AJ Reads ‘Self-Editing for Fiction Writers’: Introduction, Show and Tell

I’m one of those people who reads all the introductions to her books—at least, all the ones that are penned by the actual writer(s) of the work. It’s a cool way to chillax with author(s) before they get up and perform, see where they’re coming from, and whether the second edition is going to be any good if you’ve read the first edition already.

I’m reading the second edition of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I remember a lot of the first, the rules having become bone-deep when I threw myself into analyzing “The Speckled Band”, so we’ll see if the second edition was worth buying over again for the Kindle.

The claim of the introduction is that you can edit yourself into print—traditional print publishing. I’m… more reluctant to believe this claim in modern publishing with the advent of books like Twilight.

On the other hand, I do think that every writer who plans to publish, whether traditionally or via self-publishing, owes it to their audience to devote time to editing. And I don’t mean the kind of editing where you dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and I’m not even talking the kind of editing that’s shown so prominently on the front cover of this book. The issues covered by Self-Editing are story-telling ones, which are the most important to the craft.

So let’s take a look at the first area they cover for realsies: Show and Tell.

To tell the truth, I’d forgotten the first example of show versus tell. The passage they lay in front of us is so very innocently plausible. You’d never have guessed it was the soulless narrative summary of the first scene from The Great Gatsby—there was such potential there already. It was a good-enough passage.

Then Browne and King reveal the real scene, and your jaw drops. What was good-enough is now spectacular.

That’s the point, really: learning about these techniques and patterns and applying the lessons is how you get your manuscript to the next level. With every detailed example and exercise, you get a small picture of the magic that a good editor brings to your draft.

What if you could at least bring your work just half-a-step above good-enough, all by yourself? Even all the way? Bring your story to life as it’s truly meant to be, and not just a shadow of a simple revise pass that only corrects spelling and grammar, or even one that only mends plot holes and inconsistencies?

The material covered in chapter 1 is an excellent lesson on show versus tell—including the classic markers for determining the difference between scene and summary. (A scene: takes place in a specific, real location with specific, real people. It’s watching the movie rather than telling your friend about the movie.)

You don’t show all the time, either, usually for pacing reasons. They give examples of places where tell worked better than show, but those are far rarer than not. As the initial example showed, there’s an amazing amount that can be shown rather than told, even for information dumps.

ETA: I can’t believe I didn’t add R.U.E.! Resist the Urge to Explain. A good shorthand for revision.

(I’m thinking now of Doyle’s client story information dumps, which are the epitome of showing rather than telling, inserting entire sub-stories and even sub-sub-stories within stories.)

More insidious, though, are the ways in which even a scene can contain elements of telling. This advice echoes that from Bell: instead of simply saying, “Maviaq felt scared,” which doesn’t engage, describe Maviaq’s physical and visceral reactions to something scary, which draws readers in. This works even for first-person point-of-view, which I suspect a lot of people dislike reading because there’s such an inherent urge to turn everything into tell rather than show, that even good writers can give in to excessive telling.

Oh… well, okay, I guess I’ll go embarrass myself… let’s take an example: “Amanda took one look at the hotel room and recoiled in disgust.” A good-enough sentence. Now let’s try out the advice of Browne and King:

The hotel door closed behind her with the hackle-raising creak of an ill-kept door. Amanda flicked the light switch, which had the effect of lighting a simple bare bulb above a dusty table beside a bed with grimy sheets. Even made, there showed milky stains across the coverlet and pillow, leftovers of only the gods knew what. The paisley carpeted floor had ground-in dirt, with shapes and locations that led the mind to terrible imaginings.

Across one wall, spackled the color of regurgitated pea soup, a cockroach skittered and disappeared into a crack where doubtless more of its brethren were gathered, waiting for their opportunity once the light was off.

She put one hand to her mouth, and resisted retching, thinking that the last thing she wanted to do was leave another ghastly stain for the next guest to gaze upon.

For the price of expanding on a good-enough sentence, you get setting and a bit of characterization.

It’s like freaking magic that even a schlub like me can do.

And it’s why revision can be fun. You get to mark all the places where you can add extra fun for yourself, writing in the details that would otherwise be missed.