Review: Dwight V Swain “Techniques of the Selling Author”

Can creative writing be taught?

Our crit circle once had in a graduate from the local Creative Writing MA who presented us with a “Fragment” and sat back to bask in praise.

We pointed out that, though the vision was… well visionary… and the writing was lyrical… there was no real plot, we were confused by the narrative , and the imagery broke point-of-view – for example, to a pre-modern peasant, nothing is “like a rocket”.

I remember being perplexed.

Surely a Creative Writing MA, taught by real writers, for which this person had not only paid in money but also in precious time, would teach some basic craft? (Could it be that most of the instructors were people with good relationships with grant-making bodies, who produced academic-friendly short stories and literary novels with limited circulation outside English Lit departments? No…)

By basic craft, I mean not the “which?” or “how?“, but the “what?“.

There are a zillion ways to court the muse and coax a novel out of yourself while fighting “resistance”, a score of genres and as many themes as there are people, but only a one set of story physics underlying all the possible architectures.

Alas, writing how-to books aren’t always very useful on the what?

First, there’s the matter of credentials. There’s plenty of material out there by creative writing teachers with a handful of short stories in print, editors and agents who don’t actually write, and people who once sold a novel once.

No surprise then you’ll find lots of books offering inspiration, pep talks on fighting the internal editor and combating writers block, a little on structure – Hero’s Journey, anybody? – and the usual chapters on manuscript preparation and how the publishing industry worked at the time of writing (hint: different from the time of reading).

Where people do have credentials, they’re usually interested in the broader sweep; how to  approach “story” philosophically, or the particular challenges of particular genres. This is useful – vital, sometimes – stuff, but it’s like having Sun Tsu when we really want “The Junior Officer’s Field Handbook.”

The Dwight V Swain book is different because he was a prolific professional writer at the time when you could make a good living churning out genre, and in that he then evolved into a university teacher of creative writing. I suspect his book reflects the variable quality of his students… or perhaps he just saw a gap in the market.

So Techniques of the Selling Writer tells you what good prose and narrative look like and  what the foundations of a good story are.

It’s probably the single most useful book on writing that I have read.

Swain covers the building blocks of prose in detail, including clear active English (and what that is) and the use of close 3rd person. Then he gets interesting.

Though he wouldn’t use the term, Swain sees fiction as fractal with a similar structures running through each level.

At ground level, he advocates what he calls the Motivation Reaction Unit:

[Sentence(s) without your character in it, but from their point-of-view.] [Sentence(s) with your  character in it, with reactions from visceral to verbal.]

[Repeat]

No “filtering”, no need for clumsily elegant joining words, plenty of room for subtext. Better yet, this is a really fast way to draft:

The door crashed in bringing with it billowing smoke. Eric ducked behind a backing crate, reached for his blaster.

Coruscating beams scored the white clouds, biting chunks from the crate. The blaster refused to budge from its holster. Whimpering, Eric reached for a frag grenade instead.

Then he comes to Scene level. Swain distinguishes between:

Scene- we show somebody battling to do something, with complications arising

Sequel – we tell and show somebody working out what to do next.

Thus:

Scene: Eric tries to repel the boarders, but fails.

Sequel: Eric evades the boarders for several days until he decides to take to the life pod.

(Incidentally, Jim Butcher blogs about using this structure in his old LiveJournal.)

Finally, at Story level, Swain describes framing and testing ideas in a form roughly like this:

Can protagonist overcome antagonist’s scheme? Or will threat happen?

The Answer, of course, must be twisty and unexpected and we get there by passing from the Inciting Incident, through a lengthy Middle, to a climactic and testing End.

Can Eric repel the boarders? Or will they hijack the vital medical supplies, thus dooming an entire planet? Yes he can defeat them, however the supplies are not needed and the whole thing is a complex insurance scam.

Of course the relative antiquity of the book ensures that there will be issues – Swain’s heyday was closer to Robert E Howard’s than to ours.  All Swain’s examples, and his worldview, belong to the mid 20th century, as does his idea of what constitutes a good ending. His approach is honed to the short story or novella form and requires extension in order to cope with e.g. the Big Fat Fantasy Novel. Finally, he doesn’t really cover how to approach specific genres. However, there are other more modern books on that.

So, though this book isn’t quite a one-stop-shop for literary wannabes, it’s as close as you’ll get. It’s certainly what helped me get this far…

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Posted in Book Review, Books on how to write, Writing

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