Monday, November 14, 2011

Be My Guest: Robin Spano

The Write Tools

There's nothing more exciting than finding a new tool to help you with the craft you love. My husband loves leaving Home Depot with a new saw or power drill. My agent's face lights up when she talks about her iPad – and all the cool work things she can do with it. My photographer friend goes nuts over a new lens that can help him shoot a specific light or angle.

I get this excitement from learning new writing tools – tangible skills that help me attack my trade with more expertise. While writing fiction is a creative endeavor first, editing – shaping the story into something enjoyable and interesting to read – is a science. The more tools I pick up, the more able I feel to tell the story I want to tell – to confidently take readers along on a fun and exciting journey.

Reading Self-Editing for Fiction Writers  by Renni Browne and Dave King, I felt like a kid at Christmas. They give you twelve of these new tools. My brain was on fire while I read – I'd study a page or a chapter and burn to get back to my manuscript to show it what I'd learned.

Here are their 12 steps:

Chapter One: Show and Tell – Awesome opening example from The Great Gatsby. Takes the concept of “Show, Don't Tell,” explains it for those who haven't cinched it, and expands to show when telling is a good thing, too.

Chapter Two: Characterization and Exposition – Shows you how to introduce a character as if you met them in real life. As in, you don't have to know their whole history right away. It is way more interesting to see a character unfold piece by piece, as it's relevant over the story.

Chapter Three: Point of View – Shows why you'd choose one POV style over another. Do you want to get up close and personal with first person or go with limited third? Or do you want post-modern and oddball with second or very old-fashioned and godlike with omniscient? The chapter clearly defines the benefits and drawbacks to each POV option.

Chapter Four: Proportion – How to spot when you're giving something too much or not enough air time for its weight in the story. One of the most complex chapters, and the one I took the most away from.

Chapter Five: Dialogue Mechanics – Lots of fun rules about never using adverbs, only using said, and using said as little as possible. Some excellent advice about how to use mechanics to do more than identify the speaker: to paint the landscape, to create a mood, to illustrate a relationship.

Chapter Six: See How It Sounds – How to craft convincing dialogue that isn't how people actually talk to each other (because that's slow and boring) but cutting to the meat of what they say, using words they would actually use.

Chapter Seven: Interior Monologue – How to use a character's observations to convey both their personality and their emotions. In the same place on the same day, one character could see a glorious sunny day, another could note, "The damn sun was in my eyes" and a third could wonder if the sun would hold, or if the rain is inevitable.

Chapter Eight: Easy Beats – How to keep your story flowing  naturally, using beats to slow the pace when it might be going to quickly – and taking beats & dialogue mechanics away when they interrupt the flow of the story.

Chapter Nine: Breaking Up is Easy to Do – How to not have long passages of prose that look intimidating on the page (long unbroken paragraphs like in an 18th Century novel). Also, how to avoid the reverse – too many paragraph breaks or too much punchy dialogue in a row can exhaust readers.

Chapter Ten: Once is Usually Enough – How to avoid repetition – on the word level, the chapter level, the character level, and even the book level. Full of fun “what not to do” examples.

Chapter Eleven: Sophistication – How to sound like a pro. This chapter covers a few topics. My main takeaway: maybe my characters swear too often. As the writers say on p. 206, “Just think about how much power a single obscenity can have if it's the only one in the whole fucking book.” (Or blog post.)

Chapter Twelve: Voice – The quality that makes your writing original, because it's who you are. It's the hardest thing to master and, according to Browne and King, it is impossible to teach, yet they give tips on how to coax your voice out naturally over time. On p. 218, they write “Voice is something you can bring out in yourself. The trick is not to concentrate on it.”

While the ideas in these chapters – with the exception of proportion – were things I'd heard before, each chapter breathed new life into these concepts for me. Browne and King write in a fun, simple style – easy to read and easy to process. There are many, many gems in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

Robin Spano writes a series about a young female undercover cop, inspired loosely by Charlie's Angels. Her website is, engage her on Twitter, or argue politics with her on Facebook.

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  1. You have convinced me. I'm buying it.

  2. I own this book, but haven't read it in awhile. You've inspired me to read it again. I fall into the trap of thinking I know all that, but whenever I do reread a book like this I find that I'd forgotten more than I thought. We so often need a refresher.

  3. Sounds like a good book. It'll be a step up from 'the idiot's guide to writing a novel'.

  4. All good stuff, but probably over my head ... Martin, I'll have to stick the 'Idiot's Guide', they've got my number.

  5. I agree with you, Robin - it's a marvelous book.

  6. If you're writing fiction Browne & King is your Bible--or it should be. It's on the top ten list of every bibliography ever handed out at any writer's workshop I've taken. It's a must-have. And, you can read it in bits and pieces; it's not like you have to read it cover to cover all at once.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. Hey Liza - enjoy! This is a fun read in addition to being super useful.

    Linda - I know what you mean; refreshing what you already know can twig new awareness sometimes, or just remind you.

    LOL @ Martin and Christopher. I'd like to read the idiot's guide, too.

    Elspeth & Terry - I know, right? It's cool to find a book that's actually helpful, cover to cover.

  8. I have to weigh in on the Idiot's Guides and the Dummies books. They are all good, despite their names. I'm reading the Complete Idiot's Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel and it's excellent. Thanks for dropping by, Robin. Next you can write a post about author swag... like poker cards. ;)

  9. Hi Robin, and thanks for reminding us of the basics covered in this book. As far as tools go, the handle of this one should have a well-worn grip.

  10. Thanks I needed this review. I was stuck on 2 and along came your post. I now have the book queued in my Amazon account.


  11. This is a great book for all writers!

  12. So glad to see your comments about Renni's book. After hearing her speak several years ago at an MWA-NY meeting I bought the book, then became one of her clients. . She is terrific! We need helpers along the way. Thanks for reminding me to go take the book off the shelf and restudy it! Thelma Straw,MWA-NY in Manhattan


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