Self Editing for Fiction Writers and The Cat Who Smelled a Rat: A craft conundrum.


I just finished reading two very different books that affected my writing enormously, them both being antipodal in craft to one another. One is the popular writer’s craft book, Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renne Brown and Dave King. Both these individuals are professional editors with distinguished credentials. The second book is The Cat Who Smelled a Rat by Lilian Jackson Braun. Ms. Braun is the author of an entire series of Cat Who mysteries and a former copywriter and newspaper editor.

The authors of Self Editing for Fiction make a number of assumptions in their book that I find inaccurate, at least in my case, and potentially detrimental to writers of fiction. They state that any number of frowned upon fiction techniques can cause a reader to drop a book like a hot rock (I will paraphrase here rather than look up direct quotes. It’s too painful). For instance, they warn against incorrect or improperly constructed interior monologue, sloppy use of narrative distance, poor attribution (don’t use attributions like ‘chortled’ ‘chuckled’ ‘snorted’ etc. you get the idea.), out of proportion, artifice in voice or characterization, improperly placed or overly long narrative summary, etc. In doing so, they make assumptions about readers that are no doubt based on scientific surveys or book marketing sales figures but I think they don’t really apply to me as a reader. I can’t remember the last time, if ever, that I put down a book because I could no longer abide how the author displayed interior monologue or used numerous ‘impossible’ attributions. Nor can I remember trashing a book for proportion issues or too much narrative summary. Like the word ‘said’, most of these issues are less glaringly apparent to readers, especially casual readers, than the publishing world would have us believe. All you have to do to prove this to yourself is make a trip to your local bookstore and begin perusing books off the shelf. Two things that all of your selections will have in common, guaranteed, is that they were published and that you picked them out to flip through them. ‘Nuff said.

By the time I had finished Self Editing for Fiction Writers I had almost discounted everything the authors had to say as bogus nonsense from a writing standpoint. Frankly, there was, indeed, quite a bit of valuable advice provided, but I think an author would be well advised to sort and pick through the brambles of overly disquisitional exegesis for the pearls of construct they can use, i.e., pick out the boloney from the biscuits; toss the former; treasure the latter.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s best selling mysteries are an excellent example. One of the most basic, well-worn writing prompts for any wordsmith is don’t overuse exclamation points. In fact, don’t use ‘em at all in most cases. (See Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.) Ms. Braun’s book is not only littered with them, almost every sentence ends with one! Mr. King and Ms. Brown say not to use attributions like ‘chortle’ because it stretches the readers limits of credulity, i.e., a character cannot say something in dialogue while chortling. But Ms. Braun uses attributions like ‘chortle’ routinely and I never once thought that she had placed her character in an impossible situation. Truthfully, I did not care for Ms. Braun’s mysteries to any appreciable degree. I thought the book was kind of droll and silly. The one thing I actively disliked was her use of anthropomorphism in casting her cat characters. And I love cats; probably even did the same thing with the last cat we had, although I never did it intentionally, that I can recall; maybe she didn’t either. Though it was a relatively small book, I took forever to read it because I kept falling asleep.

The one thing that casts a gloomy aura over my opinion is that they are professional book editors with publishing industry track records and credentials and I have had only one book published. Perhaps if I took their advice more to heart and practiced it religiously until I mastered it, I would have more success in publishing my next manuscript. The dark shadow I cast on their book is because I don’t want my writing to become a hypnagogic image of other published authors’ works. Published or not, I want my stories to be unique, colorful, interesting, stories that shout to the world that only one genius could possibly have created anything so amusing: Jerry Watson.

Having spoken my piece, I want to hear yours. Please email me with your opinions, criticisms (kindly ones, please. I’m very sensitive!) comments and suggestions.

P.S. If you want to read a good book, albeit an older one, try ‘Opinions of a Cheerful Yankee’ by Irving Bacheller copyright 1926 The Bobbs-Merrill Company Publishers. Next time I will try to post an opinion of his enjoyable essays. Thanks! Bye.

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