willing to kill the little darlings but not bury them.)

Telling your readers about your characters' emotions is not the best way to get your readers involved. Far better to show why your characters feel they way they do not want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.

Resist the Urge to Explain. R.U.E. (Or you will rue the day you did.)
More often than not, writers tell their readers things they already shown by dialogue and action. It is as if they're repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. (When Matt Stover introduced me to "Writing to Sell", this was my sin. He took me to task for this and rightfully so. My tome at the time was just over 121,000 words. Today it is just over 71,000. I have 42% excessive exposition. At least, that is how I look at it.)

When you show rather than tell it, you treat your readers with respect. And that respect makes it easier to for you to draw them into the world you created. (Matt told me to trust my readers. I think this is crucial.)

BY Rogers is the author of The Sin of Certainty. His blog is at 
He can be contacted at


Scott said...

That is one of my top three writing books. Thanks for the summary!

B Y Rogers said...

You are welcome Scott. But I must ask, what are your other two?

Scott said...

I like The First Five Pages and Make a Scene. I probably have five or six "top three" books, but those two come immediately to mind.

Scott said...

(I've never claimed to be good at numbers.). :)