Techniques of the Selling Writer – Fiction and You

“Too many would-be writers are really would-be authors. They want to have written” – Larry Niven

You come home from work. The kids are so happy to see you, they don’t let go of your leg until one of you passes out from exhaustion. Don’t have kids? Your significant other needs a minimum of one hour to tell you just how much so-and-so pissed him/her off today. Don’t have a significant other? Something else calls you away. Quality time with your pet. A phone call to a friend. A video game. Honey Boo Boo.

These things are all well and good and have their place in your life. Some are more important than others, but if you’re not careful, they also make great excuses.

We say we want to be writers. We engage in the occasional pecking of keys. Hell, sometimes we even finish a story. But in the end, it always seems so friggin’ difficult to simply do that which we profess to love.

There are a multitude of reasons for this and Swain discusses several of them.

Taking an Unrealistic View

“In writing, more than in almost any other field, initiative is the key.”

If you only want to focus on writing one day out of the year, go for it. Just don’t expect to write the next great <insert country of desired domination here> novel. Like anything else worth learning, if you want to improve, you’re going to have to put in some practice. This means sitting down and banging your head against the wall until new concepts sink in.

When I was but a wee lad, my mother inflicted piano lessons on me. It’s something I’m forever grateful for now, but at the time, the only thing I really looked forward to was the glass of fresh pineapple juice my teacher would give me each visit. These lessons went on for several years until I determined the piano was just not gonna get me chicks and that guitar was where it was at. The fact is that I was forced to endure a steady regimen of tickling the ivories most days out of the week. It was the only way I improved. If I didn’t practice, it showed, and during my next lesson I would be forced to repeat the previous one until I got it right.

So there was the negative reinforcement – don’t improve and be pushed into the Sisyphean task of playing Row, Row, Row Your Boat over and over and over and over. But as I dropped the piano and picked up the guitar, I realized the positive dividends immediately. So much of what I learned through those hours of practice carried over to the guitar and made learning that particular instrument remarkably easier.

What I’m trying to say is that we know what we have to do. Unfortunately, knowing is often miles apart from doing. Spend some time brainstorming what gets you motivated. Make a list. Check it twice.

A couple things have helped me:

Eliminate as many of your favorite distractions as possible. I found this out the hard way. All that needed to happen was for my gaming laptop to die on me. There I was, home from a long day at work and I just wanted to relax and play Skyrim. Too bad. I physically couldn’t do it. Something that simple was enough to get my ass in gear and start working on those story ideas I’d been thinking about. I don’t recommend popping caps into your Xbox, but try to recognize your weaknesses.

Have someone hold you accountable. It could be a significant other, a mentor, a friend…doesn’t matter. Just make sure it’s someone that you don’t want to let down.

Hunting for Secrets

“Reality is knowing the complexity of fiction.”

Why do we buy books about writing? At least for the beginner, the hope is that we won’t have to suffer through the painful mistakes and errors that other writers before us have endured. Sure, that’s a noble goal. That’s how the sane person approaches most everything in this world.

As a computer network engineer, my technical background teaches me that when in doubt, the answer is almost always, “Check the manual.” Why should writing be any different? There must be a right way to put a novel together. Just a teaspoon of this and a cup of that, right?

The truth is there is no secret. At least, no single secret. Ideas such as plot, character, setting; they don’t exist in and of themselves. We can’t read a book focusing on creating compelling characters, apply the “rules” within and expect that it will work for all of our stories. The components of a good story interweave in so many ways when they form the whole.

New writers often take these tools we read about at face value. We try to apply them to our own stories, not realizing that we’re trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. We just know something’s not quite right, but we don’t know how to fix it and so we grow frustrated.

Learning the Hard Way

“Shortcuts are ever welcome, in a business as complex as this one.”

Some would suggest that books which focus on writing are a waste of time. These people take a hard line on the idea of there being no secrets or shortcuts. They feel the only way to learn to write is to either study the books you like to read or just keep writing and you’ll improve through a magic that can’t be divined. Some say it’s a combination of both.

You want to write epic fantasy? Study Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire. Westerns? Take apart Lonesome Dove and some Louis L’Amour novels. Oh, and write. Just keep writing. Before you know it, you’re ready to be published!

Is this true? To a point, in my opinion. Like most things in life, it’s a matter of degree. I think studying the works of those you admire rarely hurts, but I agree with Swain when he asks:

“How many of us can correctly note and/or interpret everything we see? …Art conceals art, in writing as elsewhere. The skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking that there is no skill.”

The difficulty in channeling the skilled author’s abilities into one’s own pen is often enough to make the beginner throw up his hands and walk away. A writing professor like Swain has spent a lot of time doing this work for us. I believe we can take the rules he (and others like him) have rendered and see how the writers we love not only have used them effectively, but also how they’ve bent them effectively.

Ignore Feeling and Writing by the Numbers

“…feeling is the place every story starts.”

All stories start with our emotions; a feeling we have about a certain subject. If we have an idea for a horror story, it’s because we want to share the fear it creates in us. We’re all individuals and respond to different things in different ways.

That’s why you can take two stories that share a genre and break them down until their structure looks nearly identical, finding yourself wondering how they ever seemed so different. Both books have heroes, villains, and conflict. They seem different because certain nuances of characters intrigued author A and different nuances intrigued author B. The same can be said for setting and other story components.

Sounds good right? If we know there are common pieces to the puzzle, putting together a story is easy! We just need to memorize them, arrange them in the proper order and crank out our novel in less than a month.

This is where beginners like me run into trouble:

“…rules start from the wrong end; with restriction; with form; with mechanics; with exhortation about things you should and shouldn’t do.”

Over the past few months, I’ve done a lot of reading online about Swain and what people have to say about him. The negative comments always seem to boil down to the same thing — “It’s formulaic! You lose all sense of dynamics and feeling!”

Part of the problem comes from left-brained people such as myself who have thick skulls and can’t easily acclimate to the idea of not following the “rules”. We respond to these critics with an attitude of, “Stupid hippy! How dare you throw logic out the window!” We want to defend these proven principles so much that we lose sight of what Swain says from the very beginning.

In fact, I was genuinely shocked when I cracked the book open after my initial reading and realized I had completely missed this idea of stories being born from feeling. If this isn’t a lesson in the value of re-reading, I don’t know what is.

And so it’s after you find that feeling, where guidelines come in to play. As Swain so aptly says:

“Though rules may shape your story, you yourself must shape the rules.”

The Writer is Always Right

“In this world, all of us want to be right, on the one hand; to avoid being wrong, on the other. So, we search for certainty.”

Being a writer takes nerve.

What’s one of our biggest fears when it comes to putting ourselves out there? Looking like a fool. Because there are so many ways to look at something, the person that sees things differently will sometimes shake their head in disgust at what you have to say. Or worse, they point and laugh. Or even worse than that…they say nothing and you drive yourself mad thinking of all the ways they’re ridiculing you behind your back.

As writers, we need to put on our noise-cancelling headphones and carry on. When we’re afraid of being wrong, we censor ourselves and can never reach our full potential. Once we understand that stories spring from feeling, we see that the idea of writing safely is hopeless. If we really want to share our exciting ideas with the world, we need to remove those imaginary (or real) shackles that people slap on us.

This also circles back to the idea of writing by rules. Why do some of us cling to them? They’re our bright orange water wings. They promise not to let us drown in the deep end. They serve as blinders, helping us to never be wrong. But when you write from rules, you’re bound for failure because you no longer write from you.

Bow Down Before the Objective

“What happens when a man conditioned to [depend on facts] decides he wants to create something? Naturally enough, he approaches it as a problem in fact-finding. That is, he looks to stories already written…studies them…attempts to dig out the common denominators that they share. From this survey, he deduces rules. Then, he tries to write stories of his own that fit these regulations. A story, thus, is for him an exercise in mechanics…a sort of juggling of bits and pieces; putting together a literary jigsaw puzzle.”

I spent a long time trying to say the above in a different way, but I found that Swain states the situation perfectly. It describes me during my first year, at least, of learning to write. After studying this book, I’m able to see the problem clearly and now I can proactively attempt to fix it.

Again, there’s a proper order of operation for writing meaningful stories:

Emote THEN appraise.

Writing as a Creative Act

“In the long run, you learn rules only to deviate from them.”

Feelings are the seeds of stories. Techniques and principles are the tools that cultivate those seeds into full blown trees that bear delicious fruit for others to enjoy.

As an example, let’s take a high level look at studying music. Most students begin by learning notes. Then they learn how those notes go together in ear-pleasing sequences called scales. They practice these and master them until they become second nature. Then they think about that melody they’ve been hearing in their head, the one that evokes a visceral reaction; they now know how to translate that to their instrument. Not only that, but they can take that melody and have it jump out of bounds for a second or two, making it even more interesting. But they know how to bring the tune back in safely before their melody becomes just a dissonant grouping of notes.

It works the same way for writing. Rules on pacing, description, motivations, dialogue and all the other things that make up a story; they exist to help you make effective use of the components. They help you clearly say what you want to say. You don’t have to use them, but you can’t deny that they exist nor that they haven’t been used successfully by thousands of authors.

So lets admit these rules exist and they’re useful. How do we learn them?

“By writing stories. Which is to say, by being willing to be wrong. Then, having been wrong, you check back through your stuff for process errors … Do that enough times, on enough stories, and eventually you’ll learn.”

I hope you found this overview of the first chapter useful. The next piece will focus on the words we put down on paper. I would love nothing more than to hear your feedback and thoughts, so please don’t hesitate to disagree (or agree) with any or all of the above.

-Phillip

0 thoughts on “Techniques of the Selling Writer – Fiction and You

  1. Man, Phillip… This is some great stuff.

    And while I obviously agree with everything you’ve written, it never ceases to amaze me how writers can follow all those rules, get to the finish line, and then stop.

    That’s why I related to this one so much: “Being a writer takes nerve.”

    My wife and I know a friend who’s written two novels, and one of them my wife has read and loved, and yet this writer won’t pull the trigger because they think the books aren’t good enough. I admit myself that I nearly balked at pulling the trigger on my first one, until my wife kicked me in the pants and built me up. (And even then it took her saying, “It’s a good book, and it’s so good I’ll want to re-read it someday. Had she not said that, who knows?)

    Anyway, it’s sad how scared we all get on putting our work out there. I’ve recently started what I call a “Confidence List,” and in it I put every written and spoken compliment I get on my writing, as well as who said it. Then, when I’m low or doubting myself, I just re-read that and instantly regain my nerve.

    Looking forward to No. 2!

    1. Thanks for reading it Stan! I’m really glad you found it useful. I really like that idea of a Confidence List. You should post something about that to share with the rest of us.

      1. Yeah, I probably should. And I also have a post I need to write about this measuring chart I’ve created that’s helped me a lot.

        I’ll try to make that happen soon. : )

  2. Good stuff, but a bit longish. I’d break up further posts if they get to be this long. I only say that because you don’t want people skimming over the good stuff—and it is good stuff.

    The rules aren’t a paint by number, much like getting muscles at the gym isn’t. There are things you must do to get results, but the flexibility comes in how you get there. Those books on writing are extremely helpful, but I think what you were getting at is you can’t just spend all your time in those books anymore than you should only spend time writing or only spend time reading. It’s a balance, one you have to decide for yourself. I used to be the type who was too busy writing to read. But once I started making the time, I noticed my writing got better. It’s kind of like hearing what a song could song like on the guitar. You may play it a little differently, and that’s okay. Or you may hear a completely different song that does something you like and apply it to the song you’re practicing. In the end, it gives you good experience.

    I could go on and on about this, so good provocative post. I think I’ll end on something my guitar teacher would always say, “The man who doesn’t understand interest often ends up paying it to the man who does.” His point was knowing and understanding what the rules are gives us the freedom to take our skills to the next level—and that’s what should matter most.

    1. Thanks for the great comment Jae! You’re certainly right about one thing — Everything in moderation.

      I also think you’re also right about the length. My proofreader mentioned the same thing. Believe it or not, I even cut some stuff out. 🙂 I’ll see how I can make the material more easily digestible.

      Appreciate your feedback and taking the time to read.

  3. I was hoping for a quick lunch-time read, but my salad vanished by the time I discovered I’m always right! 🙂 Emotions are definitely the backbone of any good story, the structure and rules simply provide a convenient vehicle. Knowing that is one thing, playing nicely between the two is a whole different ballgame. Thanks for the great post, Phillip – and the growing notion that you represent the realized writer my husband will one day be, as he toils away at engineering network security infrastructure whilst nurturing his own tales of Fire & Ice 🙂

    1. Thanks for reading, Angel! I’m glad you found some nuggets of useful information in this piece. And your husband, he’s sounding more and more like my clone – works as a network engineer, enjoys GRRM… Next thing I know, you’re going to tell me one of his four food groups is Cookies.

      Getting eerie! 🙂

      1. You crack me up, Phillip! He’s more of a Ben & Jerry’s kinda sweets guy – but I usually polish it off before he gets a second serving ;-0)

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