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Swain's formula: Flight path or Clipped wings?
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, March 14, 2013 6:19 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

So, if....IF I've got this right. Dwight Swain, and those who advocate his formula, insist that the first scene must have our MC in perceived danger; All info given must be pertinent to the following paragraph rather than something much further into the story, and characters should ideally be extreme in outlooks or personality types.

I'm trying to start with a believable 'every day' feel to my book, with credible 'every day' characters. The idea is then that more and more extraordinary events transpire, but gradual in their increasing incredulity so that when the amazing happens... it feels normal.
Also I hope that the characters react to the events they're faced with as one would if they were actually happening in real life. (Initially denial and disbelief.)
I'm not claiming to have pulled it off, but that's my aim. An aim which seems totally at odds with the formula set out for a successful novel by Swain and his 'disciples.'
What are your thoughts? Dare we stray from the path? And if we do, are we asking to be plunged into obscurity or to explore lands of discovery and opportunity?

Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 12:29 AM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 438

This is an excellent topic, Michael. 

Personally, I think that the-character-in-danger formula in too constricting. I do think there needs to be some kind of inciting incident in the beginning of the story to stir things up and put the protagonist on a real/psychological journey.  

The Stephen King approach is interesting: he doesn't believe in plotting, and prefers to have the story develop organically. He writes about Misery: "and none of the story's details and incidents proceeded from plot; they were organic, each arising naturally from the initial situation, each an uncovered part of the fossil." 

I guess what I'm trying to say in a roundabout way is that as long as you have a strong "initial situation," or premise, you will be fine. My 2 cents.
Atthys Gage
Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 9:56 AM
Joined: 6/7/2011
Posts: 467

This mentality springs (I think) mostly from the way viewers are supposedly hooked into television shows:  grab em with action, right from the get-go and don't ease up until they're hooked.  Don't let those restless thumbs switch to a new channel!
Of course, it's somewhat ridiculous.  Plenty of books (and television shows) have become very successful without following this formula.
Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 2:53 PM
Joined: 2/21/2013
Posts: 40

What Swain is recommending is appropriate only to thrillers and isn't necessary even them. It's a technique for getting the reader hooked immediately, nothing more. To me it is symptomatic of a frustrating trend that is fostered by agents and publishers. Try getting an agent or publisher interested in your book if they have to read past page 1. It's not easy. Everyone is in for the quick, guaranteed kill. To me, it encourages formulaic prose and superficial plots. It's also a technique for less able writers, ones whose writing isn't engaging by itself. Think Nora Roberts. She makes plenty of money, but don't tell me she is a particularly good stylist. She has her audience, and that's fine, but I don't think we all ought to be writing that way. 
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 6:03 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

I don't like it, I don't like it at all.
I want an intelligent read that keeps me guessing, not a step by step manual, devoid of surprises. I want to plant red herrings to build the shock of revelations later in the tale.
Does that mean I'll never get a publishing deal..............?
Then to paraphrase the great Groucho...
Those are my principles, and if you don't like them.... well, I've got more!

Now, due to my own feelings on the subject, I may have subconsciously worded the discussion header in a way to solicit the feedback I wanted to hear. If anyone has views at odds with those expressed thus far, you're more than welcome to present them.
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Friday, March 15, 2013 11:53 PM

Dwight Swain, and those who advocate his formula, insist that the first scene must have our MC in perceived danger;
It’s neither Swain’s nor a formula. You’ll find Hemingway talking about it in, “A Moveable Feast. You’ll find the necessity of having tension in every scene taught in virtually any course in professional fiction writing. And it’s the basis of the vast majority of fiction from the time when verbal storytelling was all there was.
Sure, you can write a story about a nice man and a nice woman, who meet, date, marry, and have a nice family. But since it’s no more interesting than living our own lives, who would pay to read it?
You can write about people having deep philosophical conversations. But they don’t sell either.
You can follow a character around with a camera and chronicle their life, but what’s the point? The term in medias res was coined a long time ago, and it’s been the advice given to writers from that time, for good reason.
The difference between fiction and history is that fiction is uncertain, while history is immutable. And uncertainty breeds tension. Fiction always has outsold history books.
But that aside, Dwight Swain, Jack Bickham, Ben Bova, Orson Scott Card, Sol Stein, and the host of others who wrote books on writing say nothing about “the first scene must have our MC in perceived danger.” Not a word. What they said is that every scene must have tension, and that it must steadily grow, because a scene is a unit of tension. It’s the basis of what’s often called the hero’s journey, and it’s inherent to the three act structure of fiction.
• All info given must be pertinent to the following paragraph rather than something much further into the story,
No one says that, either. I don’t know where you’re getting these ideas, but it’s not from Dwight Swain, or any writing teacher I know of. Nor is it anything I’ve ever said. I have said that if you raise a question in a paragraph the reader expects to have it addressed, quickly, but that’s something very different.
Two quotes that might apply:
“Don’t inflict the reader with irrelevant background material—get on with the story.” ~ James H. Schmitz
To describe something in detail, you have to stop the action. But without the action, the description has no meaning.” ~Jack Bickham
I'm trying to start with a believable 'every day' feel to my book, with credible 'every day' characters.
I know dozens of everyday people. Why would I want to read about someone like that, doing something I could do myself? I could spend an hour following someone in the local mall, should I care to. Why would I want to do the equivalent in a book, in hopes that sooner or later something meaningful to the plot will happen?
Readers come to us with mild curiosity, an interest that will quickly fade. And that’s it. You have about three pages to change curiosity to interest, and make them say, “Hmm…interesting. Tell me more.” Fail that and your audition is over, and every second you spent writing more than that was wasted. And that “Hmm,” moment had best happen as close to the top of page one as possible, because all around that reader are other books, shouting, “Read me, I’m better.” And unlike you, they’re promising to be interesting from the beginning.
Readers want to have their emotions stirred. They want to worry.
With a book in her hands mousy bookkeeper who has no social life can romance the handsome man who wouldn’t give her a second look. She can be the butterfly she’s always dreamed of being. The man who spends his day dealing with irate customers can pick up a book and find a cutlass in his hand—along with the skill to use it, and survive things that in life would lead to him being quite dead.
We read to escape, and to be titillated, frightened, and in general, entertained.
Write your nice slow buildup. And when you come to the part where things go wrong, toss everything you wrote before that, because that’s where your story begins.
Assume someone who has a half hour for lunch, and they read during that time. Do they really want to waste a lunch or two reading about someone living a mundane life before anything important happens? Readers don’t come to us to get to know the characters as people. They want something interesting to happen on page one, and on every page that follows.
• Also I hope that the characters react to the events they're faced with as one would if they were actually happening in real life.
That’s a given. It’s what editors mean when they say to show not tell.
• I'm not claiming to have pulled it off, but that's my aim.
And here’s the killer: what we care about, our intent, and everything about us is irrelevant. It’s the reader, the words we supply, and what those words mean to that reader. They don’t know us and we’re not there to explain. We either make then want to know more or we’ve failed

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 5:33 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Hi Jay
I admit, I thought you might champion this viewpoint.
Glad you did!
There will, I'm sure, be valid points on both sides, but I'll just keep 'my thoughts' to the ones you raise here.

You say the formula which includes every scene having compulsory tension, amongst other things, has been in existence since storytelling was a verbal art. Might this be an assertion? I don't think you're that old, and it can't be from recorded information, as nothing was written down for posterity.
You ask, who wants to read about a nice woman and a nice man having a nice life where nothing happens?.... or a long deep conversation?..... or follow a character's mundane life?
Not surprisingly, I don't think anyone was suggesting that they would have 400 pages of this.
What we are suggesting is that ordinary people are real. We want realism in our books. So, though many exciting and extra-ordinary events will occur; and indeed the MCs may rise to the occassion and may become heroic, they are real to start with. Otherwise in my mind, what you have is a Marvel comic. I don't mind Marvel comics, but I don't read them looking for an epic, credible tale.
When you rightly say that reading a book is a chance for the ordinary to identify with or feel one with the extra-ordinary, even if just for a little while..... I believe that this empathy, association, or indentifying will be much stronger if this hero they are reading about once acted or had a similar outlook to them. Then they can better imagine themselves reacting as the protagonist did.
To take things to the extreme to make my point: If I read of Superman getting sand kicked in his face and he overcomes the bad beach bully, I think 'so what.'
If a real chap, worrying about going back to work the next day and paying the mortgage, gets sand kicked in his face while on his day off, at the beach, then I'm willing him to stand tall. When he/she puts down the villian, I'm cheering..... Get it?

When you say if a question is raised, it must be answered quickly, again to me, it depends on the question... and what you mean by quickly.
 The book may be a quest to find this answer. The MCs may find the wrong answer and act badly on their decisions based on it. The true answer to the question may not be shown for some time. That to me is what helps bring the uncertainty which breeds tension.

Similarly when you say, quoting Shmitz, that Irrelevant backround is not a good thing..... I don't think anyone is making the case that we should have lots of irrelevant backround..... seriously Jay, do you think that's what we are asking for?
    I do, however, advocate necessary and pertinent backround, even if it is relevent to the greater plot, rather than the next paragraph. I think, if every piece of info which is given is a lead to the next sentence/para when the reason it was given comes to light, then everything is so predictable, as to be boring. I want the reader to be surprised at how things pan out, then think about it and say 'Oh, yes... Now I see!'
I am not so daft as to think however that you'll read this and say the same.
I know we don't agree on this, and doubt we ever will have a meeting of minds, but it's always fun sparring with you, sir.
One day I'll even have the last word.... I suspect this is not that day!

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 1:57 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Michael,

I think you and Jay may be talking past one another. Both of you seem to be suggesting that what the other fellow advocates would be boring. The problem is: any one dimentional writing is likely to be boring, or at least boring to a lot of folks. The key, I think, is that we want our prose always to be working on multiple levels. Yours and Jay's for instance. We ignore the level Jay's talking about at our peril. Tension and conflict doesn't mean explosions and daring do. It just means tension and conflict.

I read a lot of WIP on here where there is no discernable conflict in the opening scene. No tension, just description of one action leading to another. It's weird to me, 'cause human life if fraught with tension and conflict. To write a scene that doesn't have any seems like some kind of accomplishment! lol

We humans tend to live in our tension. We have to get up in the morning but it's too early. We have a job but we want to be doing something else. We know we want something else, but we don't know quite what it is. Or we do, but we have no idea how to achieve it. And on and on, that's life, whether you're Superman or Everyman.

And conflict means a very simple thing: energy in two directions. That's it. So, in order to write conflict we must describe at least two vectors of energy. Often this means what a character is doing and what a character would rather be doing.

So, in that light, Michael, I gotta say, when I read the first scene of your book here on BC, I'm not seeing any conflict at all. Not *in* the scene and not in your main character's experience. Guy gets out of his car in the rain. Walks over to a "cordoned area" which I gotta guess is a crime scene. He doesn't have to guess, but you've written it so I do. Do you find guessing the basic circumstances of a scene fun? I don't. Then he proceeds through various conflictless assessments of the surrounding houses, presumptions about the people inside. No tension, just some nice prose style. You can write, Michael, that's clear, but you're not, far as I can see, doing the work of a novelist in the opening pages of your book here.

Then he goes inside and moves from one thing to another. No conflict, unless you count the bit about him refusing the grease--which is a nice touch and would be very good if it weren't the only bit of tension in the whole scene so far. 

Then you describe the crime scene in the most awkward way. Nobody walks into a room where two people have been brutally murdered and notes the subject of a decorative painting on the wall first. I get the idea you're trying to create suspense and tension before you mention the severed arm, but it's the worst kind of suspense because it has nothing to do with the character actually witnessing the scene and everything to do with your manipulation of the reader.

Anyway. I don't mean to dump on your book here. It's just a really stark example of an opening that lacks internal conflict and tension. All you'd have to do is give us someplace Hassom would rather be or give us something personal that's distracting him, or something he's wanting to prove, or just have the breakfast he ate giving him heartburn 'cause he doesn't know how to take things easy or whatever--or, in the case of the grease, have some noob try to instruct him on the proper procedure and have Hassom give him a piece of his mind. Make Hassom a *person* which is to say a human being living in his conflict.

So, I say, yes, the MC should be in some kind of danger in the first scene, even if it's just the danger of being late to work or tripping over the cat as he reaches for the cat food (don't you hate that?). And the information you give in one paragraph *should* be pertinent to the next paragraph AND to something much further on in the story, particularly if you're writing a novel length work. In terms of creating the feeling of "normal?" Conflict *is* normal.


Mimi Speike
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 3:16 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Here’s what I’m sure of: you need to grab the attention of a reader and hold it, until a more subtle and, hopefully, more satisfying approach kicks in. I figure that this might be done in various ways.

The fashion was once to open with beautifully phrased description. This is my preference. But I’m trying to put aside my prejudices and read all the advice with an open mind.

I’m also reading reviews, along with the pieces they pertain to. And I’m reading the first few paragraphs, sometimes the first few pages, of every work of fiction in my bookshelves, hundreds of books ranging from well loved classics to obscure treacle, bought at the library sales because I found a paragraph or two I admired in a nothing-plot and hoped to discover other sublime bits to add to my note files.

In the end, I’m sure that I will take to heart some of the Swain-type advice, and some I will reject as not serving my style and point of view.

I’m writing for myself. I must please myself. If I also please others, great. But, you see, I’m on the verge of retirement. I’m not hoping for a career. My husband and I have enough to scrape by on. (My most expensive enthusiasm is gardening.) And I’ll be damned if I’m going to create something that I would not love to read myself. That covers a lot of territory, a number of genres and, probably, most best-sellers.

There are always exceptions. I have come across Sci-Fi that was so beautifully written that I was enthralled. But I read it for the prose style and not for the ambulating, wise-cracking briefcases.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 3:32 PM

• You say the formula which includes every scene having compulsory tension, amongst other things, has been in existence since storytelling was a verbal art. Might this be an assertion?
Homer used it in The Illiad. Dickens used it, as did so many others through history.
A scene in writing isn’t the same as for the stage. In general, in fiction for the written word, tension will slowly rise, scene by scene, with the protagonist’s options narrowing, while the odds of success diminish. Any story, at its heart, is about a person or group with a problem. It could be getting a date for the prom, learning that you need to be careful what you wish for, threading their way through the maze of growing up, or saving the world. Whatever it is, it tosses the protagonist out of their comfort zone. They began with a goal, one that might be trivial or vital, but something derails that goal, shunts it aside, and presents a problem that cannot be ignored, and continues to worsen.
Good sense might demand you say “Oh my God, I’d have to be crazy to go on with this,” and run But for reasons the protagonist accepts as necessary, they cannot do so, and must persevere, in spite of certain failure.
That’s the story. But because the initial reaction to the inciting incident, if continued, must soon result in either abject failure—ending the story—or success, which will also end the story, the scene must end, so another, different but greater, source of tension can be introduced. Because of this, a scene usually ends in failure. Even when the protagonist prevails, it soon becomes apparent that the problem, instead of being resolved, is greater than anticipated, which requires recovery, re-evaluation, and the beginning of a new scene.
So the new scene begins with the new approach, perhaps a change in the scene-goal, increased tension, and finally, failure, as the progression toward the black moment and the climax continues. A scene may be part of a chapter, or continue over several chapters. It may take a moment or a year, and involve any number of locations. It will, however, continue to grow in tension, risk, and intensity.
Any place where the protagonist can take it easy tells the reader that they aren’t taking the problem seriously. So why should the reader? What is it that will make a reader need to read on?
• Not surprisingly, I don't think anyone was suggesting that they would have 400 pages of this.
When a reader opens to page one, you have, at best, three pages to interest them. Given that, one paragraph of it may be too much. Most submissions are rejected within a page. With a standard manuscript that’s only eighty words. Probably more than half are rejected before the first paragraph ends, because the reader has encountered one of three things:
1. The writer is providing a list of plot events that the writer has visualized—a graphic novel minus the graphics.
2. The writer is providing a transcript of themselves speaking—a verbal storytelling minus the verbal and visual performance.
3. A lecture, by the author, on the setting, background, and actors who will participate—the storyteller clearing their throat.
That’s a full seventy-five percent of submissions. Of the rest, all but three aren’t written in what the publisher views as a professional way. And two of the three aren’t right for that publisher.
It doesn’t matter what you and I think important because we’re not the customer. People like Jack Bickham, and Dwight Swain, who were not only very successful as writers; people like Sol Stein, who was a writer, playwright, screenwriter, publisher, and editor, know. There are lots of crap books on writing. But the people I mentioned knew, because they made their living through their writing before they became teachers.
In the words of Holly Lysle,
Michaelangelo did not have a college degree, nor did Leonardo da Vinci. Thomas Edison didn't. Neither did Mark Twain (though he was granted honorary degrees in later life.) All of these people were professionals. None of them were experts. Get your education from professionals, and always avoid experts.”
When you say if a question is raised, it must be answered quickly, again to me, it depends on the question... and what you mean by quickly.
Specifically: when a writer opens by saying that someone must  “steel himself,” before leaving a car, they want to know why, because without that, it’s a factoid, self-contained and without meaning, so they have no context for him having done it. It’s reasonable to expect that what the character does demonstrates that it was necessary. That reader has a right to be shown why the person did what was noted by his reaction to the thing that caused him to tense up. Following the mention that getting out of the car required a conscious effort with nothing more then a walk through the rain, which seems to have no purpose to be described as more than having taken place, raises another question: Why am I being shown this in this much detail? Why is it important enough to mention?
In writing fiction context isn’t important, it’s everything. Without context we can have no emotional connection, and emotion is the entire purpose of reading fiction.
• The book may be a quest to find this answer
Only if you make the reader want to know the answer. And only if you make the answer worth the wait. Readers are with us for moment-to-moment reading pleasure, not for a list of clues that may or may not be meaningful at some unknown time in the future. Bore or confuse a reader for one single line—especially when they’re deciding to buy, and you lose them. Readers are volunteers, not conscripts, remember.
• I don't think anyone is making the case that we should have lots of irrelevant backround..... seriously Jay, do you think that's what we are asking for?
You miss the point. No one intends to write badly, yet fully seventy-five percent of what’s submitted is declared unreadable. What we intend, and what we provide in the belief that it’s what the editors are seeking, has no connection with what that editor actually wants unless we make a careful study of the subject, based on what the editors say, not what we believe.
Sincerity is an admirable trait, but it helps not at all in selling a manuscript because we all sincerely believe we’re writing something a reader will want to read.
• Otherwise in my mind, what you have is a Marvel comic. I don't mind Marvel comics, but I don't read them looking for an epic, credible tale.
Yet comics are the perfect illustration of why scenes are constructed as they are.
They can be a powerful teaching tool because they are plot and scene, stripped to the basics:

Good luck favors the prepared.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 3:52 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

I think Kevin has articulated things very well. When my alarm goes off, I'm in conflict about whether to hit the snooze button. If I do hit the snooze button, then once I step into the bath to take my morning shower and find myself tempted to relax in its warm, numbing cascade for longer than I ought to, I'm in danger of being late to work. When I get in my car several minutes behind schedule, I'm tense about arriving after my appointed time, even though I work at an office that's very flexible with schedules, and I have a really nice boss.

Life is constantly a-brim with tension, conflict, and danger. They're not hoary old tropes of fiction; they're staples of existence.

I peeked into the first scene of your book too, and at first I thought Kevin was wrong. I didn't think I was being forced to guess that this was a crime scene; I thought I was being shown instead of being told. I also thought that the MC's personality was being kept mysterious for some purpose. It felt very deliberate, and his reactions were so clearly muted and restrained compared to what a "normal" person's would be, that I was intrigued. This guy is not behaving as I would expect him to, I thought. I'm very interested to find out why he's so callous, and what it takes to get a reaction out of him. But then the first words out of his mouth are "God, no!" And with that single, clipped line of dialogue, the most interesting part of the story was destroyed for me. Hassom turns out not to be some bizarrely well-controlled individual after all; he's as prone to sentimental outburst as anyone else in the face of gruesome barbarism. I've merely been deprived for several pages of the internal cues that would let me assess his personality. And lacking those cues, I find myself baffled at the particular moment that he chooses for his horrified expostulation. What caused him to cry out just then, instead of when he first realized some of the victims were children? Or when he saw the painted smiles on their faces? Or when he read their names? 

With those two words, I went from thinking the character was mysterious and inscrutable to thinking he was incomprehensible. And that switch happened because you weren't giving me his internal conflicts all along, to let me feel his tension and horror building until it could no longer be restrained.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 6:14 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Wow. If I knew a seemingly general discussion topic would have enticed such analysis of my book opening, I'd have posted it ages ago.
(That's not sarcasm... I'm delighted to have got some seriously useful tips and ideas here.)

I'm going to highlight a few of the points made, not to be defensive, but for further direction before making a couple of changes.

Herb and Kevin
Okay... Hassom steels himself before entering the crime scene. His first emotional outburst is AFTER he's witnessed lot's of horrible stuff.
Difficult to judge the level of subtlety required when writing as obviously I already know the idea behind it.

He steels himself as he has to switch off his emotions to best analyse what he must. He bears witness to the visual scene. Having done this he then must try to understand/feel it and put himself in the mind of the killer to do so. At this point, he drops the steely emotions, and thus the 'God, no'
Hassom has a bit of a self-protection thing going on as (shown later) he suffers from depression.

Also, when he 'steels himself' at the car, this is... unexplained and devoid of conflict.

Now, as Jay will point out (am I wrong? ), the author/me doesn't get a chance to pop up to explain himself to the reader usually, as I'm doing now.... Thus a change is required, but how big?
~If instead of just steeling himself, if he... 'takes a last draw on his cigarette, steeling himself, burying his instinctive emotions in preparation to face the senseless deaths which he knew awaited him beyond the doors of... '    would that sort those specific mentioned issues?
The description of the spotless entrance, signifies the detail Hassom captures and the cold way, the severed arm is described as being there, just like the table and carpet... it's meant to seem casual and more shocking for it. Also, the point of describing the dead family's home before introducing their corpses is to show something of their life; to give the reader something of their aspirations as people, before they are just dead bodies.......... I quite liked that style, but...bad idea?

Jay and all,
The heavy rain..... This is kinda where we have a parting of minds on the necessity of IMMEDIATE relevance of the info departed. The story setting has climate change, widespread flooding, mass migration and economic burdens on a populace made extreme in view from the desparate situation. It's a recurring theme and VERY relevant, just not yet.... other than in an allagoric sense. (Violent rain, heavy atmosphere, thundero...... well you get the idea.)
Having said that.... I do hope to market this book one day. So knowing what you know now, if you still judge the inclusion of something so early on, relevant or not to the story, as abhorrent to editors then please do say.
We can agree on the 'growing tension' I guess it's a case of one of us wanting to grow from a seed, and one from a sapling. I think this is exactly what I'm hoping to learn from this discussion.
BTW, your comment "Get your education from professionals, and always avoid experts."...... groovy!
In fact, I'm going to give a respectable amount of time, and then try passing this quote of as my own.

Reading hundreds of openers from everything within reach.....
There's an expression, used when faced with any obstacle or problem. 'How would the Russians do it?' Basically, cut the rubbish and solve the problem with what's at hand without complicating things unnecessarily. I'll do just that, and thanks!

Re: Not 'Superman'..... 'Everyman'......... Look out for this new comic book hero. How cool would he be?
Where a fence is devoid of whitewash. I'll be there Where a car won't start for a damp distributer cap....I'll be there. When an alarms fails to rouse you in the morning..... Count on Everyman!

Finally Herb,
If it's of use with the tension of getting out of bed when that darn alarm goes off...
I find the more addictions you have, after a few hours asleep, the better the motivation to get up and get your fix.... thus starting the day promptly.
Coffee, nicotine, self harming... even a dash of Irish whiskey on the cornflakes are all great pulls, but I'm sure on-line gambling, class 'A' drugs or any of the other addictions available to choose from would work just as well.
Let me know how you get on.... Maybe my next book will be a motivational, self-help, lifestyle guide..... step by step, of course, with lots of tension in the first page.

Carl E Reed
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 7:40 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608


'Lo there, fellow scrivener in the trenches!

For what it’s worth, I’m one of the ones who hasn’t read your novel’s opening—but after all of this detailed analysis and discussion, I feel like I have. (Heh!)

As I’ve followed this unfolding saga I was struck by two things: (1) No one likes being told they have to write according to a formula, and (2) writers who do so are very, very successful.

What was it Kurt Vonnegut said? “A character must want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.” He’s talking about tension: Your story can concern itself with the most mundane and quotidian of events (which is not your novel, by the way; your novel sounds fascinating—but someone’s gotta create it out of mere words, which is Jay’s point); nevertheless, there must be something your protagonist wants which he or she cannot immediately attain. Narrative drive and tension arises when that desire is frustrated and we, the reader, empathize with the protagonist’s struggle to obtain the object or outcome of their heart’s desire.

I know you know this; it’s incorporating this lesson and demonstrating it in our writing that’s the hard part. For all of us, Mike—not just you.

You know what? I’ve decided I gotta read your opening after all. Hang on a second . . .

. . . Okay, back now.

Here’s the verdict: You’re both right—you, the writer and your constructive critics.

The gruesomeness of what Mr. Hassom finds in the house is horrifying and lurid in the extreme. (Extra points for invoking senses other than sight.) I certainly wasn’t bored and the narrative moved at an appropriately brisk clip in this opening chapter. (Though surely you mean “a charnel house” and not “a carnal house” at 1%?)

But that first page could be improved in the manner Jay is suggesting: simply insert a sentence like, “The dead were waiting for him in the house,” before we read about Hassom “steeling himself”. (And if you don’t use the sentence I’m proffering as an opening line I’m gonna use it on something of my own; that’s a f@cking great opening line . . .)

I don’t have a problem with the rain; I read it as mood-invoking atmosphere at this juncture and nothing more. (I don’t need a mini info-dump on your world’s out-of-whack weather till later in the novel; your instincts were good here and I applaud your restraint.)

But I do agree with Herb that Hassom’s exclamation of “God, no!” simply doesn’t work where you’ve interjected it into the text. Coming as it does after paragraphs of artfully-described clinical detail and the woodenness of Hassom’s personality/reactions to this point it rings false—I don’t buy it. “Fuck,” I would buy; or something bizarre and disturbing like, “Be still, my pretty,” (showing us he’s in psycho-killer ego-identification mode).

Watch for cipher-description—“two forensic technicians”, “one of the uniformed constables”—bring these minor characters to life with a quick, deft telling detail or two.

I don’t want to pile on when you’re trying to process and absorb constructive criticisms publicly and in real-time, as it were, so let me close by saying something I sincerely and whole-heartedly believe: The hard work of having written the novel is done! You have accomplished what many (including myself) have never managed to do; now all you have to do is edit the text into something saleable. Ask for specifics and clarification from your critics as to how they would improve certain passages. Don’t berate yourself unnecessarily for things you may have missed. Remember, a published novel may go through as many as five distinct editorial reviews. I’m not a genius; your critics aren’t geniuses; I suspect you suspect that you’re not a genius—we all struggle with the craft together, eh?

PS. Regarding the injection of tension into the most quotidian and mundane of everyday events I’d like to quote the words of those master story-tellers of the baroque and surreal, Master John Winston Lennon and Sir Paul James McCartney:

Woke up, fell out of bed,
Dragged a comb across my head
Found my way downstairs and drank a cup,
And looking up I noticed I was late.
Found my coat and grabbed my hat
Made the bus in seconds flat
Found my way upstairs and had a smoke,
Somebody spoke and I went into a dream . . .

Herb Mallette
Posted: Saturday, March 16, 2013 7:55 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

The problem with "steeling himself" is twofold. (A) It's telling, not showing, and (B) it's immediately followed by him getting out into the rain, which is something you might very well steel yourself for. If you want to convey that he's steeling himself for the ordeal of entering the crime scene, have him taking a last puff of his cigarette -- the third one he's smoked since pulling up before the cordoned-off building and its constellation of flashing emergency vehicles. That shows us he's delaying, and ties it directly to the crime scene instead of putting the rain in between.

I'm going to refine my rationale for criticizing the "God, no!" line. I've gone back and reread the first part of the scene, and it's apparent that I was going too quickly the first time. You've got several moments planted that make it clear Hassom is continuously working at retaining his composure. So the problem is not that he leaps from ultra-callous, meticulous observer to emotional wreck. The problem is that he leaps from working-hard-to-keep-in-control observer to emotional wreck without a discernable trigger. You blend the banal, the mundane, the everyday ordinariness of the setting very smoothly with the horrific tableau of the gore, and you do so through Hassom's tightly controlled perspective. The juxtapositions are a ghastly way of accentuating the horror -- but the level of detail, and the consistency of that detail, does not give us any preparation for Hassom to break down.

Ultimately, though, the worst part of, "God, no!" is that it's hysterical and carries absolutely no personalizing quality. This is the first line of dialogue from your main character -- the first line from any character in the whole book -- and it could have been uttered by anyone in any two-bit slasher film of the last thirty years. For my money, you should just delete it, have Hassom struggle against his impulse to sequence things, and then let him go outside for a cigarette break.

p.s. Why, after all the pain and grief that has occurred in its absence, is there still no Internet emoticon for "not sarcasm"?
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 7:34 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Hey guys
Thanks again.
I'm going to use lots of this to amend the first chapter/scene, also where I introduce a totally new thread with a new character at Chapter 2 as I guess the same rules apply then.
INCspot: There won't be much formula other than that as the whole concept is that, our actions are manipulated. What we set out to do can have the opposite effect. (Yours sounds groovy, though)
I have a female character, supporting the number 2 MC, throughout in a fairly subservient role... until it's her that actually steps up and does what the MC was afraid to do.
It turns out the murderous baddie's actions, in the bigger picture, might prevent a much worse fate, and those trying to prevent his heinious deeds are therefore inadvertantly working towards the ends of a much greater evil.
An example.... Hitler... not a nice guy! His intent and actions to a large part targeted Jews and communists... he had no problem with the British Empire, but he did not like the USA at all (thinking it run by the aforementioned Jews). His efforts went into expanding his empire, persecuting and commiting genocide on Jews, and trying to conquer and wipe out communist Russia and her ideals.
Reult of WW2..... The Jews are returned their dreamt of homeland, after 2000 years of hoping, in large part due to the pressure from America and the guilt all nations felt at their own rascism prior to the culmination of such rascism by the Nazis). The allies were so desparate to stop Hitler that Stalin was never checked and had free reign to take half of Europe and expand the Communist regime beyond all previous fears, and the British empire is dealt a blow which it would never recover from, speeding the rise to dominence of America.
My book can't explain all that is going on at any one time as, we only know what the characters intend. Every action gets turned on its head for larger and more widespread consequences.

Herb, thanks for pinpointing what you mean, that's a big help. One  thing... (there's always one thing) Hassom saying 'God, no' before visualizing the murders, surely doesn't constitute a breakdown, so though I can put a little in about his previous efforts to control his emotions.. is that what you meant about his total reversal of control. He does have something of a breakdown in Ch 3 when faced with worse conditions, but I don't think you'd have got to that.

Carl.... I only wish I could use both thumbs. Some excellent points there, and particular thanks for them.
Love your outlook too.
Were I female, you'd now have a scary stalker problem.
P.S.Get the connection request.

P.P.S. In accepting that I've to put something of the formula into the opening chapters, I do this under protest, consider it selling out and refer you to the Groucho quote of previous comments.
P.P.P.S. Does the fact that you all quote literary giants, and I quote Groucho bode poorly for my future acclaim?
I can quote Homer too...
"I'm not a religious man, but Superman, if you're up there........."
Jay, I know, I know!

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 10:26 PM

I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I see the problem with the current approach to the chapter, which is that you’re doing exactly what you set out to do. You are placing the reader into the character’s position and letting them see for themselves.
Thus, you start in the car, the place the scene might begin were this a film. The reader is the character in the sense that they are a camera-lens, and a microphone, placed just where the protagonist would be, so we, as readers see, hear, feel, taste and smell everything the character does, as he does, and from his sensory input.
So, we walk through the rain, as he does, and see the neighborhood around him. We hear him dealing with the policemen we see in front of us. Then we walk into the room and see it, as he does, from the control panel in his head, where his senses are received.
In addition to that, you, the narrator, explain just as much as necessary, like telling us he steels himself, and tosses the cigarette.
So yes, we know everything he does. And his field of view is our field of view, etc.
But he has something we don’t have. He has backstory. And his backstory includes knowing how to look at the crime scene and what’s meaningful. He, as a member of society, can look at the room and know the people’s status, and where they fit onto their society. He glances at the things we learn of and analyzes them with an educated eye. He knows it rains in the way it does, and after the time he’s spent with it he ignores it, where we wonder about it. We “see” a hundred things, while his background, personality, needs, desires, and police training narrow it to only-what-matters-to-him. We see. He pays attention.
And that’s my point. He’s purposeful; we’re just there. All his knowledge acts as his measuring stick to keep him focused. But by presenting the scene as you have, we have no measuring stick, just unrelated data. Some is background and some important, but we have no way to differentiate So you’re in the right place, but you’re one layer too close to the surface. Instead of showing what there is to see, use his filters and even his preconceptions and biases to give us his viewpoint, not his viewing point. Let him be our measuring stick, calibrating our response via his desires, reactions, and intent.
That way, if he’s not paying attention to the rain or the neighborhood, he reacts to it only minimally, enough that we get ambience.
Assume that a character is sitting in his kitchen. The doorbell rings. In his viewing point, we’re taken on a tour of the house as he walks to the door. We watch the door open and get a report on who he sees and what they look at. But then, abruptly, our protagonist kicks the man at the door, turns and runs into the house. Why? Who knows?
Take that same scene through the character’s interpretation. The bell rings and he puts down his coffee, wondering who it is. And because he does we learn that he isn’t expecting someone, which we wouldn’t otherwise know, unless the narrator told us as part of the tour on the way to the door. He thinks of who it might be, and now, having the list, we make our own evaluation of who or what we think it might be. And as part of it, we might have the character say, “It had better not be that bastard Matthews.”
Does the character pay any attention to the trip to the door? No. His thoughts are on who’s at the door. So why tell the reader anything but that, and that he’s heading there. We don’t really care if it was ten steps away or walked down three flights of stairs. It’s finding out who it is that matters to him, which is his viewpoint, not his viewing point.
So the door opens and our protagonist thinks, Matthews! Will we be surprised when our hero hauls off and kicks him in the chops? No. We may not approve. We may wonder why he fees as he does, but we know our protagonist is well and truly pissed, and feels it justified. And because we want to know what could have made him feel that way we’re going to read on, to find out.
Isn’t that a lot more fun to read than a list of what was done and said?

Carl E Reed
Posted: Sunday, March 17, 2013 10:56 PM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

@Michael R. Hagan: Error correction: I should, of course, have written "evoking senses other than sight" and not "invoking" them. (I am forever committing that particular vocab sin: "I hearby invoke . . . sight! By the sacred beard of the Vishanti I hearby invoke . . . sound! Gods of the sunless Plutonian sea I implore you, grant me . . . smell! There. Think I've finally gotten it out of my system now. . . .) 
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 7:10 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Ah, but you invoke mere senses, whereas I have invoked the mighty JAY.
Anyway, you also pointed out a spelling glitch with 'carnal', and Swain fan or not, I think we can all agree, it's probably not a good thing to have a spelling error on one's first page, so thanks again.
Sometimes we agree, sometimes not, but I must say I am quite in awe of the time and thought you are willing to invest in others/my writing. I thank you, sir.... sire!

The likes of the rain.... it is ambience, but I think, as it keeps getting referenced and then, when those more directly effected by its results, show their situation the climate gets brought into the story organically. There's quite a few concepts at play and to have the reader know the full backround and EVERYTHING the MC knows would involve quite an info dump, which I'm trying to avoid. I drip feed it throughout instead.
(I appreciate I have to keep the reader reading before this can be effective.)
However I think you may have hit the proverbial nail squarely.....
The reader does need to know what the MC knows that is at least relevant to his next action or task, and I haven't done that with Hassom prior to him setting off for the victims' house.... I'll sort it.

I've had a peek at your website and if you're really wanting to portray yourself as the grumpy chap the site tag implies you must work harder at it.
In my own mind, over the last months you have gone from Jay.... to MockingJay.... to Jay Swain..... to Uncle Jay.

With this last sentiment in mind, you should know that my birthday is coming up in April. 
Don't give me a third review for it though, or I'll have no fecking stars left.
hash tag bigger smiley emoticon.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 7:14 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

What's a guy gotta do to get a thumbs up, you miserly lot?
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 7:37 PM

A final word on the subject of rain:

 If you saw the first Batman movie you’ll probably remember that as shown, the sun never seemed to shine in Gotham City. Even the outdoor daylight scenes were gray and flatly lit.

But did you, at any time during the film, wonder if there had been a worldwide calamity that resulted in it always being overcast? Or did you attribute it to the director’s decision, so as to maintain the mood? Because if you didn’t…  ;–)

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 8:21 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

A final, final word on rain.
Never has so much writing been devoted to the inclusion of one line.
Uncle Jay the rain, is but a hint in the first scene, the flooding and housing shortage mentioned before first chapter end, and developed before influencing the plot.
Would you prefer it was not shown to rain until such times as the displaced protest at the ruination of their homes and resentment of immigrants pressurises those in power to drastic action?
 I think that entire thread is more credible when storms abound, and floods are encountered prior to this issue being demonstrated.
I also think that to explain all before the action would be construed as an info dump.
In the film you mention the rain was solely used for ambience, not dual in purpose, but, had 20 minutes in, incessant long-term rain levels ultimately been shown to have been causing swathes of land to have become uninhabitable, and yet the weather had been dry and sunny to that point...... would that not be a tad inconsistent?
The initial point about it, was that you thought mention of the fact it was raining to be irrelevant info. I'd explained that as well as setting the scene it also was relevent to the plot... later on, just not immediately so. Nobody is expecting anything to be read into it in the first scene... it's just there; stored ammunition.

Kevin Haggerty
Posted: Monday, March 18, 2013 10:05 PM
Joined: 3/17/2011
Posts: 90

Hey Mike,

I know you have plenty to chew on already here, but perhaps I can give you some support about the rain. There's nothing wrong with the rain in and of itself.

I said before that conflict is energy in at least two directions. Your MC steels himself (that's one direction) but what he's steeling himself for (the other direction) is left in abeyance until later. So we're left hanging, wondering what the conflict is. The next line after he steels himself is the rain and our minds as readers naturally construe the conflict as Hassom vs. the rain. And it's unsatisfactory and misleading and trivial all the rest.

If, however, you were to, say, take Carl's advice and supply the other vector in a first sentence, as in: "The dead waited for him inside. Hassom steeled himself (etc.). He stepped out of the car into the rain..." then we're not confused at all and the rain fits in nicely as a coconspirator with the dead against your MC. Hassom is up against the dead and now the rain, what next? Now the rain helps us to identify with him. It becomes a minor insult to injury kind of a thing and we've all been there and it works just fine. We understand it in context and when we finish the book and go back to reread it ('cause it's just that good) then we appreciate the rain on a whole 'nother level and pronounce you a genius, etc.

You don't have to get rid of your forshadowing, you just have to integrate it into the opening of your book as if it's not forshadowing at all. You just have to make the rain relevant to what we're reading at the moment AND relevant to your big ideas down the line.

I hope that helps.


Michael R Hagan
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:55 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Spot on, Kevin. I think Herb and Carl veer towards exactly that opinion too. I'll be separating the steeling from the raining, and putting in a line to show why he might be stalling from the death awaiting.... but with less 'ings' 
Much appreciated.

I know you're teasing about the reading twice thing. But there are many passages within meant to imply one set of conclusions, but actually have second meaning, which would, I hope, make immediate sense on a second read...... How arrogant am I, for a first book?

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 8:10 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Well, I'm almost afraid to say, but that's some revisions made to the opening scene.... still raining and I stuck with 'God, no'.... sounds more gutteral to me than anything else I can think of, but I think it fits in better after using the feedback regarding building up to it.
Carl, don't reclaim that opening line..... it's mine now.
Now if you'd just give me another 100,000 lines like it, preferably in order, I'd have myself a book.

Hassom cursed Swain as he took a last draw on his........

Carl E Reed
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 9:22 AM
Joined: 4/27/2011
Posts: 608

Happy to help, but I'm the one who needs a spare 100,000 lines or so! 

Good luck as you work through the re-write. 
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:24 PM
Hey, sorry it took me so long to get in here, Michael. I'm just not at BC as much as I used to be. I need to correct that.

The first response said what I was going to say, "I do think there needs to be some kind of inciting incident in the
beginning of the story to stir things up and put the protagonist on a
real/psychological journey." 100%

Mimi Speike
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:37 PM
Joined: 11/17/2011
Posts: 1014

Mari, this is the same advice I just gave someone on another site. I must be learning something here.

Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:42 PM
Jay said, "But did you, at any time during the film, wonder if there had
been a worldwide calamity that resulted in it always being overcast? Or
did you attribute it to the director’s decision, so as to maintain the
mood? Because if you didn’t…  ;–)"

No, I just thought it was a mood-setting thing ....

Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:45 PM
Mimi - I like to think we all are learning a thing or three here. Gods know I sure have over my time here.

Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 3:48 PM
I hate loading a thread down with links, but this discussion reminded me of a sheet I created for myself when I started my YA project (yeeps - almost two years ago now). But it does come in handy and does seem to help keep things in order.

Here's a list of the links I took my information from:

Premise, Inciting
Incident, Catalyst, Debate


DG Downer
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 6:10 PM
Joined: 11/11/2012
Posts: 13

Hey Mike: I just wanted to weigh in briefly regarding your use of rain in the story, and I'm going to go all "Swain" on you by quoting his book.

It seems to me that you are using rain  as a "process of symbolization by significant detail..."

"...spotlight some phenomenon - anything at all. Then, let a character react to it. The interpretation he places on it, the conclusions he draws from it, will at once endow it with "significance," where your reader is concerned."

"Extend this same process of creating significance by association and conditioning to a sort of running gag, an emotional doorbell, and it gives you a handy device for establishing and re-establishing mood with a minimum of wordage."

"Carried far enough and used with sufficient skill, this reiteration of emotionalized detail becomes what's sometimes called a gimmick - one of the most useful devices for resolving your story."

So, it seems to me, whether you realize it or not, or like it or not, you are indeed using Swain in your writing.

Just a little food for thought, my friend.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 8:10 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Well you know what they say about broken clocks!

I've gone back to my opening scenes and input some blatent tension......... or perhaps brought the undercurrent more to the fore.

I've sold out to the dark side, DG.

I'd like to chat more, cause it's great to hear from you again, but I have to go and scrub myself with a stiff, soapy brush...................... I feel so dirty.


DG Downer
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 8:34 PM
Joined: 11/11/2012
Posts: 13

The thing about being on the dark side, Mike, is that we seem to more appreciate the light.

As Doc Holliday said in Tombstone, "I'm your Huckelberry".

I think you'll like this, as it is a gig about Uncle Jay: His ending salutation of "Good luck favors the prepared" is a complete rip-off of Pasteur who said "chance favors the trained mind", (a favored quote of Swain).

Now go shower, you dirty bastage...
Jay Greenstein
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 11:43 PM

Would you prefer it was not shown to rain until such times as the displaced protest at the ruination of their homes and resentment of immigrants pressurises those in power to drastic action?
Everything you say that’s not directly related to the action in progress might be ambience. It also might be be of some importance later. A reader can’t tell which is is, unless the protagonist or some other character reacts, or you in some way mark it as being something to remember.
Foreshadowing is what you’re trying to do, but stories are about people, not weather. So there’s a problem. We’re supposed to be in his POV and he doesn’t pay any attention to the rain. Nor does the rain seem to have any effect on the scene other then that it’s set on a stormy day. And, the next time he goes outdoors, a few moments later, the rain has stopped. So there is no way in hell that a reader will conclude from that, that the climate has changed and in what way it’s changed. Yes, if you keep on doing it the reader might wonder why you keep presenting rainy weather, but you could have accomplished the same thing by beginning with him walking into the house, taking off his raincoat, shaking it off, and saying, “Damn, I’m starting to grow webbing on my feet. Tell me again that the global warning has no effect.” The walk through the rain provided no plot development because walking from place to place is movement, but not action. It didn’t develop character because he had no thoughts or reactions to anything he encounters. And it didn’t set the scene because that takes place inside the house. From a reader’s point of view it served only to delay the arrival of the actual story. Sure, from your POV it’s foreshadowing, there to introduce the effect of climate change. But you gave the reader, the one this was written for, no reason to do anything but skim forward to find something happening because there’s no emotional content.
Readers are not looking for subtle hints that seem unrelated to the plot but will later turn out to be important. They’re looking for what’s happening. It’s the writer’s art to plant seeds that appear to be part of what’s needed to make this scene entertaining, but which will, later take on greater importance.
• I think that entire thread is more credible when storms abound, and floods are encountered prior to this issue being demonstrated.
Description isn’t showing. Physical events are only meaningful in human context because stories are emotion based, not fact based. In the words of
E. L. Doctorow, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
Make me be him in the rain and reacting to it, if it’s important. And make the rain seem relevant to the scene in progress, so the reader doesn’t realize that some foreshadowing is going on. Make him care, so I know what I should care about, and how much it means to him. Weather reports I can get on the Eleven O’clock News. In fact, one f the "never do this," things that writers are told is to never begin with a weather report.
• I'd explained that as well as setting the scene it also was relevent to the plot...
It’s only relevant to the plot, from the reader’s viewpoint, if they see it as relevant and necessary in the context of the scene playing out. You’re talking of matters of intent, but intent dribbles off the words in the modem. I’ve got a puddle of it on the floor under my desk right now from this post.

All that’s left at the reader’s end are the words, and what those words mean to that reader.

DG Downer
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 12:18 AM
Joined: 11/11/2012
Posts: 13

Yeah!.. what he said...

"You're talking of matters of intent, but intent dribbles off the words in the modem. I've got a puddle of it on the floor under my desk right now from this post."

I have no idea what that means, but damn, it does sound good.

So, yeah, what he said.

So there...
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 5:37 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

But if the climate has changed, this wet weather is the norm, so would people comment on the norm doing what is does best... being normal?
Sometimes I guess they do.... Actually we never shut up about it over here, but it's small-talk, and I don't want that in the first scene.

I really don't want to explain how floods abound, until I've got the story's hooks in... either read on, or trust me it's done explicitly and organically. I think it's Ch 4 before it starts to be relevant. (Sound of pin being pulled on grenade, and man stepping back to watch outcome)

I'm happy for the reader to think it's ambience the first couple of times the weather is mentioned. Anyhoo... it aint that extreme, we already have flood zones in England where one can no longer get insurance for your house, and this just takes the problem a small step further. (Also the fact it's getting hotter/drier in hot countries exasperates immigration)
Oh... it's all very exciting, read on... read on.

P.S. We have snow over here in Ireland at the moment... that's not normal at all.

Herb Mallette
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 8:29 AM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

First off, I want to thank Mari for those links. The one on inciting incident/catalyst/premise interactions crystallized a ton of important story construction concepts very succinctly.

As for the rain, I was fine with it in the original. Having him run through the downpour put that rain in my head through the entirety of the opening scene, and made the interior of the house and the horror of the dining room colder and creepier just because I knew it was pouring outside.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 9:24 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Oh Lordie, I've gone and changed it now.

I mentioned the cold of the rain hitting his legs to the knee so I could reference the chill remaining with him when he saw the 'orribles. Though when I started talking about his wet trousers, I though it implied the wrong reason for this dampness and didn't make him very heroic sounding...... I changed it again. Hope it still works for you,
Cheers, Herb

Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 2:16 PM
Herb, you're welcome.

Ben Nemec
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 4:45 PM
Joined: 1/21/2013
Posts: 47

I don't have specific comments on the current discussion, but I have some thoughts in general on "rules" and "formulas".

These are things that some successful author (Swain in this case) believes will help an as-yet-unpublished author become a published author.  They are not the only way to get published (as evidenced by the multitude of published books that break "rules"), but if you can follow a successful author's formula it probably gives you a leg up on someone who is just trying to wing it.  Assuming the author's formula isn't completely bogus.

So, will not following the Swain formula ensure that your work never gets published?  Of course not.  Will following it guarantee a huge publishing deal?  Also no.  But will it increase your chances by some (possibly small, possibly large) amount?  I would suggest that the answer is yes.

Full disclosure: This from someone whose work starts off with the protagonist in peril, but does not have extreme characters.  And who has never read Swain's book.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 8:25 PM
• But if the climate has changed, this wet weather is the norm, so would people comment on the norm doing what is does best... being normal?

We should be able to see, by the way people behave, and what they say, that the world they live in is different from ours. For example, houses built after the change would probably be designed with the expectation that there need to be storage/drying spots for a guest’s rain gear. I can see there being small culverts at the curb to carry away the storm water quickly. Cellars would be a thing of the past. And guest entrances might normally have a towel rack or dispenser. It’s those things, treated as furniture by the characters, and unnoticed by them other then to use in passing, that tell the reader that the weather changes are permanent, and changed society. Had you had him come in, close the door by pushing it hard because the moisture seals tend to make it hard to close, then strip off his rain gear, hang it, and dry his face, we would know there’s something going on. He might notice that the people have real cloth towels on the rack—as he takes one and dries his face—as against paper, which says they were well off, or pretentious. He might notice that the dehumidifier hasn’t been emptied, which tells a bit about when the crime took place, or that it wasn’t running, which might seem odd.

My point is that if we can’t see it for ourselves, without your holding it up and shouting, “Look here,” it’s distracting rather than informative and entertaining.

• I really don't want to explain how floods abound, until I've got the story's hooks in

That’s easy. Don’t. If the POV character isn’t reacting to it, it doesn’t exist, because point of view is how he’s actively perceiving the scene, not what’s there to be seen. When he focuses on the problem we will. The trick is to foreshadow it via not obvious means, things he and the reader both react to, an which seem to be related to what matters to the protagonist right then, but which will take on greater importance later.

Story isn’t plot. It’s the protagonist’s reaction to the plot.

Jay Greenstein
Posted: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 9:02 PM

These are things that some successful author (Swain in this case) believes will help an as-yet-unpublished author become a published author.
Swain wasn’t just an author. He was very successful as a writer of fiction. He also wrote screenplays, and developed some techniques of filmmaking that revolutionized the making of documentary films. He was a teacher of professional fiction writing at Oklahoma University, whose professional fiction writing program, at the time he taught there, boasted a list of students that reads like a who’s-who of American writers. The man used to fill auditoriums when he went on tour. I’ve listened to audio condensations of two of his all-day seminars, and found myself saying, “This man is a damn genius,” in more then a few places.
He wasn’t giving personal opinion. He helped codify the craft of the fiction writer, yes, but didn’t invent it. His book is simply a much better than average discussion of the craft of the fiction writer—a learned skill. You can see the craft he discusses in operation in most of the successful writing on the market today.
• So, will not following the Swain formula ensure that your work never gets published?
Pretty well. First, because it’s not a formula. There is no teacher I know of who says, “Do this and you’ll be successful. Swain, for example, doesn’t talk about style. Style is the writer’s job. He doesn’t talk about the various ways of presenting POV. That’s an authorial decision based on preference. Instead, he talks about what POV is, and how to make it work for you. Over 90% of new writers think POV refers to which pronouns you use. Fail to learn what it actually is and you’ll be one of those 999 out of 1000 rejected for every “yes” from a publisher.
Any profession is filled with specialized knowledge, tricks-of-the-trade, and trade secrets. No one is born with an innate knowledge of how to use the tools of any profession, including fiction for the printed word. Nor do we even know what many of the tools are—or that they exist—until they’re pointed out. And that's a serious problem, because as they say, “If the only tool you own is a hammer, everything is going to look like a nail.”
Swain, Bickham, Dixon, etc., point out what kind of tools are available, why they’re necessary, and how and when to use them.
The short version: before you condemn someone’s work, research. You can read a sample chapter of Techniques of the Selling Writer, or Bickham’s, Scene and Structure, on Amazon. While you’re at it, look at the reader comments on the book. Those men have a lot of fans.

Ben Nemec
Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013 11:45 AM
Joined: 1/21/2013
Posts: 47

Whoa, I'm not condemning anything.  In fact, in my post I said, "But will it increase your chances by some (possibly small, possibly large) amount?  I would suggest that the answer is yes." in regard to following Swain's advice.  The only reason I'm hedging about how much it will help is that I haven't read his work, so I don't know anything for sure.

Also, for the record, most of what I have learned about the craft of writing comes from Jim Butcher's LiveJournal, which, as I understand it, is ultimately descended from Jack Bickham's work.  I found that incredibly instructive, so I'm not at all opposed to the principles they're espousing.

The only real contrary point (which I stand by) is that if anyone makes a statement like "your characters must have extreme views" for your book to be published, then I have to disagree.  I've read published books that did not have extreme characters, so an absolute statement like that is provably false to me (though that may depend on the definition of "extreme", which is a whole can of worms in itself).  To be fair, I find most absolute statements provably false, so that's not unique to this discussion or even writing in general.

In any case, my comments were more about the "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots" of writing than the specifics of Swain.  I'm obviously not qualified to speak on that topic, having not read the book.  Of course, it's debatable whether I'm qualified to speak on any topic whatsoever, which is why I do a lot more reading than writing in these discussions.
Herb Mallette
Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013 1:25 PM
Joined: 6/28/2011
Posts: 188

Ben, you're as qualified to speak as most anyone else here, so chime in as often as you're motivated to!

Your initial post got several things right, for my money, including this point: "Will following it guarantee a huge publishing deal? "

Swain himself says early on in his book that hitting the big time requires something else, something special -- talent. He's very clear that what he is offering is advice on craft, which if followed will get most writers to the minimally successful level of being able to be published. But he's also clear that everyone brings their own unique spark to the act of writing, and that there's no magic-wand method that can guarantee huge success from simple prescriptions.

In other words, his advice is advice on how to become the best writer you can be, not how to snatch a golden ticket to the bestseller lists.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, March 21, 2013 3:37 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Well said, Herb.

Ben, I'll second that. I thought your comment was fair and measured.Welcome to the debate, your views are valid and necessary, both as a reader and a writer.
The more viewpoints, the better; except of course in our books, where fewer perspectives are required, one per scene, and all must adhere to 3rd party limited or fall foul of the formulas........ Oh, there goes that grenade pin again!

Uncle Jay, really! I'm visualising you wearing a scuffed leather jacket, eyes narrowed, chewing gum in time to the theme of Resevoir Dogs as you approach, to crowd, the new arrival to the school yard.

If I could write more eloquently I wouldn't have to resort to using so many smiley faces.

Ben Nemec
Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013 10:10 AM
Joined: 1/21/2013
Posts: 47

Thanks guys.  I've always been something of a forum addict so I'll contribute when I can, but it's only been a couple of months since I decided to get serious about this whole writing a book thing.  The jury's still out on whether I will have the perseverance to stick with it or if it will be a passing fad.

And Mike, I may have been known as the "smiley abuser" at one point in my life, so I know exactly what you mean.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Saturday, March 23, 2013 6:48 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Ben, that might be the most disturbing nick-name I've ever heard admitted to, on so many levels!
It should come with a subtitled explanation.

Ben Nemec
Posted: Monday, March 25, 2013 10:05 AM
Joined: 1/21/2013
Posts: 47

Heh, it was given to me by a LAN party group in college.  Let me tell you, it wasn't the most disturbing thing to come out of our "deep" discussions at 8:00 AM, when we hadn't slept in over 24 hours.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 7:37 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

I feel old.
Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, April 25, 2013 5:28 PM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Hey, If anyone is still following this discussion....
I just had a wonderful review on The Desolate. (Wonderful not meaning a galaxy of stars, but beautifully targeted, insightful comments which best highlight the dilema I'm having of cutting parts which I feel enrich the writing, possibly without bringing on the story.)
I'm not asking for more reviews, but if anyone could share their opinion on the key points I mention in the review comment thread, it might help me go forward.... No, it would help me go forward.
If yo'all are too busy writing.... it's all good.


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