Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* Writing fiction – the best book on the techniques of storytelling

If you want to learn the techniques of story telling, the best book I have ever come across is Dwight Swain’s, “Techniques of the Selling Writer”.  This not a book for daydreaming about writing nor about connecting with your “inner writer” (See “Becoming A Writer by Dorothea Brande for that – which I’ve also used and reviewed).

“Techniques of the Selling Writing” is exactly that – practical, hands-on, nuts and bolts methods for telling a story well; so that you grip the reader and they can’t put it down until the end.  And if that sounds like a crass recipe for a pot-boiler, please check your prejudices at the door.  (Trust me, dividing literature from storytelling doesn’t work.  You’ll spend years in the wilderness, get frustrated and go crazy or turn bitter.  Been there. Done that.) Whether you want to write “a multi-layered narrative that evokes the feeling of a generation” and win literary prizes or publish a thriller that enchants readers and sells – the techniques are basically the same, even if the emphasis is very different. Swain’s book works because it’s a practical workbook.  He gives examples.  He shows what works and what doesn’t work and he explains why something doesn’t work.  This is almost as important as learning what does.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

“You need to know only four things in order to write a solid story:
how to group words into motivation-reaction units;
how to group motivation-reaction units into scenes and sequels;
how to group scenes and sequels into story pattern;
how to create the kind of characters that give a story life.

“Are these things hard to learn?  Not at all.  At least, not if you take the job a step at a time, so that you understand why you do each thing, as well as how.  Then why do so many people find it difficult to learn to write?  They fall back into traps that slow them down and hold them back.  Eight traps, specifically:
1) They take an unrealistic view
2) They hunt for magic secrets
3) They try to learn the hard way
4) They refuse to follow feeling
5) They attempt to write by rules
6) They don’t want to be wrong
7) They bow down to the objective
8) They fail to master technique.”

Swain takes the wannabe novelist from the first lines of the story through the long middle and right through to the end.  Step by step, he explains what needs to be done and what can go wrong.  This is not writing by numbers or rules.  It is training by apprenticeship with a master.  A single example may show this more clearly.  Choosing the right words can be a real stumbling block for any writer.  I know I’ve peered out of the window for hours looking for the right words.  Here is Swain on this challenge:

“How do you write vividly?  You present your story in terms of things than can be verified by sensory perception.  Sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch – these are the common denominators of human experience; these are the evidence that men believe.  Describe them precisely, put them forth in terms of action and of movement, and you’re in business.  Your two key tools are nouns and verbs.  Nouns are words that name something…Verbs are words that tell what happens…The nouns you want are pictorial nouns: nouns that flash pictures, images, into your reader’s mind.  The more specific, concrete, and definite the noun. . . the more vivid the picture. The noun rhinoceros flashes a sharper, more meaningful picture to your reader than does the noun animal.”

See what I mean?  Practical, straightforward guidance.  All any writer has are words so in order for us to build our stories, words have to be put to work as if they were bricks.  This may sound obvious but it’s often devilishly difficult inserting flannel words.

He gives and explains 10 ways in which the planning of any scene can go wrong.  these include, “the scene lacks urgency”, “the opposition is weak”and “the disaster isn’t disastrous enough”.

I was once hired to edit a middle-aged cook’s novel.  The idea was great, yet after just a few pages I knew the story did not work because the author was making all the mistakes almost every beginner makes.  Every story can be fixed – that’s where writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting (I exaggerate not!) comes in.  Unfortunately my client thought the first draft of his novel was already a masterpiece and though I tried to explain very diplomatically that he needed to rethink a lot of how thestory was told, he just did not want to understand that a hero is not “heroic” unless his enemy (a person, a storm, a ghost) is also strong.  Every hero needs a worthy adversary.  My client just could not accept even this basic fundamental of storytelling.  And I never got paid.

Of course, even when you have the major techniques, tricks, devices and rules-of-thumb, you still need to learn to apply them.  For some this comes naturally; for most of us,  it requires years of patient, persistent work.  But at least, with Swain’s excellent book in hand, there is likely to be success in the end.

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain, first published in 1965 and now published by the University of Oklahoma.

Buy now: Techniques of the Selling Writer


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This entry was posted on March 2, 2010 by in Books/Language and tagged , , .
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