Techniques of the Selling Writer

Title: Techniques of the Selling Writer

Author: Dwight V. Swain

Genre: Non-fiction, Writing Instruction

Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press; 1965

Length: 323 pages


This is the best book I’ve read on how to write fiction.  Yes, the title sounds sleazy but the information is sound.  Swain breaks down exactly how to write an absorbing story from detail to big picture as well as beginning to end. 


Swain starts out explaining why readers read – to feel worry, tension, and release in a safe way. He then goes on to describe how to write emotion, reaction, and dialog using motivate-reaction units.  Those units are the building blocks of scene and sequel, two concepts Swain writes about in great detail. He explains the difference between a scene (time of intense action and conflict in a book) and a sequel (time of reflection and decision), describes why these two concepts are the building blocks of your story, how to write them using motive-reaction units, and how to use them to build your plot.  Building on this knowledge, he goes on to describe how to write a story from beginning to middle to end, how to write characters readers care about, how to plan your story, how to sell your story, and some thoughts on being a writer. 


Since this book was published in 1965 I’d assumed that it would be dated, but I was surprised just how applicable it was to my writing.  Sure it’s a bit sexist and many of the examples are from old pulp fiction, but the basic information is dead-on useful.


This is one of those books I had to read several times.  I read it straight though the first time and outlined it the second time over a period of months.  After the outlining I noticed a change in the quality of my writing.  I still take out this book and refer to it whenever I’m feeling stuck in my story or want to improve some aspect of my writing.


One of my fellow writer’s group members always had exciting plot ideas but his writing fell flat in a way that I couldn’t pinpoint so I gave him this book.  He declared it the “best book on writing” he’d ever read.  A few months later he shared his new story.  Wow. There was a marked change in the quality of his writing. So if you’re looking to improve your writing, you might give this book a try.

New York City Trip

I’ve been meaning to post a summary of my New York trip for two weeks now.  Unfortunately sinus infections and allergies are my own special kryptonite and just reading blogs or following TV is difficult, never mind trying to put thoughts together on paper.  Argh!  Stupid hyperactive immune system.


Anyway, the daughterling and I went to New York City during her Spring Break. Thanks to 10-day forecasts we knew the weather was going to be rainy and winter cold. There were even snow flurries each morning, but we were prepared with rainproof winter jackets, umbrellas, hats, and gloves.  We happily walked down 6th avenue hand in hand from Penn Station in the cold rain towards our hotel.


The theme to this year’s trip seemed to be books and TV.  We ate at Tom’s Restaurant in Morningside Heights (the outside is shown in Seinfeld), walked passed the apartment block in Greenwich Village that’s shown in Friends, and visited several sites from the book, Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City.  We also saw the play, Wicked, and went on another Tenement Museum Tour.


Being planners, we combed through New York City guides and novels to decide what we wanted to see at home and then decorated our laminated map with dozens of tiny stickers showing exactly where each site was located. 




Wicked– It had all the elements of a successful musical: clever catchy songs, eye-popping sets, and fun dance numbers, but Wicked is surprisingly complex and meaty for a musical. It not only offers a completely different view of the Wizard of Oz, but also delves into the complexity of female friendships, how the press decides who’s good and who’s evil, government propaganda, dealing with prejudice, and the difficulty of being a smart quirky girl.  We loved it. Now I’m reading the book.


Tom’s Restaurant – in Morningside Heights at 112th Street looks just like the shots in Seinfeld on the outside. Inside, it looks most like the first season of Seinfeld, where the booths were brown and the wallpaper a tan color, rather than the bright, roomy white floored inside of the diner scenes in later Seinfeld episodes.  There is a signed picture of the cast over the cash register and a brief description in the menu of how the diner is well known from Suzanne Vega’s song and then Seinfeld, but the diner itself is low-key and untouristy with good inexpensive diner food. The Bank Street College bookstore, chocked full of teaching guides and children’s books, is across the street.  We spent a happy hour there too.


Lower East Side Tenement Museum– Probably my favorite museum.  This year we went on the Confino Family tour.  An intern took our group of 16 into the basement of the tenement house.  We were given the details of the Confino Family, a Sephardic Jewish family that were forced to leave Turkey in 1912 due to war and ethnic cleansing.  The intern had us pretend to be an immigrant family from 1912.  Since a large part of our group was a real 2007 British family, we decided to pretend to be British.  We were then led upstairs to the Confino family apartment.  An actress playing the Confino’s 14 year old daughter,Victoria, greeted us.  We squeezed into the tiny 3-room apartment that she shared with her 10-member family. (They were out working).  She advised us on how to start our new life on the Lower East Side and answered our questions about her life.


The actress stayed in character so well I really believed I’d been transported back to 1912.  The daughterling had a different reaction.  She spent the entire time wondering about this actress’s life.  Did she think about the character when she wasn’t working?  How did she acquire her accent?  Did she study Laredo (the Spanish-Hebrew dialect spoken by Jews in Turkey and Greece)?   


Ellen’s Stardust Diner – It’s designed to look like an old-fashioned red streetcar on the outside.  The inside is covered in fifties murals and memorabilia.  The wait staff, wearing poodle skirts or gas station outfits, all have names like “Pinky” and “Gus”.  In-between serving burgers, fries, and malts they sing karaoke and dance.  We had fries and pie while we watched the wait staff perform “Downtown”, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “A Whole New World.”


Chinatown – We wandered through Chinatown past fish markets and sidewalk fruit stands. The main streets of Chinatown were loaded with tourists checking out cheap t-shirts, but the tiny winding side roads, where key scenes of Kiki Strike had taken place, were almost empty.  It was cold outside so ducking into the tiny Vegetarian Dim Sum Restaurant was toasty warm. Turns out we’re really not adventurous enough vegetarians to appreciate Vegetarian Dim Sum.  We ended up having vegetable stir-fry instead.


Velselka’s – We subway-ed to the East Village to visit the Marble Cemeteries from Kiki Strike.  Along the way we stopped at Velselka’s, a Ukrainian Diner, which serves delicious raspberry blintzes and had me wishing I’d skipped the vegetable stir-fry so I’d have room for their varied vegetarian choices. Velselka’s is featured in a key scene in the book, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist—of course I had to check out the bathroom that plays a role in that scene.  The daughterling hadn’t read Nick and Norah, but Velselka’s fit in nicely to our Kiki Strike theme since Kiki’s guardian, Veruska, made the girls cherry blintzes after their Underground City Adventures.


The Scholastic Bookstore– in Soho is one dangerously tempting large room of every novel, picture book, toy, and teacher guide Scholastic has published. We spent an hour here just looking and reading.


Greenwich Village– We walked down Cornelia Street and found the seven hidden houses mentioned in Kiki Strike, then walked past the apartment block that’s always shown in Friends.  There was a huge walking tour group standing in front of it so it was easy to find.


March 2007: InBrief


My sister from Washington State visited for a week.

Blah month.  Wrote a little, read a little, visited a little, and subbed a bunch at the end of the month, but that’s about it.


Books Finished:

****    Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City, by Kirsten Miller (again, makes a good second read)

I started reading a bunch of other books but didn’t finish any in March.


Movies Seen:

 *** Ma Vie en Rose


Music I Listened To:

Nothing New


Sub Jobs:

 1-day job- Sub day sampler: 2 hours each in 2nd grade, 1st grade, and kindergarten

1-day job- Half day in 1st grade/ half day in kindergarten

2-day job- 2nd grade class

1-day job- 1st grade, Ms. F

1-day job- 1st grade, Ms. J


TV Watched:

 ***      Battlestar Galactica– The season finale had a few good surprises and I loved Baltar’s lawyer, still not as good as second season.  Oh, and the reader’s theater version of “All along the Watchtower”? That was odd.


****    Friday Night Lights– I love this show.  I love how they manage to juggle the stories of almost 10 main characters, I love Coach Taylor and Tami’s relationship, I love sweet, shy Matt Saracen, I love that they’ve made Jason Street’s story much more than a movie of the week paraplegic story, I love that Tyra’s character has slowly changed from clichéd  “school slut” to a realistic, interesting young woman, and I love watching Smash growing in a relationship and yet still being “the Smash”. Please let this show get another season.


****   Congressional Hearings on the Valerie Plame outing- Wow! I’m a political junkie so nothing is more interesting for me than watching an entire day of congressional hearings.  Really.


****    Senate Hearings:  Kyle Sampson questioned on Attorney General Firings. Again, wow.  Like watching a live trial.