Revision and Self-Editing for Publication by James Scott Bell

By Ekta R. Garg

September 9, 2015

I’m a major fan of James Scott Bell. I’ve never met him or read any of his fiction, but what he has to say about writing and the craft makes me buy any of his books without hesitation. That’s why when I heard about his Revision and Self-Editing for Publication I had to order my own copy. I wasn’t sorry I did, and because I had my own copy I could underline and star key sentences and paragraphs along the way.

[Disclaimer: any errors in quoting are mine.]

Early on Bell offers a quote as inspiration and motivation, and it would do any writer serious about the craft good to copy the quote and put it on the wall or somewhere else s/he can see it every day. The quote comes from Andre Dubus:

“Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.”

In the first chapter Bell also offers writers a formula for fiction: concept + characters x conflict = novel. It seems like a simple formula, but throughout the entire book Bell gives writers the tools and details to fill in every section of the formula to create what he calls “saleable fiction.”

A great concept often comes from the characters themselves. In Chapter 2 on characters, Bell says, “Fiction is the record of how a character faces a threat or challenge.” That’s two portions of the fiction formula right there. Great characters come from having three key elements: grit, wit, and “it”. The grit comes in making sure major characters aren’t wimps. Grit, Bell says, is guts in action. Wit can be self-deprecating, and wit can also lessen the weight of moments too heavy. The “it” in the trio of character elements means personal magnetism, which includes sex appeal and a quality that invites admiration or envy from others.

Bell also calls on storytelling greats like Alfred Hitchcock to remind us just what makes a story so great:

“The greater the trouble,” Hitchcock says, “the greater the intensity.”

In other words more conflict means a story with a greater pull on the readers’ attention.

Later in the book Bell offers concrete ideas on how to write solid dialogue, which also points to the importance of conflict.

“…[I]f your dialogue characters are ‘on the same page’ mentally and emotionally, your dialogue won’t be compelling.”

A good story starts with a strong opening, Bell reminds writers (italics from the book):

“…[L]et’s consider what makes a good opening. In a word, it’s disturbance. What causes a disturbance is anything that is change or threat of change to a character’s equilibrium.”

If a writer can open the story in the middle of the disturbance, s/he has the reader from the word go. But writers shouldn’t spend all of their time languishing on that opening. The key to the story, in the end, is the characters; they will bring the story to life as long as the writer is willing to listen to them.

“Don’t worry about theme. Worry about struggle. Give your characters humanity and passionate commitment to a set of values. Set them in conflict and as they fight, the theme will take care of itself.”

In the end, Bell asks, why do you write?

“If it’s only for money or fame, you’ll miss the spark that makes both of those things possible. Go further. …start by asking yourself what moves you. Put that into your novels, and the entertainment value will skyrocket.”

He offers another quote, this time from Anne Lamott, to drive his point home.

“I honestly think in order to be a writer,” says Anne Lamott, “you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here? Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world.”

Bell continues the thought. “If you stay true to your own awe,” he says, “your books can’t help but be charged with meaning.”

And for achieving that writing full of meaning, any writer would be smart to pick up Bell’s Revision and Self-Editing for Publication.