Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers by David Madden

A Review by Mary Pat Mann

Revising Fiction: A Handbook for Writers
David Madden
1998, Penguin Books, New York, NY
(Barnes and Noble issued a new hardcover edition in 2002)

Revising fiction is something all writers of fiction must do, and will do better with David Madden’s book on hand. This is not, however, a book for the faint of heart. If your chief problem is writer’s block, I emphatically advise you not read it, especially not the Table of Contents.

Madden’s goal is teaching technique to writers who already have a draft in hand. Do not look here for inspiration to write, ideas about how or why to write, or ways to silence the inner critic. This book provides enough ammunition for an army of critics, many of whom will not agree.

And that, in fact, is one of its strengths. Madden assumes that his readers all produce prose in need of revision, not that they share writing goals or styles. He offers techniques that can be applied to any draft and may, if we’re lucky, improve it. He makes no promises.

Revising Fiction is organized into 185 questions about what might be (and probably is) wrong with your draft. Most are worded in the negative (“72: Is the plot inadequately developed?”); the remaining few tend to assume something has gone awry (“131: Does your story need suspense?”).

Each question (“184: Is your story uninteresting?”) is followed by a brief exposition of the problem and suggested solutions. This often includes examples from the works of diverse authors like Virginia Woolf, Ring Lardner, James Joyce, and Anaïs Nin, including their thoughts on their own revisions as well as examples.

I’ve been experimenting with Revising Fiction as I, um, revise fiction. It helps, definitely, although the effect is rather like jumping into cold water. (“159: Have you included irrelevant or superfluous material?”) Madden’s tone is bracing, assuming we’re all grown-ups who wouldn’t be in the kitchen if we couldn’t stand the heat. (“116: Do you commit the pathetic fallacy?”) And yet I find that my emotional reactions play an important role: If I experience intense resistance to a question, it inevitably points to a problem. (“39: Is your syntax awkward or contorted?”)

This is a book I will use and use again. There are, after all, 185 different mistakes to avoid (“126: Have you failed to foreshadow major developments?”), and fixing one sometimes serves merely to create another (“89: Do passages of inert exposition retard the pace of your story?”). After several weeks with David Madden, I am perversely feeling better. His hideous list of flaws is longer than some of my stories but suddenly, one day, it became funny (“118: Have you neglected to imagine the possible uses of a wide range of technical devices?”), thankfully, without becoming ineffective.

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