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The gospel according to Dwight

My well-thumbed copy of The Book

I haven’t read every craft book out there, but I’ve read a lot of them. Some good, some great, some, well, not so fab. My short list would include anything on writing by James Scott Bell, Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks, Save the Cat! (and its sequel) by Blake Snyder, and Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon.

But if I could only choose one book to read on my journey to publication, it would be Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

Yes, the book is old (1965) and its examples are a bit outdated. But the principles stand. Think the advice to start at the point of change is new? Wrong. It’s in there. Cause and effect, consistency, scene goals, character goals, creating conflict, tension, writing the dreaded middle. It’s truly one-stop shopping for the craft of writing.

Yes, the book is 300 pages of small print, long paragraphs, and no chapter summaries. But everything within is brilliant. Every turn of the page brought an “aha” to my lips. I marked so many pages I might as well reread the whole thing. I should have taken notes.

Yes, a lot of Swain’s ideas are out there in other forms. In fact, I’d argue that almost every other writing book available is a distillation or expansion of one or more of his key ideas. And I think seeing the same thing in different formats at different points in your learning process has a lot of value.

All I’m saying is that at some point along the way, this book should be part of your education.

And if I had a fire and could only grab one book, I’d take this one.

Do you have a favorite writing book? Make your case! 😉

Space and Time (Bonus Friday post)

You can also catch this post over at Romance Magicians

What do Einstein and writing guru Dwight V. Swain have in common? The theory of relativity. Einstein once famously said, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. THAT'S relativity.”

Dwight V. Swain, in his epic tome on writing, TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER, said, “In writing, you translate tension into space: The more tense the situation as your focal character experiences it, the more words you give it.”

I don’t know why, but that one short passage in Swain’s book stopped me short with its brilliance.

Have you ever heard Captain Sullenberger talk about his experience landing flight on the Hudson River? When he listens to the flight recorder playback, the whole event takes place in mere minutes. And yet while he was going through it, time seemed to slow down. The volume of information and emotions he processed in that short period of time made it seem many times longer than the reality.

So if we follow Swain’s advice, we can give our readers an easy clue about how momentous an event is by how much space (i.e. relative time) we allot to it in our story.

To some degree, I’m sure we all do this instinctively. But I’m wondering if maybe some of my scenes that fell a little flat did so because I didn’t give them their due. Maybe I let too much of the experience happen “off screen”, thus shortchanging the reader and my story.

Next time I can’t figure out why an important scene isn’t working, I’ll check to see if I gave it enough space and time.

Filling my toolbox

My writing education has a theme. I cannot learn and apply a new concept or technique until my brain is ready for it. I’ve read book after book and taken numerous classes on all aspects of writing. Characterization, point of view, dialog, plotting, and so on. But often, even if I see the value of a lesson, it doesn’t “take” without some basic foundational knowledge that I don't yet have.

In basketball, they don't practice three-pointers before learning how to shoot from the key. (I hope.)

For example, I’ve been exposed to Dwight Swain’s ideas on using the scene and sequel technique for writing several times. (I hear Jack Bickham’s book aptly named Scene and Sequel, is a must have.) But for some reason, the concept didn’t click for me. Until now.

I’m taking a Pacing class with Mary Buckham. Seriously, if you ever get a chance to take one of her classes, run to get in line. Two of her lectures covered the S&S concepts, and all of a sudden it made sense. I give a lot of credit to Mary’s easy way of breaking ideas down to the basic, important points, and her willingness to answer all manner of dumb questions. Many of them mine.

I had a similar experience with Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. I’ve mentioned it before. But looking back, many of the things I learned early on didn’t make complete sense to me until I understood the basic parts of structure. I took classes and read books that either ignored it, or assumed I knew it already.

As I move along on my learning journey, I’m acquiring the basic skeleton on which to hang everything else. It’s a heady feeling to see it all coming together, and be able to better identify where my areas of weakness are. I mindmapped my view of the writing process and the business and it turned out as shown below. You could probably argue different placement of some of the points, but I’d be most interested to hear what you think is missing.

Some elements of writing craft

The business of writing


Yes, I don’t know what I don’t know. There’s more out there that I haven’t yet discovered, I’m sure.

But I can also see how far I’ve come from that eager writer who knew nothing at all and just wrote for fun. Sometimes I miss the ignorance of those days because writing was pure joy. But the excitement is back as I start my new WIP knowing that my toolbox is filling up and I can use those tools to get my stories closer to the end product I want.

What's in your toolbox?