Book Reviews

Book Recommendation: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers

Title: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print

Author: Renni Browne and Dave King

Publisher: HarperPerennial (A Division of HarperCollinsPublishers)

ISBN: 0-06-270061-8

Pages: 240

Publication Date: March 1, 1994

A writer friend of mine suggested I read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and I am so glad I did. The book is not only helpful for editing, but it also offers a wealth of guidance during the actual writing process. Authors Renni Browne and Dave King have worked at The Editorial Department for a number of years, and they offer sound, practical, and easy to follow advice. Each chapter covers the most important aspects of story writing like showing rather than telling, paying attention to point of view, and pointers for writing dialogue. The following are a few words of advice Browne and King offers fiction writers:

  1. They write about beats in dialogue. “Beats are the little bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as a character walking to a window or removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes—the literary equivalent of what is known in the theater as stage business” (p. 102). Beats can also include interior monologue, or a character’s inner dialogue. Beats serve three purposes: 1.) They give readers insights into a character’s personality. 2.) They add rhythm and variety to dialogue. 3.) They allow readers to form a picture of what is happening in the scene. But at the same time, Browne and King caution too many beats can interrupt a scene to the point that it loses its tension or flow.
  2. Be careful about proportion in your writing. Do not fill in every detail and leave nothing to the reader’s imagination. Example: “Joe saw the orange and white cat with the light green eyes and short whiskers run across the sixteen-foot oak tree whose leaves had fallen down this past month.”
  3. Avoid needless repetition. Example: “Sue missed the house she lived in while growing up. The house was spacious and comfortable and her parents had hosted many parties at this house. Sue thought about the house often.” The writing will not flow and interfere with the readers’ enjoyment of the story.
  4. Stay away from cliches, such as “Think outside the box” and “The pot calling the kettle black.”
  5. Avoid -ly adverbs. Strive for strong verbs in place of a weak verb with an adverb. For example, replace “Angrily she put the book on the desk” with “She slammed the book on the desk.”
  6. Do not overuse as and -ing constructions. Although they are grammatically correct, a writer should not use them in a story because, as Browne and King explain, they “…take a bit of action…and tuck it away in a dependent clause” and “they sometimes give rise to physical impossibilities” (p. 156). Examples: “As she unpacked her suitcase, she glanced at her mother from the window” or “Unpacking her suitcase, she glanced at her mother from the window.” Better: “She unpacked her suitcase and glanced at her mother from the window.”
  7. Do not overuse interior monologue to the point where it is constantly interrupting dialogue, repeating what is already mentioned in the actual dialogue, or packing them in with too much information.
  8. Use dashes (–) for interruptions and ellipsis (…) for gaps in the dialogue.
  9. This is probably the flaw fiction writers hear the most: Show, don’t tell. Instead of telling readers a man is greedy, show him paying his workers a meager wage while keeping all the profits for himself. The authors also write, “Are you describing your characters’ feelings? Have you told us they’re angry? irritated? morose? … Keep an eye out for any places where you mention an emotion outside of dialogue. Chances are you’re telling what you should show” (p. 11).
  10. Do not keep shifting the point of view. The point of view may be in the first person, it may be omniscient (not inside any of the character’s heads), or third person. When choosing third person, keep it consistent. If the writer wants to change the point of view, there has to be a scene or chapter break.
  11. When writing dialogue, be sure to use contractions (I’m, can’t, etc.) because you want to write the way people talk. You can also include sentence fragments. Avoid using complex words with many syllables unless that particular character uses them all the time. You want to write dialogue that sounds natural.

Important points to keep in mind!

The book includes a checklist and exercises at the end of the chapters. I recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers as a reference book. For this fiction writer, I found it truly helpful in the writing and editing processes.

Idelle Kursman is an editor, proofreader, and SEO copywriter. She is also the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.

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Wonderful New Beginnings Don’t Only Happen to Young Folks

Note: I just came home from my first trip to Georgia! It was a wonderful vacation seeing family, friends, and new sights. I also was able to place my two books, True Mercy and The Book of Revelations, into the Tall Tales Bookshop on 2105 Lavista Road in the Toco Hills Shopping Center. I will be working on putting my books into other bookstores as well.

Title: The Lost Manuscript

Author: Cathy Bonidan

ISBN: 978-1250256300

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Pages: 299

Published on January 12, 2021

When I first began reading Cathy Bonidan’s The Lost Manuscript, I dismissed it as the author trying to ride on the coattails of the feel good bestseller The Authenticity Project. But I continued reading and I am glad I did.

Long ago a young man tried his hand at writing. He finished half the manuscript and while trying to send it off to his friend to review, it got lost. He never wrote again, but thirty years later, when a woman checks into the Beau Rivage Hotel on the Brittany coast, she finds his manuscript in a drawer. She reads it and becomes intrigued: Who wrote it? Why is the second half written differently than the first? Who wrote lines of poetry at the end?

Anne-Lise, does not only wonder. She becomes determined to find out the origins of what she deems an amazing, life-changing story. And Anne-Lise is no ordinary reader: she works at her family’s publishing house. Putting on her detective hat, she finds an address in the middle of the manuscript and mails it, inquiring about its origins. The author, a man now in his fifties, responds that he is amazed she has discovered his long-lost work that he had given up ever retrieving years ago. He does not know who wrote the second half or the poetry, so Anne-Lise investigates further by writing to the hotel owner and others to finally get to the bottom of this mystery. She enlists the help of her friend Maggy, a woman who has closed herself off to life and love, as well as a host of strangers who had a role, either directly or indirectly, in the making of the novel. Through her search, Anne-Lise not only solves the mystery but also ends up aiding those involved find love, happiness, and resolutions to their personal difficulties.

I know—it is a little far-fetched. But what I appreciated the most is reading a story where miraculous, life-changing events and happiness are still possible for those over fifty. Getting older does not mean it is too late for new beginnings.

And let’s face it—with all the stress of everyday living and the troubling news in the media, couldn’t we all use a feel good story?

And now I am on a mission: French author Cathy Bonidan’s debut novel, The Perfume of the Hellebore Rose, won eleven awards in France. I am now anxiously searching for an English translation.

Idelle Kursman is a writer, proofreader, and copy editor. She is available for writing projects. Contact her on this website today.

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Man's Search for Meaning

Book Review for Man’s Search for Meaning: Advice Desperately Needed Today

Dr. Viktor Frankl’s classic is as relevant today in helping with bereavement and grief as it was when he wrote it in 1946

Title: Man’s Search for Meaning

Author: Viktor Frankel

Publisher:  Beacon Press

Genre: Popular Psychology Psychotherapy                           

ISBN: 978-0807014271

Release Date of this Edition: June 1, 2006

We should not ask ourselves what we want from life. We should ask ourselves, what does life want from us?” –Viktor Frankl

Many of us lost loved ones last year. Some through the natural aging process but a significant number due to COVID-19. Pandemic rules dictated that funerals be limited in size so only a tiny number of relatives and friends could attend and support the bereaved. Added to that, traditional mourning customs often had to be modified or abandoned due to virus concerns. Following the funeral, people had to face the business of going on living, and with so many job losses and furloughs, together with travel restrictions and limit on family gatherings, they were deprived of the usual coping mechanisms.

Dr. Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian-Jewish neurologist, psychiatrist, philosopher, and author. He was also a survivor of the Nazi concentration camps. He is the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. I first read it in college and reread it recently for help with my own bereavement and grief.

Dr. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy. Verywellmind.com describes it as “…a theory that … through a search for meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardship and suffering.”

In the first section of Man’s Search for Meaning, Dr. Frankl describes the stages of shock an inmate of the concentration camps endured once they got off the cattle trains. Some people gave up while others found the strength to go on through  thoughts of reuniting with loved ones and/or going back to their professions. Survival in the camps depended quite a bit on luck: finding a sympathetic guard to offer assistance, having a skill the Nazis found useful, and/or finding a fellow inmate for support. But diseases like typhoid were rampant, the prisoners performed hard physical labor from early morning to night, and they were undernourished. Dr. Frankl was one of the lucky ones who survived. However, upon his liberation, he found out his pregnant wife, his parents and his brother had perished.

The second section of the book is about logotherapy. Here are only three takeaways from the book’s treasure trove of useful advice:

1.) Human beings need a certain degree of tension in order to maintain their mental health. By tension, he is referring to the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (p. 105). Being in a tensionless state with nothing to be preoccupied or involved in is actually unhealthy.

2.) The concept of meaning in life is different for every individual. In fact, it can differ from day to day, even at different times during a day. Frankl describes it best: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. . . Everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it” (p. 109).

3.) Many of us need a change in attitude toward life. Instead of focusing on what we expect out of life and what is the meaning of life, we should be asking what life expects of us. This means taking responsibility and pursuing the right course of actions and behavior. 

I close by retelling a story from the book. It was the only thing I remembered from reading it in college. After the war, Dr. Frankl stayed in his native Austria to practice psychotherapy. One day an elderly doctor came to see him. He had lost his beloved wife and was so overcome with grief that he could not go on. Instead of counseling him, Dr. Frankl asked him what would have happened if he died before his wife. The man replied that his wife would have suffered terribly. Dr. Frankl then told him “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who now have to survive and mourn her” (p. 113). The doctor then shook his hand and left the office, needing no further treatment.

Idelle Kursman is the author of two novels, True Mercy and The Book of Revelations.

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Yes to Life

Books of Comfort and Consolation after Living Through 2020

The year 2020 needs no introduction. Many people will agree it was the year from hell. Job losses, schools going remote, and worst of all, losing loved ones. My father passed away in June (non-COVID related) and my mother passed in December (COVID-related). This has put me in a new cold stark reality along with the hassles of wearing a mask every time I go out, continually washing my hands, and coping with an extremely restricted social life. I know countless other people have their stories as well.

But there were a few bright spots: I wrote and published my second novel, I took online courses in copyediting, proofreading and SEO copywriting. I also took on a few projects in these areas. And I read some books that helped me stay sane and grateful. I would like to share my list of books that gave me comfort and consolation during 2020.

The Authenticity Project by Clare Pooley

An elderly artist who once enjoyed a prominent career now lives as a recluse. When he leaves his personal journal behind in a cafe, Monica, the café owner, finds it and adds her own innermost thoughts. Other characters find it and add their own entries. They meet the artist, who ends up teaching art lessons in the café where the characters bond as they learn how to draw.  

The Authenticity Project is the perfect book to read when you are forced to stay at home and need some cheering up. It can also restore your faith in the goodness of special people.

The Friendship List by Susan Mallery

Two lifelong friends find they are in a rut and dare each other to try new things and actually learn to live. One of the women is 34-year-old Ellen Fox, who accidentally became pregnant at 17 and was abandoned by her boyfriend before the baby’s birth. She has been raising her son and supporting him while never venturing back into the dating world. Her friend, Unity Leandre, also 34, married her husband at 18 and became a widow at 31. She is still keeping vigil for her late husband and has never dated since. These ladies make a pact: Each writes a list of things she wants to do and whoever actually accomplishes the most on her list will pay for the two of them to go to a luxury spa for a weekend. A few of their goals include having a serious relationship with a man, getting a tattoo, and skydiving.

The Friendship List is about overcoming challenges and the highs and lows of taking chances in the quest to live a full, satisfying life. 

The Last Watchman of Old Cairo by Michael David Lukas

Joseph, an English graduate student at Berkeley, receives the news that his father in Egypt has passed away. He lives with his mother and stepfather and has only visited his father a few times. Joseph has a Jewish mother and a Muslim father and has never felt particularly connected to either group, yet when he receives a mysterious package that his father directed to be sent to him, it propels Joseph to travel to Cairo, Egypt. There he learns about his father and his dedication to being the last in his family’s line to serve as watchman of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue, a job that has been in the family for over a thousand years. After his journey Joseph not only understand his father but also finds himself.

Losing my own father and mother, I was able to relate to Joseph’s sadness, introspection, and the realization of how special my parents were.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything by Victor Frankl

The Austrian Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl was the author of the classic Man’s Search for Meaning. Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything is from the author’s series of lectures he gave almost a year after the holocaust. His message still resonates today: it is essential to find purpose even after experiencing setbacks and tragedies. Having a purpose in everyday living sustains a person and allows them to be productive and happy so as not to give in to despair. This is coming from a survivor of the holocaust who  lost his wife and unborn child in the death camps.

Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything gives the reader a newfound appreciation of life and strength to carry on.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui

In the early years of Syria’s civil war, the Assad regime bombed the town of Daraya daily and cut off basic supplies in order to force out the inhabitants. A group of young Syrian men resisted and hid in a library. They read books such as Stephen R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, discuss their ideas and beliefs, and talk and communicate with a journalist via the computer about their plight. The journalist then wrote this book to capture their spirit and strength while their lives were at risk on a daily basis.

The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War was a reminder that although we are suffering from the COVID lockdown, there are people in the world who are enduring even worse trials.

The Book of Revelations by Idelle Kursman

This is my own women’s fiction book that I wrote and published this year. It is a story about self-acceptance. After going through much upheaval earlier in her life, Christine Goldberg is married and works as a representative for a modeling agency. Her husband adopted her twins, a boy and a girl who want to learn about their biological father, but Christine refuses to divulge his identity. But her past catches up with her and she is forced to not only deal with the challenges she has worked so hard to escape but also deal with new ones. Christine must face her old demons now, including her estrangement from her parents and her children’s questions about the mystery of their biological father.

For those who feel like they failed to live up to their life-long dreams and goals, this story is about being easier on yourself and looking at all you did accomplish.

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Book Review of Anxious People

Book Review: Anxious People is a Winner

This year has been heartbreaking. I lost both of my parents. Countless other people have lost loved ones. There were many job layoffs and jobs furloughed. Families and friends could not get together, even for Thanksgiving. Reading Anxious People is just what I needed. A bank robber on the verge of losing everything holds people hostage at an apartment viewing the day before the New Year. Readers learn the backstory of most of these characters, including the policemen who rescue them.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman combines insights about life, adding humor and some absurd conversations as he chronicles the hostage drama. The theme is life is a struggle and everyone carries their own pain and anxieties. We often cannot create the life we desire but should instead try to get through as best as we can while hopefully cherishing some good memories along the way. At the heart of the story is the despair we often experience when things do not go our way or we cannot save our loved ones from themselves.

We meet a father and son police officer team working on the case. The father is a widower who misses his wife, attempts to boost his son’s confidence in his police skills, and despairs that he cannot help his drug-addicted daughter. The bank robber recently experiences job loss, is in the process of getting divorced, and cannot pay the rent for an apartment. In addition, the robber’s spouse wants full custody of their children. The hostages have their stories as well.

Many of the keen observations about life come from the police officers reminiscing about their late wife and mother. She was a priest and this is just an example of what she used to tell them:

We can’t change the world, and a lot of the time we can’t even change people. No more than one bit at a time. So we do what we can to help whenever we get the chance…We save those we can. We do our best. Then we try to convince ourselves that that will just have to…be enough. So we can live with our failures without drowning” (p. 203).

The witness interviews consist of absurd conversations between the various hostages and the police officers that I found too annoying to be funny, but the dialogue and background information gave the story depth and insights. Backman builds a fascinating character with Zara, one of the hostages, in detailing her meetings with her psychologist prior to the main action.

The writing is superb, the plot is brilliantly woven, and the story is peppered with sharp observations about life.

I must be frank. This has been an all-out crappy year. But reading Anxious People reminds me we must get through these times and try to be there for each other.

Idelle Kursman is the author of the novels True Mercy and The Book of Revelations. They are for sale on Amazon and many other places.

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