During a recent conversation with a fellow writer, we discussed the difficulties of self-editing and the merits of courses, workshops and ‘how to’ books, and editing and other fiction writing techniques. Neither of us has studied for an MA in Creative Writing or, certainly in my case, an MA in anything. We were pondering the merits of various online and face-to-face courses and workshops, many of which, like MAs don’t come cheap. And like MA courses the value depends on many things, including what you seek to gain from the experience and, probably most crucial in my ‘umble opinion, the tutors.
I would love to have completed an MA, but the time when it would have been most valuable (I’m guessing) was when I was most short of time and cash. I’d had my second child and as a freelance journalist and copywriter maternity pay was not on the table, so I had to continue working while I attempted to raise baby and his older brother. Instead, I attended workshops run by the likes of Mslexia editor Debbie Taylor, Spread the Word and New Writing South, read voraciously – writing magazines like aforementioned Mslexia, The New Writer, Writing Magazine and Writers’ Forum, blogs, articles, ‘how to’ books and, of course, fiction itself. This was the easy bit; I have a degree in English Literature and have always been an eclectic and voracious reader. I read and read and read, and wrote and wrote and wrote. And I joined writers’ groups, online and off.
I shared some of my favourite ‘how to’ books with my friend and thought I’d share them with you. There’s only one solely dedicated to editing, but a damn good one it is too. In no particular order, here they are:
Wanna be a Writer by Jane Wenham-Jones.
I first met Jane at a Women in Journalism event yonks ago. Jane is a skilled networker, a fine writer and enjoys a glass or three of fine wine, which makes her a top dollar bird in my book. As well as contributing regularly to Writing Magazine Jane has penned four novels, numerous short stories and countless reportage pieces. She is very well qualified to offer advice. And there’s plenty of advice in this laugh-out-loud funny, beautifully presented, easy to read guide. It’s a gem, and it’s published by a small, innovative press so you get brownie points for buying too.
Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose
This one came to my attention via spec-fiction writer Sarah Tanburn. It’s in almost direct contrast to the Wenham-Jones book, but has pride of place on my bookshelf and I refer to it often. Prose (she had to be an author didn’t she?) is an Amercian academic and author of several novels. She teaches at a prestigious US university. However, boldy, she begins her book by saying that MAs are generally only worth doing if you are paid to study. Her major claim is that you can learn everything there is to know about writing by reading, and studying carefully, the greats. Chapter by chapter she takes you through the major areas of technique using examples to illustrate her points. The book ends with an extensive, if a little daunting, essential reading list. Well worth it, and a fraction of the cost of an MA.
Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell
Bell is another American and this is one of a series of ‘how to’ writing books of his, covering character, dialogue, plot and structure. I have only read this one, but on this evidence I’d recommend them all. Combining a sharp commercial eye with practical, easy to remember techniques and exercises this is one of the best books on editing I’ve ever read. Bell’s focus is commercial fiction, but he illustrates that his techniques can and should be applied to literary fiction too. Using examples from classics like A Christmas Carol and Holywood blockbusters, like the Die Hard films, he shows you how to break down your masterpiece into managable chunks and unpick it before offering tips how to build it again, and build it better. Marvellous.
Self-editing is notoriously tricky; I find it hard, even though I work as an editor, and there is no substitute for the experienced outside eye. But you owe it to yourself and your novel to make it the very best you can before you either submit it to agents and/or publishers. And if after you’ve rewritten and rewritten and rewritten you feel the need for an external editor there are many well respected literary consultancies out there – you ‘ll find them listed in Mslexia, Writing Magazine and online zines, but as I work for Cornerstones I’ll recommend them.