TL;DR: This is a book of decent advice hidden in a sea of excess examples, author ego, and general organizational issues. 25% stuff, 75% fluff.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, by Renni Browne and Dave King, is mentioned by several sources as a go-to book for those looking to learn more about editing fiction. As a professional editor wanting to learn more about the ins and outs of editing fiction narratives, I thought it might be a good resource to try.
Overall, the book had some very interesting and important things to teach. This includes dealing with narrative distance, considering how dialogue is presented (and tagged), and the importance of show, don’t tell. I downloaded the sample chapter and was pleased with what I read, even if I felt like there were a few too many examples.
Upon reading the entirety of the book, though, I’m not sure the writers drank enough of their own Kool Aid. Elements of style and examples were treated inconsistently (for example, halfway through the book they decided to use bold text to convey meaning). Some sentences simply didn’t make sense, either because of some slang term I wasn’t privy to, or simply because they were trying to force a casual tone.
I respect the authors for trying to weave in as many examples as they could to show the points they were making, but often they would throw several different excerpts of varying lengths at the reader and then expect you to refer to a point made with the first example many pages later. By the end of the book, I found myself skipping examples altogether out of boredom. I feel that more succinct, carefully chosen examples would have been far more effective. Many reviewers seemed perturbed that the book chooses to critique The Great Gatsby. I found that example to be effective in how it shows the emotion written into the scene already. The authors readily acknowledge that fiction writing style has changed since then, and are merely making a point with a familiar, widely-accepted piece of prose.
Throughout the book, the authors have added in half-page comics that are extremely odd and distracting. Not only do the comics not make much sense with the context of their placement half the time, but the text on the comics is written in an untidy scrawl that requires decoding and is often longer than a few sentences. They were certainly a flop with me, at least.
I take issue with the authors repeatedly referring to perpetrators of the issues they warn against in this book as “hacks,” implying that every author that might employ a technique they don’t agree with is maliciously intent upon tricking their readers. The authors also state that since they’ve published the first edition of this book, they’ve noticed writers seem to take their advice too much to heart, which is a somewhat pompous assumption at best.
I do think the authors of this book intended to make a friendly, casual learning text for authors and editors to reference in order to learn how to look at fiction editing. It includes exercises and bulleted lists of the big topics at the end of each chapter, which is good. If you can successfully navigate the excess in its pages to find the good information, it can be a beneficial read. Unfortunately, I have to call this a READ WITH CAUTION.