Susan Bell’s “The artful edit”

Susan Bell’s The artful edit should be required reading for anyone who writes and/or calls themselves an editor.

First, it is a how-to of the mind, not of the pen (or keyboard). You won’t find rules on punctuation or grammar (or if they’re in there, I didn’t notice).

What you will find is page after page of stunning insight into how editing and editorial minds work. Most authors I know read through their manuscripts at least once before submitting them for publication. I know what I look for during such reads and realize now I’m skimming the surface.

Bell explains different editing methodologies in wonderful detail. More than that, she shares how a variety of editors work, what’s in their heads while they edit, what they look for, their goals for manuscripts, and much more.

The artful edit is rife with examples (another major plus for me). Each example comes from the exchange between an author and their editor (of which she is one) and is detailed by the exchange itself. How did The Great Gatsby become great? What became of the editor who wanted to hem in Hemingway?

Bell’s bibliography is a prize in itself, a must reading list.


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Rita Mae Brown’s “Starting from Scratch”

A Writer’s Mechanic’s Manual for Any Car on the Road

Okay, first thing and before anything else, Get This Book!

I don’t care where you are in your writing career, Rita Mae Brown’s Starting from Scratch will give you a chuckle (several hundred, probably) and clarify things that were not only muddy, but had been pushed aside because they were just too damn hard to figure out.

Worry no more, Rita’s got you covered.

 
I didn’t know who Rita Mae Brown was until a friend suggested I give her a read. This was back in the early-mid 1980s. He thought she was brilliant and hilarious.

That didn’t tempt me.

Then he told me she could benchpress 225#.

Yes, I was that much of an assh?le (may still be) that that caught my interest.

But I didn’t pick up one of her books (that I remember) until my first go-round as a writer. That book being Starting from Scratch.

Reading the book recently, it’s obvious I had read it at least once before; there were highlights in it. There were highlights of concepts I remember, if not exact phrasings. Truth be told, I was probably unprepared for the book when I first read it (my copy was published in Feb 1988). I’m glad I kept it around.

Starting from Scratch is a mechanic’s manual of the English language. Brown explains the purpose of first v third person POV with duh! level examples and lots of them. Ditto subjunctive case (trust me, you need to read this section). Ditto strong v weak verbs (another must read). Imagine someone showing you a crescent wrench and a 9/16″ box-end, showing you they can do the same thing, then demonstrating why one works better on these types of nuts, the other works better on those types of nuts.

Her Exercises chapter…remember what I wrote above about being impressed by her bench? Here’s your cardio and resistance training in one incredible package.


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Aristotle’s “Poetics”

I’ve read a few writing texts and better than half mention Aristotle’s Poetics as the original, the source, what everything else is based on. I managed to kick that gauntlet out of my way for quite a while and finally yielded.

 
Everybody mentions it’s a short book. It is. The PDF version I found is 49 pages (and that includes lots of room where explanations of Greek phrasing and words are made).

Does it have everything you need in a writing text? Yes, if you’re consider just mechanics (what is a plot? What is characterization? What is dialogue?), no if you happen to be a writer also dealing with marketing, contracts, et cetera. Let’s face it, it is an ancient text written by someone at the height of his game. Aristotle was a household name when he wrote this (if you want a writing text by someone still bandaging their scars from their early battles, read Barry Longyear’s Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop – I: An Introduction to Fiction Mechanics).

Aristotle was also a master logician and it shows – my god, does it show – in how explains writing concepts.
Is it accessible? ROFL, are you kidding? This is an ancient text, remember? His examples all come from ancient texts. He painstakingly describes character, sure, but his examples are from Sophocles, Euripides, Thrycine, Inoculene, Phlegmatic, and Spyrochete (yes, I made some of those up. Good for you if you knew which ones).

And it’s dense. Consider your average 300 page writing text squished into 49 pages with just as much raw information.

And some of it’s in Greek. Not even modern Greek, you’ll need to pick up a few things from konic.

So how useful is it?


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Damon Knight’s “Creating Short Fiction”

Not one of the better books for emerging writers

Caveat #1 up front: I studied with Damon Knight a lifetime and a half ago. Caveat #2 I read the original hardcover, not the “The Classic Guide to Writing Short Fiction Revised Edition” paperback.

This was a fascinating read for me as I could hear Knight speaking throughout. Is it a worthy book?

Not convinced it is. There’s a lot in it and Knight provides plenty of exercises. What is not provided is clear, concise examples of technique. There’s lots of “Some people do it this way, others do it that way, you find your own way, and here are some exercises to help you find that way.”

I’m not an advocate of that “find your own way” school until you’ve learned the basics. In traditional Japanese martial arts, there’s a concept of “cutting” and if there’s anything demonstrating the “10,000 hour rule”, “cutting” has to be it. My point is (and all my teachers might agree), once you’ve got “cutting” down, everything else just happens. I prefer books that help you perfect your cutting then let you find your own way.

The book is strong on theory, weak on practice and application. There’s some good stuff here, simply not enough of it to make it a worthy read.

 


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Charles R. Swindoll’s “Touching Others With Your Words”

An interesting read if you’re an anthropologist studying this segment of modern culture but not worth most writer’s time

First, it fascinates me that my copy is entitled “Touching Others With Your Words/The Art and Practice of Successful Speaking” and the Amazon version is “Saying It Well/Touching Others With Your Words.” Perhaps between my edition and the current one the author learned the importance of concision in crafting titles?

This book is about crafting good sermons. But good sermons are essentially good stories. Does the author provide enough insight into good story-telling and -crafting to make it a worthwhile read?

For my part, not really. Unless you’re evangelical, it takes a lot of reading to find the nuggets worth keeping.


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