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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Yes, the book is old (1965) and its examples are a bit outdated.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! 😉

Solid foundation

On my continuing quest to master (ha, ha, as if) story structure, characterization, POV, setting, and all the many important facets of writing a damn good book, I read a lot of craft books and take the occasional online course. I attend chapter meetings and the annual RWA conference. I read blog posts and agent tweets and writing magazines.

It never ends.

But the amazing thing is, neither does the learning. I can’t believe how many times I’ve wondered why I waited so long to read a certain book, because that one finally crystallized a concept.

What I’m starting to think, though, is that maybe if I had read that book a year ago, it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I think that I have to be exposed to a concept multiple times before it really clicks. Before the nuances and images become clear.

There are some books that I think would have helped me had I seen them earlier. For example, the much-lauded (by me, at least) Story Structure Demystified by Larry Brooks. Another is Goal, Motivation, and Conflict by Debra Dixon. Both of these fundamentally changed how I approached my writing and provided a sound footing for future learning.

They indoctrinated me to the basic nomenclature and concepts that most lectures, books, and articles build on.

After going through these two works—and many, many others—James Scott Bell’s Plot & Structure made so much more sense to me. Tips and notions that once seemed merely handy were turned profound when laid atop the foundational works.

And now I’m listening to The Hero’s 2 Journeys, a seminar by Michael Hauge and Christopher Vogler. Had I not been exposed to story structure on a fundamental level, I’m not sure this recording would be the magnificent lightning bolt that it has been for me this week.

What do you think are the foundational books that every new writer should start with to prepare them for their lifetime of learning?


Taking a shortcut

A few months ago I read a good writing book called Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell. In it, Bell advocates going through six books and writing a note card for every scene to describe its POV, location, type of scene, and purpose. Then when you're done (six months later), you periodically pull out the cards and flip through them, lay them out to see the flow, and so on.

The idea is that eventually an understanding of good story structure will bubble up from your subconscious. I don't doubt the efficacy of this exercise. Nor am I one to shirk a little homework. But in this case, I made it through about half a book before I gave up. Maybe if I'm having trouble sleeping sometime, I'll try again.

In the meantime, I'm going to try Larry Brooks' suggestion to do something very similar, but using movies. Good movies are built around the same structure principles as a well-written novel. So, it makes sense that we should be able to accomplish a similar exercise with a movie, and in much less time. Maybe three hours.

So, my plan next week is to analyze at least one movie. I'm putting it here to hold myself accountable. I'll post my results for discussion in a future installment.

If you're up to it after you read Larry's post, I'd love to hear how it went for you too. (No, the comma is not required before “too”.) 😉

Have a great weekend. Write on!