Over the holidays and into the new year, I’ve been reading two books on the craft of writing itself: Dwight Swain’s Techniques for the Selling Writer and Stephen King’s On Writing.
Dwight Swain’s book is pretty old, a bit hard to find, and honestly I’d never heard of it before I started to wonder why YWriter (my program of choice of late for book writing) had some of the special features it does for action and reaction scenes and the like. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Dwight Swain’s book at first: it’s pretty clearly meant for pulp writing and some of the advice seems better suited to short stories than novels. While Swain himself is quick to point out he is simply describing tools which may be used or discarded at will, some of his most fervent advocates take his advice nearly to the point of religious gospel. Despite this, it’s a terrifically meaty book, filled with some of the best advice I’ve ever seen on pacing and creating tension. One could do much worse than to read this book repeatedly, and take seriously the author’s admonition on the importance of figuring out what works for you in your individual workflow.
On Writing is mentioned by a whole lot of authors (I believe Chuck Wendig refers to his own first reading as ‘life changing.’) There’s some good advice in there, as well as some interesting stories about Stephen King’s own life, but I also found some advice I flat out disagreed with, no matter how much King presented it as undeniable, unarguable truth. He even goes so far as to undermine some of his own assertions, such as when he denounces plotting and then describes how the origins of Misery began with a 16-page handwritten summary. (I’m sorry, Mr. King, but that thing you just did? That’s called plotting.) Sure, the book deviated pretty significantly from that original seed, but I think you have to be open for the book to move you in a different direction. That doesn’t mean it didn’t start with a plan. Certainly King admits he had an ending in mind when he began — it was just an ending he didn’t use. Likewise, when he talks about writing faster than his doubt? Yeah, I’m right there with you, Mr. King. SO RIGHT THERE.
By comparison, Techniques for the Selling Writer is a product of its time and uh, well, let’s just say society has moved forward some since this book was first written. While King suggests switching genders in a tale with cliched gender roles as a valuable writing exercise and way to learn not to fall into stale traditional stereotypes, Swain points out that the most popular stories have a hero, a villain, and a heroine — and in case you were unclear on the problem with that, the heroine’s chief feature “is desirability.” Oy. His advice to only use female MCs when selling to ‘women’s fictions’ is only getting tossed straight in the trash. No thanks, Mr. Swain!
So what’s interesting about both books is what they agree on, and they agree vehemently on one main point: telling a good story trumps any amount of pretty prose, wonderful characterization, or general literary merit. Of course, neither of these authors are viewed as heralds of literary achievement (were, in Mr. Swain’s case, since he has since passed away) so one might argue that of course they would say that. But I suspect they’re on to something. They aren’t the only two people I’ve heard say this. Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Rusch both talk about how it’s better to be a good storyteller than a good writer (obviously, we all want to be both.) The popularity of certain books on the markets suggests to me that this is truth: I’ve flipped through enough bestsellers where the prose was excretable to suspect the book’s appeal must lie in another direction. That advice seems pretty solid to me.
Final Verdict: Read On Writing to say you have. It’s an easy read and there’s some genuinely good advice in there. Then go buy Techniques of the Selling Writing and memorize the parts on writing technique (and ignore the parts that are seriously sexist, racist, or otherwise completely out-of-touch.) There’s valuable advice in both books — it’s a matter of sorting through for what will work best for your own needs and process.