Swain, Dwight V. Techniques of the Selling Writer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.
I've volunteered to write twice a month reviewing books, software, and other writing resources. I have accumulated a lot of such tools, and I want to share the ones I've found most useful. For my first post, I'll start with a book John mentioned at this month's meeting: Techniques of the Selling Writer.
I've enjoyed writing for as long as I can remember. In third grade, I started writing plays and short stories. At thirteen, I realized that I wanted to be a novelist. Yet it wasn't until earlier this year that I finally finished my first novel.
What took so long?
One factor was that I didn't know what I was doing. I knew the basic building blocks--plot, setting, character, and so on. I had a vague idea of how they all went together, too, but I couldn't quite figure out how to make them cohere. Writing a novel felt like trying to build a house without having any blueprints. I almost gave up several times. Then I discovered Techniques of the Selling Writer..
I was astonished. Though the book is four decades old (originally written in 1965, it was republished in 1982), the techniques Swain describes are still crucial to creating best-selling popular fiction. As I read, I had frequent "aha" moments as I understood why my favorite writers made the choices they made and just what it is that makes a novel so compelling that I stay up far past my bed time to finish it.
Swain leads off with the basic building blocks of fiction and discusses how to avoid traps that beginning (and some experienced) novelists often fall prey to. His chapter on conflict is one of the best primers on the subject I've ever read. The best value in this book, however, is Swain's advice on the strategy of constructing the plot of popular fiction. For Swain, a plot comprises a series of scenes and sequels. A "scene" means action--the character strives to achieve a goal that will move him closer to realizing the story goal. Scenes are followed by a "sequel," by which he means a period of reflection on the previous scene, in which the character plans a new short term goal and gets ready for a new scene. By utilizing this rhythmic structure of scene-sequel-scene-sequel, authors of popular fiction keep their readers turning the pages.
The final chapters contain information on marketing and sales; these chapters are very out of date, and you're better off skipping them entirely and looking for more recent information.
This is a very dense book, not to be read in one sitting. But if you can absorb the techniques Swain presents and apply them to your fiction, you'll have a far better chance of getting published.
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