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Revision and Self-Editing
by James Scott Bell

Reviewed by C.J. Darlington

"Like a caring English Professor, Jim hovers over your shoulder pointing out the problems and dishing out the fixes."

How-to books for writing come in as many variations as there are writers. Some are hype, promising you’ll make $100,000 in your first year of freelancing or a $50,000 advance on your first novel. They promise much more than they deliver. There are also the texts which do provide some useful information, but they’re about as dry as the Nevada desert in August.

But every once in awhile a writing instruction book comes down the pike which not only delivers techniques you can immediately apply to your own fiction writing, but is actually entertaining to read too. James Scott Bell’s Revision & Self-Editing is that kind of book.

Writers worth their salt are always looking to improve their craft. We want each plot to be stronger, each character deeper, each book or story to be better than the last. We’re desperate to write a novel that’ll keep our readers up ‘til dawn. But what do we do when we churn out a draft that is, shall we say, junk? What if we know something’s not right, but we have no clue how to fix it?

Jim Bell to the rescue. In his previous book Plot & Structure he taught us how to create compelling plots. Now in Revision and Self-Editing he shows us “techniques for transforming our first drafts into a finished novel”. When asked who the book was for, Jim told me, “Any beginner who wants to learn the essentials of the craft. And experienced writers, who can pick up some extra tips that work and a systematic approach to revision that will make their books better.”

Part I: Self-Editing, gives us an overview of various fiction techniques and exercises. Here Bell touches on the building blocks of novel writing like point of view; show vs. tell and beginnings, middles and ends. It’s here in this section readers of Plot & Structure might notice some re-cap. But even seasoned novelists need to be reminded of things like Bell’s LOCK system (the four essentials of strong narrative) and what makes great dialogue.

Part II is where we heat up and get down to the nitty gritty of resuscitating our manuscripts. And let’s face it—almost every first draft we write is going to need help. As Bell says, “Submitting a novel without rewriting is like playing ice hockey naked. You’re just not equipped to put your best, um, face on things. And sooner rather than later a well-placed puck is going to hit you where it hurts most. That puck is the editor’s or agent’s built-in prejudice against weak material.”

Broken down into easy read and digest sections, Bell shows us how to overcome obstacles like procrastination and what to do before you revise. He gives common fixes for everything from setting & description to dialogue and theme. For example, if your opening isn’t working he suggests revving up our opening line or weeding out too much backstory, exposition and cast. Your middle sagging? Try strengthening your exposition, adding a subplot, raising the stakes, trimming, or adding research.

If you’ve ever attended one of Jim’s writing classes, you know he doesn’t just preach at you, he shows you examples of what works in the real world. Revision & Self-Editing is chock full of examples from successful, published novels and even movies. There are tidbits of advice from other published novelists like Athol Dickson and Terri Blackstock. Exercises after each chapter help you retain and apply what you’ve learned (Jim provides answers at the back of the book.)

Speaking of writing conferences, that’s what reading this book felt like—attending a break-out session presented by a skilled wordsmith who knows of what he speaks. Like a caring English Professor, Jim hovers over your shoulder pointing out the problems and dishing out the fixes. He pulls no punches, and you can tell he wants those who read this book to succeed. With lots of sweat, burning desire, and these techniques in your back pocket, you truly can.

When Plot & Structure released I said, “If you can only buy one writing book, buy this one.” Well, it’s time to make space on your shelves for one more. Revision & Self-Editing deserves it.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.