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Yes, the book is old (1965) and its examples are a bit outdated.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


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?

Did I dazzle you?

“Did I dazzle you? Did I jump off the page?”

Those two lines are from the movie 21, which my husband and I watched over the weekend. I actually liked it, but what really stuck with me were those two lines.

In the movie, those words are thrown back in the face of a professor looking for scholarship recipients with more than just academic achievements. He wants students with “life experience”. After making hundreds of thousands of dollars by counting cards at blackjack tables in Vegas, the main character definitely has it.

The whole scene reminded me of trying to get into Berkeley (which I didn't even want to attend, but my dad hoped I'd get in so I could live at home). Not only did I not have a 4.5 GPA, but my parents were alive, I'm white, I wasn't an Olympian, I hadn't started my own company, and I didn't want to be an astronaut. Let's just say my dad coughed up some dorm fees elsewhere.

Anyway, here's my point. (I know, finally, right?) Those lines made me think about writing good characters. If we do our job well, shouldn't the characters dazzle our readers? Shouldn't they jump off the page as if they were real?

The challenge for us as writers is imbuing our characters with the qualities that make them unforgettable. The life experience that they would have if they were real people. If I were an expert on this, I think I'd be writing on deadline and too busy to blog almost daily, so I won't claim to have the answer.

I do have a couple of good resources, though. The book I just finished–and I highly recommend–is The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman. He got me thinking about my characters and their circumstances in a way I hadn't before. There are plenty of thought-provoking exercises at the end of each chapter to start you on your journey.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Debra Dixon's Goal, Motivation, and Conflict. Her book was the subject of my very first blog post, and understanding her concepts represented a real turning point in my writing career. More than any one idea, GMC has had the most profound effect on how I write.

Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint by Nancy Kress is another good primer for character development. Kress also includes end-of-chapter exercises.

I just started reading The Three Dimensions of a Character by Larry Brooks, so I can't speak to it yet, but it looks good so far. Just like with his book Story Structure Demystified, he excels at the “how to” of writing, and I'm looking forward to his forthcoming book from Writer's Digest.

What are some of your tricks for bringing characters to life, and do you have any other must-have books on the subject to recommend?

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What’s the big(ger) idea?

How do you write a “bigger book”? Yes, I've blogged about this before, but a recent series by one of my new favorite writing resources–yes, Larry Brooks over at–helped the concept of “writing big” finally click in my brain.

He seems to be helping things click a lot lately. Not sure if it's Mr. Brooks' style, that my brain is finally ready, or a bit of both. Maybe it's that old line: “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”. Hmm.

Anyway, here's my take on the idea of writing a bigger book.

The author takes ordinary people and shows them in extraordinary roles. We can relate to the emotional core of a character, and be thrilled by the chance to participate in a job or situation that many of us have no experience with. (And probably wouldn't want to in real life.)

They say and do the things most of us only wish we had the guts to say or do. When faced with a terrifying challenge, they rise to the occasion (eventually), the way we'd like to think we would.

Those larger-than-life characters are operating in an environment that is both foreign and fascinating to the average reader, so we're drawn into the experience for the vicarious ride through their world. Think special ops forces, spies behind enemy lines, hostage situations, medieval times, the Regency period, a school for wizards, NYC with vampires.

The same way a roller coaster simulates the thrill of a death-defying ride, big books let us experience scary and exciting worlds and situations through the adventures of the characters that we've grown attached to. We feel the fear, the joy, the heartache, and the bravery as if it were our own. We can have the emotions without the risk.

Bigger books usually also often have larger stakes. The threat isn't just to the heroine's daughter, but to the entire school, or the whole city. The villain isn't just a terrorist, he's the head terrorist. The stakes are personal, but also universal.

So now that I “get it”–I hope–my goals are to work it into Slow Burn, which I'm getting ready to put through its first major plot revision, and to apply the concept to Blind Fury which is in the throes of nascency.

How about you? Any thoughts on what makes a “bigger book”?

Down to the studs

I once got to work on a charity building project where we took the man's house down to the studs and built it back up again. (Ha! I know which kind of studs you were thinking of!) Well, today I did that with a movie, but without the build up, or the drywall dust.

See, last week I promised that I'd try a movie analysis à la Larry Brooks' post on The idea is to boil each scene down to its generic mission. Then you should end up with a story structure that could apply to any movie/book in the genre.

The whole concept is foreign to me, and I must say that it was harder than it sounded.

With the movie I picked–a romantic suspense that was available for instant viewing on Netflix–I had difficulty picking out the Midpoint shift and Pinch Point 2. Maybe the timing was off, or I'm just not as good at this as I'd like to think. Either way, below is my attempt at creating a generic romantic suspense template based on the movie I watched. I'll provide the title at the bottom. If I've done my job correctly, you won't have a clue.

Scene. Mission (Movie length: 105 minutes)

  1. Establish heroine's occupation and ordinary world
  2. Reveal heroine's loneliness and her dreams
  3. Foreshadow villain (1), introduce backstory
  4. Introduce villain (2) and heroine's stakes
  5. Establish heroine's new goal and motivation
  6. Fish out of water scenes and introduce conflict through villains (1,2)
  7. Heroine creates her own obstacles through naïveté
  8. Introduction of hero, he saves her life
  9. Reveal full identity of villain (1)
  10. Introduce hero's goal
  11. Plot Point 1: Heroine makes deal with hero that forces them to go forward together (~ 30 minutes)
  12. Show hero's disdain for heroine's lack of preparedness for what they face, reinforce fish out of water
  13. Villains are back
  14. Hero saves heroine again, running, obstacles, escape, find safe shelter
  15. Establish initial attraction between H/H, heroine reveals her goal and hero explains villains' ultimate goal, foreshadow possible betrayal by hero
  16. Hero saves her again
  17. Pinch Point: Reminder that villains (1,2) are looking for them (~ 50 minutes)
  18. H/H bonding while safe, reveal hero's backstory, nature, and goal to heroine
  19. H/H leave shelter and make an ally
  20. Villain (1) finds H/H and ally helps them escape
  21. Reminder that villain (2) is still out there, and reveal that he's found them
  22. Midpoint Shift: Hero decides to betray heroine, she starts thinking about taking action to gain stronger position against villains (~ 70 minutes)
  23. Show increased attraction between H/H
  24. Sex, show hero's betrayal (unknown to heroine)
  25. Pinch Point: Villains are back (~ 75 minutes)
  26. Begin pursuit of additional goal (prize) to help gain power against villains, reveal that villain (2) is with them but they don't know it
  27. Show viewer that villain (1) is following
  28. Introduce obstacles in pursuit of prize
  29. Plot Point 2: Heroine reveals change in mindset/thinking (~ 80 minutes)
  30. H/H find the prize (false victory)
  31. Villain (2) takes the prize away, and reveals hero's plan to betray heroine
  32. H/H recapture prize and run from villains (1,2)
  33. H/H separated, and hero ends up with the prize, heroine believes he's betrayed her, but he promises to meet up with her
  34. Black Moment: Heroine arrives at meet point and hero doesn't show
  35. Show heroine's disappointment and vulnerability, but resolve to face villain (2) alone
  36. Original goal achieved, but villain (1) interrupts and demands prize, threatens heroine, holds hero captive
  37. Climax: Series of scenes with H/H in fight with villain (1), while villain (2) flees; hero must choose between heroine and his goal
  38. Hero chooses heroine, but takes too long to arrive
  39. Heroine finds strength to save herself
  40. H/H share personal moment, and hero leaves to pursue his goal
  41. Resolution: Show heroine back in her everyday world, but now different because of experience
  42. Hero comes back for her and implied HEA ensues

I hope I've done the movie justice. I think Plot Points 1 & 2 were in the right place, but the middle of the story is a bit out of whack. Either that or I misinterpreted it horribly. Feel free to let me know if you agree. The movie was–drumroll, please–Romancing the Stone.

It was worse than I remembered, but very much in the tradition of its era, and still entertaining. I wanted to review Mr. & Mrs. Smith, but I'll have to wait since it's not available for instant play, and I don't know if my husband wants to watch it again anytime soon.

So, what do you think? Was it generic enough? Would it be a helpful structure on which to hang your own story?

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!