Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Write Good, Vol 1: The Swain Way

My nemesis Jay Greenstein was forever bitching that "I hate education" (despite that I frequently reminded him I graduated magna cum laude from college) and don't read books on writing.  His go-to guy is Dwight Swain and Techniques of the Selling Writer.

Since he refers to it as like the fucking Bible, I wanted to give it a look.  It took a little while because the thing is like $17 in Kindle format on Amazon!  Even used copies on Amazon, Abebooks,, etc were going for around that--if not more.  And this is a book published first in 1965 and then later in 1981, so you'd think someone would have a copy for cheap.  The couple of used bookstores I visited didn't have it either.  Eventually the price went down to about $10 with shipping on one of the sites so I got a copy.  A 1981 copy, not the one you'd find on Amazon.  Not that it matters since Swain died in like 1992 so it's not like he has much new to add to it.

Anyway, the first caveat is that this book was first written in fucking 1965.  And most of Swain's success was years before that.  The writing world was a very different place back then.  The pulps and "paperbacks" he mentions no longer exist.  Yes we have paperbacks but back in the day "real" books were printed first in hardcover while cheap dime store paperbacks were for crap like Harlequin romances or most sci-fi books.  The magazines he mentions either no longer exist or really don't take short fiction unless you're Stephen King or Jonathan Franzen--someone people have heard of.  So as far as the "selling" part goes, well, you can't really do it the same way Swain did unless you invented a time machine and if you invented a time machine you wouldn't waste it on going back to the 50s to publish in pulp magazines, right?  I mean you'd do something like make sure your parents hook up or save the leader of the future Resistance or just steal a whole bunch of shit.

Which isn't to say the book is useless.  I mean let's face it, good writing is...good.  So some of the stuff he talks about might be able to help make your books better, not that you'll probably be able to sell them anyway--or if you sell it to a publisher you probably still won't actually sell many copies.  (I'm not bitter.  Hahaha.)

Swain is basically like one of those guys on late night TV, promising that "his system" can make you lose that 20 lbs (or my case 200 lbs) you need to lose.  He doesn't write it like a hawkster but it's pretty much the same concept that with "my system" you'll have success!  To which I say Fi.  Fi on you!  Still, maybe some of it will help you.

First thing I took away:  readers are dumb.  They can only follow one thing at a time.  So don't say, "Bob went to the store and bought milk and cookies and a magazine and hit on that hot blonde in the produce aisle."  First that's pretty cumbersome.  Second, readers are dumb.  Dumb reader no can follow more than one thing.  Dumb reader get angry and Smash book!  In the most basic way you'd say:  Bob went to the store.  He bought milk.  He bought cookies.  He bought a magazine.  He hit on that hot blonde in the produce aisle.

I suppose I do have a bad habit of maybe doing too many contrasting things.  Like "He went to the store and then bought milk."  Or "Before he bought milk, he went to the store."  How's the reader supposed to keep track of that?  Me dumb reader.  Me no understand!  Smash!!!

Anyway, another concept is that there are three parts to any reaction.
  1. Something happens.
  2. You feel it.
  3. You express yourself verbally.

  • He pounded the nail through his thumb.
  • His thumb throbbed with pain.
  • "God-fucking-damn-it!!!" he roared.

You must do it this way.  Always.  OK, not always.  Maybe you don't express yourself verbally.

Another commandment:  your book must be structured as scene-sequel-scene-sequel.  What's a sequel?  No it's not referring to the continuation of a series.  Basically the idea is there's a scene where stuff happens and then a cool-down scene where stuff doesn't really happen.  Then another scene where stuff happens.  And so on until you have a novel.

I'll borrow one of his ridiculously dated examples:  Scene:  Ricky is at the malt shop with his sweetheart and jealous ex-boyfriend shows up to kick Ricky's ass.  Sequel:  Ricky goes home and plots his vengeance.  Then later they probably get into a choreographed knife fight or drag race or some 50s bullshit like that.

Obviously I'm being more than a little facetious about a lot of this.  While it's an OK book, especially if you haven't written 200 fucking books like someone around here, it was a real chore to read.  Swain at this point was teaching at Oklahoma and he seemed like the sort who would put his students to sleep.  He's not the Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society kind of teacher, more like F Murray Abraham in Finding Forrester.  It comes through in how dry the book is.  Even when he tries a joke it's just not funny.  At one point he throws in a "Two Wongs Don't Make a White" joke that probably killed in the 50s but now is just racist.  (Also the joke really had nothing to do with what he was talking about so it just stuck out like a sore thumb.)  I suppose if you're 76 like Jay Greenstein then it's probably easier to tolerate but me being only half that it was really lame.  It's ironic because he talks about invoking emotion in readers--because that's why you read books, to feel! Not to, you know, simply be entertained for a few hours--yet the only emotion I felt most of the time was boredom.

There was one thing I found interesting, which is a formula he uses for summarizing a story.  It might be helpful when you set out, but really I think it would be helpful when you're doing a query letter.

The formula is like this:  Situation + Character + Objective + Opponent + Obstacle

Here's his corny example:
  • Situation:  When humans suddenly begin to grow to 12 foot height
  • Character:  John Storm (not the Human Torch)
  • Objective:  tries to find out why.
  • Obstacle: But can he defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?  (Um, yes?)

(He actually refers to Obstacle as Disaster but that just sounds stupid to me.)

For the hell of it let's try it on a story we mostly know:  The Wizard of Oz:

When she's stranded in the magical land of Oz (situation), Dorothy (Character) has to find the mysterious Wizard to return home. (Objective)  But can she defeat the Wicked Witch of the West trying to stop her from reaching the Wizard? (Obstacle)

Now when you phrase it like that you basically have your first paragraph for a query letter.

Let's try it with a book you haven't read, ie one of mine.
When he's turned into a young woman, Stacey Chance has to find a cure to change herself back.  But can she get the notes for the cure from the evil gangster who stole them?

That's Chance of a Lifetime of course.

Let me try it with a new story you definitely haven't read, though you could read the rough draft here.
When his settlement is overrun by zombies, Hunter Hawking has to track down who unleashed the zombies and stop them from doing it again.  But can one ace pilot hope to defeat an army of zealots and their horde of undead minions?

That would be for Sky Ghost:  Army of the Damned.  I've been working up the gumption to write a query letter and honestly summarizing it like that does seem to help.  So often when I want to write a query there's just so much stuff that I want to cram in that it's hard to focus on basics.

Anyway, if you want to pay $20 and muddle through all 300 or so pages of it, maybe Swain's book will become your Bible.  Then you can go bludgeon people over the head with it in writer's groups and take it way, way too seriously.

I think, though, part of the problem is if you do adopt it you'd end up writing really mechanically for a while and would then have to unlearn a lot of it to get back to a more natural feel.  So try not to take it as seriously as Jay Greenstein.

Up Next:  Writing the Novel by Lawrence Block


  1. Interesting rant. Does the guy you're talking about here read your blog?

  2. The book sounds rather outdated. Maybe it would be of some use to beginners who need the structure?



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