I am currently on holidays in Manitoba for a month, visiting family and attending two weddings, as well as my mother’s eightieth birthday celebration.
While I am here I am also trying to carve out some daily time for writing. This is more easily said than done. I don’t have an internet connection so doing research presents a challenge. But the library is not far away.
Recently a friend loaned me a book I wish I had known about years ago. It is Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer. If I had studied this book early on, it would have saved me countless hours of editing I am now required to do on my novel.
Techniques of the Selling Writer was published in 1965 and reads like a college textbook, so you have to be prepared to plod through it, but it is well worth it. It has more practical advice than any other book I have found. I would say it is a must read for every beginning novel writer.
Like the old saying goes, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” We all have gaps in our knowledge and we don’t know what they are. As I read Techniques of the Selling Writer I recognized many of my gaps. It was thrilling for me to learn why some things I was doing were not working and to find out what I could do to improve my story. I am not yet finished the book and every time I pick it up I learn something new.
One thing I learned was that with every scene, and particularly in the beginning of the story, it is important to orient your reader. Give your readers a sense of time and place. It sounds simple, and maybe you have always done this. But I looked at my story and went, at what point does my reader realize that the story happens in Portland, ME? It was way too long before this became evident.
Also ask yourself, what time of day is this incident happening, and then slip in a clue. Sometimes you make a clear statement like, It was six o’clock, on Friday, March 6. But more often you’ll probably say something like, Sally dried the last of the dinner dishes. Or, The sun was sinking behind the trees as he turned into the driveway and saw Jayne sitting on the front step with the twins. Earlier you have clued the reader in to the fact that your lead character looks after the twins every other weekend.
Think about seasons too. Is it cold or hot with humidity? You could state, It was January in Chicago. Or, maybe the month isn’t that important and you simply want to give your readers a sense of the weather by saying, He wrapped his woolen scarf around his neck as he bent his head against the wind and blowing snow. Here is another example, Dark clouds loomed in the sky. Maria slapped a mosquito on her arm as she sat down on the grass and opened her lunch bag. The reader knows it is noon, there is the threat of rain and it is warm enough to sit outside on the grass without a coat.
Our readers will appreciate this small consideration. It will help them to relax and get into the story. If we tell them early on, then they will not feel jolted by information that came too late and didn’t match their assumptions. After you do this for awhile it becomes second nature.
If you are serious about writing, I encourage you to pick up a copy of Techniques of the Selling Writer. I’m sure you will make some surprising and helpful discoveries.