So I’ve mentioned before that in my quest to read and analyze 10 popular books on creative writing to see how/whether they talk about the role of research in the creative process, not every book is a good candidate, but I’m being a completist about it anyway because you never know.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King is the ninth book on the list. Below are some thoughts.
Amateur writer = hack writer = shitty writer
I’m going to admit it up front: this book maybe wasn’t my favorite on the list. There are a couple of reasons why but the first one had to do with the tone. Something I didn’t notice about many of the books on this list until I read this one is that they all take a reasonably gentle and encouraging tone. I mean, in On Writing, there are a few things Stephen King gets a little ornery about and he does talk about how it’s not really possible to make a bad writer into a good writer (or is it a good writer into a great writer?). But because he’s writing in the voice of Stephen King, which is generally very personable, you still get the feeling of an experienced, successful writer offering hard-won wisdom to someone less experienced or less successful. You might be a good writer. You might be a great writer. You might be a shitty writer. He makes no assumptions other than that you are someone who wants to be a writer.
The authors of Self-Editing pretty much assume that if you’re reading their book you’re a shitty writer. Actually, they don’t say that. They assume you’re an amateur but the tone of the book, to me at least, suggests that an amateur writer is a shitty writer. You can tell because they use phrases like “the mark of an amateur” and for an entire chapter substitute “amateur writer” with “hack writer” just to change things up.
On the one hand, I get it. Until recently, I worked as a writing tutor as a side gig. This isn’t the same as professional book editing, but I can at least relate to how it feels to be seeing the same damn problems over and over again.
I also do not doubt Browne & King’s experience and expertise. Though there are bits and pieces that I don’t personally agree with, it’s all good advice.
But at one point, the authors actually say, “When an amateur tries deliberately for the sort of mature voice found in seasoned professionals, the result is likely to be pretentious and largely unreadable.”
Like, yeah. Write in your own voice, obviously, rather than trying to imitate someone else’s voice. But this is basically telling people to not experiment or even try, to leave that kind of thing to the Great Writers. And maybe that makes sense because presumably Browne & King’s audience is one that’s getting ready to submit their work somewhere rather than one that’s still playing around. But still.
Not letting your research show
Browne & King don’t talk about research but they do talk about something they call “pet interests” and “hobbies” which to me sounds kind of like research. A specific example they use is of a writer who spends an entire chapter explaining how various types of burglar alarms work. They refer to this as a pet interest, but to me it sounds like something the writer did some research on and became interested in and then got a little overenthusiastic about it in his writing.
When it comes to this kind of thing, the authors here are very much in line with Stephen King’s stance that you shouldn’t let your pet interests (research) show. As Stephen King said, this is a novel, not a research paper.
Which is true and I can understand how this can lead to the problem of proportion that Browne & King are talking about and why it’s important for less experienced writers to be warned against that. I just wish Browne & King hadn’t called them “pet interests.” Paired with their insistence on frequently using phrases like “hack writers,” it kind of rubbed me the wrong way as a reader.
What not to do
In the edition that I read, the authors mention in a brief introduction that they’d realized that earlier editions focused too much on what not to do and didn’t give enough examples of good writing to be used as a model. I don’t know what the earlier editions might have looked like (though I could probably get my hands on one if I was motivated enough) but while there do seem to be lots of examples of good writing here (even some from genre fiction rather than literary fiction, which is a nice change from previously read books), holy shit is there a lot of stuff in here not only telling you what not to do but using language that actively mocks people for doing it.
Which would be fine if they didn’t ruin what is often perfectly good (if standard) advice with what seem to me like terrible ideas on how to employ that advice. For example, Browne & King tell writers to not only avoid using any speech tags other than “said” (common advice, which I personally agree with) but then they tell you not to use speaker attributions AT ALL. Then, when talking about the many uses of interior monologue and how that can be valuable to a story (true), they say, “So what’s the right amount of interior monologue? Sorry, you’re on your own with that.” Like, what the hell? Obviously it’s up to the writer (with help from an editor) to find a good balance but why not just say that?
Also, at one point they recommend replacing the clichéd phrase “they vanished into thin air” with “they vanished into thick air.” Ew.
What did adverbs and romance novels ever do to anyone?
In On Writing, Stephen King rails pretty hard against the use of adverbs. In Writing Fiction: A Narrative Guide to Craft, Janet Burroway has a similar stance. Browne & King on the same subject: “Adverbs have been used too often by so many hacks in the past.”
Like many writing books, romance novels are held up here as an epitome of bad writing because of course they are. Browne & King specifically call out romance novels for the great sin of using too many italics (I read romance novels from time to time and have to say: I have never once noticed this) and add onto that some weirdly prudish advice about how to write a sex scene.
I don’t know. I realize I’m on the verge of ranting at this point. It’s just that I think the advice in this book has a lot of value but it’s completely undermined by the tone. It could be I’m just experiencing fatigue from having read so many of these kinds of books but honestly. With all due respect to the authors, if I had to recommend a writing book to someone, this would not be the first one on the list. Or the ninth.