Writers are by their very natures intensely curious about their craft. They write, and they read, and they want to know how to get better. They read up about the components of storytelling – and may at times focus on things like plot, or character, or dialogue, or setting. The organic process of writing, then, require for some of what they picked up to have lodged somewhere in their subconscious because the first draft of stories are not told entirely consciously. In edit, the demands of the marketplace and structure can be polished – and over time – first drafts get better – and the individual writer ascends to her personal voice.
This is all good – except, like all things good – a rather cynical cottage industry has grown. The ‘aspiring writers’ as lucrative targets for charlatans is, unfortunately, a real thing. You can tell from ads by assorted gurus on social media. And from some of the rubbish out there. I’d venture to say that most ‘resources’ aimed at beginning writers falls either into the category of snake oil, or scam.
Any writer, though, will have to wade through some of this on their way to mastery of their craft. It is both inevitable and necessary. The trick is not to learn one way, or one thing, or one trick – but many.
Nothing develops writing more than writing itself. Making mistakes. Finishing what you’ve started. Throwing out sections. Starting again. Crafting the prologue nineteen times and never getting to the next chapter, let alone the end. All of these are vital stages to the development of the writer. And unless you do these things, you will not be your best, no matter what else you do. Write a lot – that is the first rule of Write Club.
The second rule, you might have heard, is to read a lot. A bad book is worth a semester at writing school. Good ones, well, they can inspire and awaken entire dimensions you never thought of before. You need to know your genre. Need to know what else is out there. Read widely, hear different voices, see other masters in action. Indeed, read a lot of the kinds of things you write.
The third rule is to go to class. Watching all of Brandon Sanderson on YouTube is the best of the best of any writing school out there – FREE to you. There are a few other masterclasses and lectures and discussions you can watch.
There are also Craft Books. These are the books about writing. And it is with the craft books – books about writing – that my Writer’s bookshelf series will concern itself. I will share some of the best books I know – and some of them might be as basic as ‘for dummies’; while others may be self published; while yet others will be academic; while others will be ‘respectable’ – whatever the hell that means.
These are all books I recommend because I learned something from them.
For our first review on the Writer’s Bookshelf – I take a component seldom focused on in granular analysis of the craft. We isolate character or plot or setting or dialogue – but seldom do we zero in on Prose itself.
For any serious writer, reading Dwight V. Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer at least once is worth it. You might actually read it a few times and still get something from it. Even if – and perhaps especially if – you find his strict formula difficult, cumbersome or artificial.
The key is not to wholesale accept or reject anything. You are your own secret sauce and no one can tell you how to be you. You may even reject Swain’s techniques. Fine. But learn them, first, because they are interesting, and revealing, and powerful. He offers you one powerful paradigm with which you can approach creating fiction.
Swain was a lecturer at a University in Oklahoma. The book is quite old, the first printing in 1965. The style is then a little older than the TV-attention span generation is used to… but persist because there is some gold to be found.
There is plenty that the book reflects on – but its primary theses are the SCENE and SEQUEL binary, and the MOTIVATION REACTION UNIT.
The scene and sequel binary takes a look at structure on a scene level. If you study plots and plotting you may be aware of three act structures, or five act structures, or the heroes journey, etc. These are the bigger picture frameworks that an entire story fits into. Swain provides one of the first structural tools on the level of the individual scene. If we think of the three act structure as Beginning, Middle and End, Swain explores a SCENE as Goal, Conflict, Disaster – and the SEQUEL as Reaction, Dilemma, Decision. He alternates them one after the other. It is another way to do what has been called ‘try-fail’ cycles. I found this idea interesting – and I haven’t found any other work delving into scene level dynamics this deeply.
Swain takes it deeper, to the level of prose. The book is tremendously useful, it deals with word choices and how to be vivid and how to build tension and emotion. His also lays out a sentence level device that I found interesting and useful. Swain calls it a Motivation-Reaction Unit. He reasons it is applying cause and effect to people. You write a sentence without your character – a motivating stimulus – and then follow it with as sentence in which your character reacts to that. Swain advises that your entire book is written with one motivating stimulus followed by one character reaction. This is very strict – and as an exercise – quite illuminating. Take a chapter you’ve written, and re-write it using only Motivation Reaction units.
Like ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ writing advice can be true without being The Truth (my Fairbridge Series tells more than shows – because the point of the books are that people are trapped inside their ideologies – the stuff in the heads of the characters are almost more important than the unfolding plots).
Like all books with strict rules, they end up providing loose guidelines once you’ve lifted the tricks a few times, built some muscle memory and learned how to use them without being controlled by them. If you’re just starting out, try sticking strictly to Swain’s rules for a month or two of daily writing practice. If you’re more in the middle of your journey, or even a pro – take the ‘why’s’ of Swain’s suggestions to heart – there is a rationality to the structures he proposes that helps your prose to fit in with the way the human mind processes information.
With scarce resources, I recommend at least two books on any writer’s bookshelf – a GOOD dictionary (not one that pretends that language changes as easily as it’s board’s infatuation with the politics du jour), and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus.
After that, a solid collection of craft books help. Swain’s should be among them.