I would like to preface this by saying that this is in no way a sponsored review. This is genuine discovery and positive result.
I've been asked to help edit some stories as of late, and niggling little details continued to bother me. Small questions and disagreements on what exactly the rules are when writing, especially in the context of fiction, plagued my editing process. I was at the point where I'd be questioning why I was giving particular advice, and if I was correct to do so.
With that state of mind, I went off looking for more than just a googlable resource, something I could sink my teeth into. These books were immensely useful, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on them with you all, and hopefully convince you to check them out.
I feel like these will really upped my game in terms of writing, and I can't wait until I can focus on finishing a story for the site using what I've learned.
One thing I will mention only here, is that each book has chapters that are activities. The author of the book asks you to look at your own work and do a self-editing task, such as searching for semicolons and asking each time if it's strictly necessary, or looking for awkwardly constructed multi-clause sentences. In other words, they encourage you to use what you've learned immediately, and on your work- practical and brilliant. I personally skipped most of them once I got the hang of them, because I didn't have an already written draft on hand.
Grammar can be a real pain, and a lot of people don't realize that many grammar rules aren't a matter of "oh, this is wrong, change it to exactly that and you're good." There's a lot of grey. This whole book has helped, most of all, with deciphering the grey mistakes.
Part One: Punctuation Basics
Okay, so these are the most black-and-white rules in the entire book. You must follow these rules and correction is a simple solution.
These are things like comma placement (North American rules, they acknowledge that UK has their own, different rules on this and a couple other topics), dialog formatting, and punctuation in general.
One of the most useful things I picked up here is the use of dashes, something I've overlooked entirely before. If you're stuttering or being interrupted in dialog, use a dash (-), not an ellipsis (...).
Some of the information is a repeat of what you'll find in the dialog-specific book, but the reinforcement and repetition are actually really useful and helped me remember the lessons better.
Part Two: Words
I didn't replicate part two's title exactly here. What you need to know is they delve into what your word choice does to your writing- why some words make your text weaker, while others are better.
They also talk about homophones, a mistake I've seen in my own, and many other writers' work here on the site. It's to be expected, as we're an amateur writing group. The examples they use aren't just the obvious ones, either, like peek-peak-pique.
If you stop after this chapter, you'll already be a better writer.
Part Three: Rules
These are rules that, as an amateur writer, one isn't always aware they should be following. These are things like how tenses- the specific ones, like conditional, perfect, and progressive- will change the way your readers experience the events on the page.
They start off with a very informative and thorough explanation of passive voice versus active voice, what exactly it does to your story, and why that's not usually a good thing. I say usually, because as with most rules, they discuss the exception.
Part Four: Special Challenges for Fiction Writers
This is what I bought the book for- as much as the previous chapters helped out. What I will say is that these are rules you deal with early in writing and editing - not trivial final draft tweaks. Much of why a story "feels odd" is either due to Part Two issues, or Part Four issues.
Part Five: Not Rules
When in school, there are certain rules that get ingrained in our brains. These rules are vital to be followed when writing our papers. These rules always apply. Right? ... No? Oh.
Yup, here's where most of my mistakes as an editor for fiction came. There are a bunch of rules, such as for sentence fragments and starting a sentence with a preposition that simply aren't taboo or necessarily harmful to informal writing. Seriously.
If you only pick up one book in the series, as an amateur writer aspiring to improve your skills - pick this one up.
This book takes a hyper-focused look at writing dialog in fiction. Once you've written dialog once or twice, you'd think there isn't much to it, but after reading this, I learned how wrong I am. More importantly, I learned terminology that help remind me how and why to write something the way I do.
It starts out with the basic grammar rules. These will be particularly familiar if you've read the grammar book, as I mentioned vice-versa in the review of that book. Again, I'll say it's a good brush up that drives the basics into you. Without a good understanding of basics, you can get lost trying to learn more.
One of the most interesting simple things I learned in this book is the terms "beats" and "tags". beats are an action that happens before dialog, while a tag is the "Jane said" after dialog. You can use one or the other. I've probably done so before, but knowing that a beat before words is used to replace a tag after words, really made me rethink what I've read and written in the past.
The other mistake that I and many other amateur writers make is the urge to spice up our tags. We can't help but get bored with "they said" as a writer, and perhaps instead of using a beat, will add adverbs to our tags- "Jane said suspiciously." Don't take my word for it, though. They explain exactly why it's bad and what else to do.
There's then several topics on how to make your dialog more natural. Some things are about stuff that mimics real life, and other things feel more natural in writing, or even television, though they may not imitate how we truly talk.
A big topic is how to write in accents without being unreadable or offensive.
Now from here I'll cease to give so much of a play-by-play. What's important is that for each explanation of what you should do and why, there is a lengthy amount of really juicy examples. This book is example dialog heavy, and that works to it's favor.
Almost every question I've ever had or even could imagine having about writing dialog is covered in this book. I've not read many books on the subject, nor was an english major, but I still feel confident in that statement. It'll be a great resource for me whenever I'm writing a story here-on-out.
The book is even more laser-focused on a topic. It's shorter than the others, half as long without the appendices at the end. One appendix is entirely a companion for The Emotion Thesaurus. It's a book I've been interested in, but didn't need a huge pitch for in another book.
I would have felt cheaped out if I hadn't bought them all at the ebook price instead of the $10 physical copy price.
However, that does not mean I regret the purchase in the slightest. It was another eye-opening and useful resource that should vastly improve my writing.
This may even have had as much an effect on my future writing as the other two books reviewed.
The author describes what they mean by showing-not-telling, by likening it to the holodeck. I've normally heard this in terms of the "camera" coming from a film background, or "the reader's imagination" which works, but is more nebulous. It's a great analogy: could you recreate the scene with the words on the page?
He explains when you should or could use telling, how to figure out when you're doing it, and there are oodles of before-and-after examples to pick through on how to change your writing into the "showing" kind.
What he touches on later on is something that struck me as sort of an epiphany. Showing is wordier, but more interesting. It's exactly why my most amateur-looking writing is so short, and why I've always thought "Well, my stuff is short because I only need that many words to tell it!" Exactly right, for the wrong reason. You only need so many words to "tell" a scene, you need far more, and far more interesting words to "show" a scene in the minds of your readers. It's not about word count, but word usage.
This book shows you how to wield words that paint and play out in reader minds the same way as in yours. If you've ever had an issue with other people not imagining your story the same way you do, this is very likely why.
A few of the mistakes, I've not actually seen other amatuer writers on this site make, such as As-You-Know-Bob. So, while I'm glad they are touched on, they were less useful to me.
If your stories are always too short, pick this up. If you want to keep improving your writing, pick this up.