While on the subject of novel revision, let’s talk about a popular book focused on the subject of rewrites: Renni Browne and Dave King’s Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.
The Boulder Public Library doesn’t seem to have a copy. In hopes of getting a better taste of the book, I’ve been perusing user reviews at online booksellers and exploring the authors’ own website.
The result: I’m disinclined to buy the book. Maybe you can convince me otherwise?
First off, it would appear that reviewers mostly praise the book for the help it gave them in fixing their line-by-line mechanics. Use “said” instead of fancy dialogue tags, avoid adverbs, avoid repetition, show don’t tell. Use -ings, “as” and exclamation points sparingly. That sort of thing. This book can help your perfect your sentences and paragraphs, but will it help you perfect your novel? From Amazon.com reviewer Victoria Tarrani’s brief description of each chapter, it would appear that only Chapter 10, “Proportion,” addresses novel-length issues, and only a narrow set of those. Questions of scene, structure and multi-threaded plotting seem to be beyond this book’s scope.
Next, I read the Chapter 12 excerpt at the author’s website. This chapter proposes to teach the writer to find his or her unique voice, thus:
You shouldn’t consciously work on your voice as you write, but there is a way to encourage it when you get to the self-editing stage. Start by rereading a short story, scene, or chapter as if you were reading it for the first time. Whenever you come to a sentence or phrase that gives you a little jab of pleasure, that makes you say, “Ah, yes,” that sings — highlight that passage.[…] Then go through and read aloud all the sentences you highlighted or underlined.[…] What you’ve been reading aloud will represent, for now, your voice at its most effective.
Seems I’ve heard the first half of that advice before, followed by the earnest suggestion that I delete every highlighted phrase. In other words, “kill your darlings.” The advice can be overapplied or misapplied, certainly, but the premise is sound: Where you’ve fallen in love with your own clever way with words, your readers will see a big, jarring sign that says “Admire my artistic voice!”
Learning the difference between a phrase that sings and a phrase that’s a showoff is the work of experience. Until then, Browne and King’s voice-finding strategy is as susceptible to misapplication as “kill your darlings” is.
But here’s where I really question the authors’ wisdom: Self-editing, say Browne and King, “is probably the only kind of editing your manuscript will ever get.” Self-Editing for Fiction Writers has given reviewer Lovitt the impression that “Many publishing houses have eliminated the tedious step of editing a promising manuscript to bring it up to its full potential. If they like it coming in the door, the manuscript is published ‘as is’!” And even the official Amazon.com review takes their word for it: “There’s not much of the old-style editing going on at publishing houses today.”
Hogwash. I know from first-hand experience that even this extremely short story underwent several rounds of one-on-one critique and revision with the magazine editor, with results that were light years improved over its original submission version. And author James D. Macdonald disproves Browne and King’s assertion that “if the plot doesn’t hold the reader from page one to the end…, the manuscript is rejected — potential be damned” with a single anecdote:
I recently had a chat with a New York editor who had bought a first novel out of the slush pile. The book was interesting, the story moved right along, the voice was unique — and it fell apart in the last quarter. The author had no clue how to end a novel for all that he’d started brilliantly.
Where most editors write revision letters, this editor wrote a revision novella.
“What will you do,” I asked, “if the author won’t make the changes?”
“Put a cheap cover on it,” the editor replied.
Self-editing is absolutely necessary. But it has always been necessary. Browne and King seem to think that it’s only necessary now, and only because publishing house staff stopped doing their jobs. The authors of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers appear to bemoan the passing of some mythical golden age of publishing during which an author with a sufficiently compelling plot could, as a rule, sell the stark unedited rough draft, relying on in-house editors to take it from there. (Also, back then, the weather was clement, children behaved themselves and the fishing, moreover, was better.) Alas for those halcyon days! Alas for these degenerate times!
Despite a few exceptions to the contrary (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road comes to mind), authors have been revising their rough drafts since the time of Dickens and well before. And editors — and agents, too! — continue to work with authors post-acquisition to make the manuscript the best book it can be. Why wouldn’t they? Publishing houses need to sell these books. And if you needed more corroboration, remember that each year at the World Science Fiction Convention two Hugos are awarded for “Best Editor, Short Form” and “Best Editor, Long Form” (in 2011, Sheila Williams and Lou Anders, respectively). Rest assured that editors do not win Hugos simply by plucking a masterpiece out of the slush and passing it untouched up the chain of production.
The problem isn’t publishing houses that don’t edit. The problem is authors who expect publishing houses not to change a single one of their golden words. And Browne and King only exacerbate the problem by pushing that old “editors don’t edit” chestnut. Shame on them.