Techniques of the Selling Writer

Techniques of the Selling Writer

by Dwight V. Swain

Paperback(Revised ed.)

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Techniques of the Selling Writer provides solid instruction for people who want to write and sell fiction, not just to talk and study about it. It gives the background, insights, and specific procedures needed by all beginning writers. Here one can learn how to group words into copy that moves, movement into scenes, and scenes into stories; how to develop characters, how to revise and polish, and finally, how to sell the product.

No one can teach talent, but the practical skills of the professional writer's craft can certainly be taught. The correct and imaginative use of these kills can shorten any beginner's apprenticeship by years.

This is the book for writers who want to turn rejection slips into cashable checks.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Swain here lays fiction bare, focusing on its practical components: movement, scene, story, character development, and revision. He also provides advice on selling your work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806111919
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 01/15/1981
Edition description: Revised ed.
Pages: 342
Sales rank: 767,010
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.71(d)

Read an Excerpt

Techniques of the Selling Writer

By Dwight V. Swain


Copyright © 1965 Dwight V. Swain
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8667-2


Fiction and You

A story is experience translated into literary process.

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.

This book tells you how to do these things; these, and many, many more. In detail: step by step. The tricks are here ... the tools, the techniques, the devices. You'll find them in Chapters 2 through.

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 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.

Every one of these traps is a major hazard. Therefore, before we get down to specific skills, let's consider each in detail.

Reality and the writer

Can you learn to write stories?


Can you learn to write well enough to sell an occasional piece?

Again yes, in most cases.

Can you learn to write well enough to sell consistently to Redbook or Playboy or Random House or Gold Medal?

Now that's another matter, and one upon which undue confusion centers.

Writing is, in its way, very much like tennis.

It's no trick at all to learn to play tennis—if you don't mind losing every game.

Given time and perseverance, you probably can even work yourself up to where Squaw Hollow rates you as above-average competition.

Beyond that, however, the going gets rough. Reach the nationals, win status as champion or finalist, and you know your performance bespeaks talent as well as sweat.

So it is with writing. To get stories of a sort set down on paper; to become known as a "leading Squaw Hollow writer," demands little more than self-discipline.

Continued work and study often will carry you into American Girl or Men's Digest or Real Confessions or Scholastic Newstime.

But the higher you climb toward big name and big money, the steeper and rougher your road becomes.

At the top, it's very rough indeed. If you get there; if you place consistently at Post or McCall's or Doubleday, you know it's because you have talent in quantity; and innate ability that sets you apart from the competition.

Now this doesn't seem at all strange to me. The same principle applies when you strive for success as attorney or salesman or racing driver.

Further, whatever the field, no realist expects advance guarantees of triumph. You can't know for sure how well you'll do until you try. Not even a Ben Hogan, a Sam Snead, or an Arnold Palmer made a hole-in-one his first time on the links. To win success, you first must master the skills involved. A pre-med student isn't called on to perform brain surgery.

Good–that is, salable–stories presuppose that you know how to write, how to plot, how to characterize, how to intrigue readers; how to make skilled use of a hundred tools.

A book like this one shows you these basic tricks and techniques.

What you do with those devices, however; how well you use them, is a thing that must ever and always depend on you: your intelligence, your sensitivity, your drive, your facility with language.

Your talent.

But before you shrug and turn aside, remember just one point: In writing, more than in almost any other field, initiative is the key. Ernest Hemingway had to write a first line and a first story too. So did John Steinbeck and Edna Ferber, Faith Baldwin and Pearl Buck and Frank Yerby and Erle Stanley Gardner. Each followed the same path. Each linked desire to knowledge, then took his chances.

Try it yourself. You may prove more able than you think.

The hunt for magic secrets

Observe Fred Friggenheimer, a non-existent beginning writer.

This morning, the postman brings Fred a shiny new Mephisto Supersonic Plot Computer.

This device has cost Fred twenty-five dollars. Its value, in terms of the benefit he can derive from it in his efforts to write better stories, isn't twenty-five cents.

Unfortunately, novices in the field of fiction often tend to a child-like faith in magic keys or secret formulas.

No such key exists. There isn't any formula or secret.

At least, no single secret.

That's worth remembering. No one can call his shots as a writer until he abandons his dreams of magic keys and, instead, looks reality straight in the eye.

What is reality?

Reality is acknowledging the complexity of fiction. It's accepting the fact that both you and I are human, and that we must crawl before we walk, and that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Corollary: A lot more steps must of necessity follow Number One.

Thus, four boys in Friend Friggenheimer's town last night stole the chalice from a church. Caught, they reveal that they've been reading up on witchcraft and want to try to evoke Satan.

Fred reads about the incident in his morning paper. It intrigues him. "Here," he tells himself excitedly, "is a story!"

Fred's wrong. The theft is an incident. With skilled handling and the development of a point of view and dynamic characters and complications and climax and resolution, it quite possibly may build into a story. But for now, it remains an incident and nothing more.

A story is a complex thing. Its materials demand skill in their manipulation.

Story components, in turn, don't stand alone, nor yet hang in a vacuum. There's no such thing as plot, per se, or character, or setting.

Neither is story merely words or language ... let alone style, or symbol, or imagery, or structure.

The experts do us badly here. Too often, they give the impression that a single player makes a ball team.

Take Fred's friend George Abercroft (like Fred, he's really non-existent), a specialist in story structure. Organization is the important thing, he says. Learn pattern, and it will solve your every problem.

But a superior architect may prove a poor carpenter; and you the writer must execute your works as well as plan them.

The specialist in character, in turn, sneers at plot as if it were a dirty word ... conveniently forgetting that it's impossible truly to delineate character sans situation.

Ignoring content, the stylist prays to Flaubert and performs assorted sacred rites with language ... as if the garment were more important than the wearer.

So many specialists ... so many out-of-focus answers.

And each authority is dangerous to the very degree that he's correct, because that's also the degree to which he distorts the actual picture. Put four such specialists to work as a group, designing a woman, and she might well turn out like the nightmare of a surrealistic fetishist, all hair and derrière and breasts and high French heels.

So ... no magic key. No universal formula. No mystic secret. No Supersonic Plot Computer.

It's enough to plunge a man to the depths of despair.

–Not to mention frustration.

Yet there's another way to look at your dilemma, and that way just may point you to salvation.

Consider: Do you really want to succeed just because you possess a magic secret?

For if there were some super-trick, some mysterious formula to puff away creative problems, then it stands to reason that said trick must be as difficult to perform as the Indian rope illusion, multiplied by Cagliostro and carried to the nth power, with Paracelsus, Apollonius of Tyana and Madame Helena Blavatsky thrown in. Otherwise, 999 writers would already be using it and the world would be blessed with a great deal more good fiction.

Denied such thaumaturgy, a beginner like our friend Fred Friggenheimer finds his task made both easier and harder. Instead of one secret, he must master dozens, hundreds ... devices, procedures, bits of craftsmanship and rules of thumb and gimmicks.

And that brings us to a further hazard.

Must you learn the hard way?

Mabel Hope Hartley (that's not her real name), queen of the love pulps thirty years ago, is another of Fred's acquaintances. Old and tired now, she turns out just enough confessions to support herself.

Mabel tells Fred that a writer needs no help or guidance. Published stories, she claims, should be his textbooks, for what secrets can there be to writing when every detail is spread before you on the printed page?

True enough, as far as it goes. But how many of us can correctly note and/or interpret everything we see?—And let no man say me nay who hasn't tried to figure out the recipe for creole gumbo from what his taste buds tell him. A whiff of perfume is no sure clue to the scent's formulation. Just because you've walked on carpets doesn't mean you're qualified to weave one. Art conceals art, in writing as elsewhere. The skill of a skilled writer tricks you into thinking that there is no skill.

So it might be just as well to take the sneers of our imaginary Mabel Hope Hartley with several grains of salt. Mabel's merely confused about the issues, because she did her own studying without benefit of text or teacher–reading, rereading, writing, rewriting, struggling, failing; sweating, swearing, pacing the floor, experimenting, straining; wrestling with her work night after night in agonies of despair or of frustration; battering at the wall of authorial success till her square Dutch head was bloody.

Next question: Is Mabel's procedure a good one?

It's a moot question, really. Often you have no choice but to play by ear. The tune exists only in your own head, so you doodle till you achieve the effect you want.

But in many areas this may prove a wasteful process. Earlier travelers have already noted landmarks and drawn maps of sorts. "Do this," they say, or "Don't do that."

Short cuts are ever welcome, in a business as complex as this one. So, most of us seize upon such rules with gratitude ... attempt conscientiously to apply them.

Certainly Fred Friggenheimer does.

And that's where he runs into trouble.


Because often rules—arbitrary rules, at least—conflict with an infinitely more vital element: feeling.

Emotion and the writer

All your life you've lived with feelings ... inner awarenesses, pleasant or painful, that rose in you when you bumped a knee or bit a lemon, kissed a girl or soothed a hurt child. The Marine Band playing "The Halls of Montezuma" brought one type of emotion ... a guitar and "La Paloma" another. Your father's death, your sister's marriage, snowflakes drifting down, the smell of wood smoke, angry words, soft whispers, a scornful laugh, the comedian whose pants fall down, puppies' warm cuddlesomeness ... to one and all of them, you react.

With feelings.

In some of us, these feelings are more intense than they are in others; and, they're aroused by different stimuli and situations. The slight that brings this woman to fury is passed by unnoticed by her neighbor. Fred Friggenheimer is more aware of certain nuances than is George Abercroft ... more sensitive to subtleties of sensation and of impulse: overtones, undertones, implications. You pity the sharecropper's bony, swaybacked horse; I pity the cropper; our friend pities himself, that he should be forced to face the fact of such degradation.

In other words, each of us experiences and responds to life differently, in a manner uniquely and individually his own.

Now all this is ever so important to a writer.


Because feeling is the place every story starts.

Where do you find feeling?

It springs from the human heart.

As a writer, your task is to bring this heart-bound feeling to the surface in your reader: to make it well and swell and surge and churn.

Understand, feeling is in said reader from the beginning. You give him nothing he doesn't possess already.

But emotion, for most people, too often is like some sort of slumbering giant, lulled to sleep by preoccupation with the dead facts of that outer world we call objective. When we look at a painting, we see a price tag. A trip is logistics more than pleasure. Romance dies in household routine.

Yet life without feeling is a sort of death.

Most of us know this. So, we long wistfully for speeded heartbeat, sharpened senses, brighter colors.

This search for feeling is what turns your reader to fiction; the reason why he reads your story. He seeks a reawakening: heightened pulse; richer awareness. Facts are the least of his concern. For them, he can always go to the World Almanac or Encyclopedia Britannica.

Further, Reader wants this sharpening of feeling because he needs it, emotionally speaking. Otherwise, why would he bother with your copy?

Now, let's look at the other side of the coin:

Where do stories originate?

In you, the writer.

Why do you write them?

You too have feelings ... feelings that excite you, the way the witch-cult excited Fred Friggenheimer.

An emotional need comes with these feelings: the need to communicate your excitement to others. So, where another man similarly excited might let his tension go in talk, or get drunk, or chop weeds in his garden, you write a story ... put down words with which you seek to re-create the feelings that seethe inside you.

That is, you hope the words re-create those feelings.

And then?

For some fortunate souls, that's all there is to it. So talented are they ... so sensitive, so perceptive, so completely attuned to themselves and to their audience ... that they intuitively grasp everything they need to know of form and structure, style and process. They write, readers read, the world hails them as geniuses.... A happy state.

However, don't let the thought of such ability depress you. Though I've heard for years about these awesome figures, I've yet to meet a living, breathing writer who hadn't worked–and worked hard—for everything he got.

Most writers learn by doing. Practice, trial and error, train them. It's as if our friend Fred were to go home tonight to his wife Gertrude with a joke to tell.

Listening, she stares at him blankly. "What's so funny about that?" Fred tries again. And maybe, this time, he gets the point across: Gertrude laughs.

Tomorrow, a new joke comes along. So, Fred tries to remember what he did before, so that he can present this story to Gertrude in such a manner that she'll laugh first time round, without benefit of follow-ups or explanations.

If his plan succeeds, he tucks the procedure away in the back of his head. From here on out, for him, it will constitute a cornerstone of verbal humor. He's found himself a rule to follow.

It's the same with writing. By trial and error, you learn that some things work and others don't ... then incorporate that knowledge into rules-of-thumb.

Failure to develop such rules says merely that the man concerned is incapable of learning by experience. No matter howhard he tries, his time is wasted.

Where's Fred to find these tools ... the specific bits and tricks he needs?

Here Mabel Hope Hartley scores. As she says, the devices are all right there before his eyes, in every published story ... more of them than any one man can ever hope to master. Even though Fred lives to be a hundred, he'll still learn new twists each time he sits down to read or write.

But in order to reach that stage, Fred—and you—first must master fundamentals, so that he knows what to look for.

The trouble with rules

No writer in his right mind writes by a set of rules.

At least, not by somebody else's rules.

Why not?

Because rules start from the wrong end: with restriction; with form; with mechanics; with exhortation about things you should and shouldn't do.

Where should you start, then?

With feeling. Your own feeling.

A story is like a car that runs on emotion. The author's feeling is the gasoline in its engine. Take away its fuel, and even the shiniest, chrome-plated literary power plant is reduced to so much scrap iron.

Feeling first takes form within you. If you haven't got a feeling, you can't write about it, let alone arouse it in somebody else.

The self-taught writer holds a small advantage here, perhaps. Lacking formal training, he tends to be unaware of technique as a thing separate and apart. Intellectualization of art is alien to his thinking. First, last, and all the time he deals with what he feels: Dick's love for Janice ... the hatred Vincent turns on Tom ... the mother's anguish when Elsa runs away. Skill, to him, is simply a tool to help convey feeling. No feeling, no writing.

A novice like Fred Friggenheimer, on the other hand, may assume that rule counts for more than story. So, he admires his plot because it so perfectly follows the formula laid down by the Mephisto Computer.

In so doing, he ignores the gasoline of feeling. Then he wonders why the car won't run.

That's why the first real rule of successful story-writing is ... find a feeling.

Or, if you prefer a different phrase: Get excited! Hunt till you uncover something or other to which you react. With feeling. The more intensely, the better.


Excerpted from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. Copyright © 1965 Dwight V. Swain. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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