Monday, September 26, 2005

Tips for Writers: C.Vogler & D.Swain

First of all, I'm so sorry I never got Janet Mullany's Q&A posted this weekend. I ended up going out of town and wasn't on the computer. She is rescheduled for this Friday! And now, tips for writers!

I was at a writers retreat this weekend and I got into a conversation with a few other writers about Christopher Vogler's book The Writer's Journey and Dwight's Swain's advice about Scene & Sequel.

Just because I'm feeling snarky, I'm going to cause some trouble here! Okay, *so many* extremely successful authors swear by Vogler and Swain. I'm talking NYT best sellers and all. As a newbie, I listened, I responded, I bought those books and I read those suckers. After reading Vogler, I looked at the mss I'd already written and thought "Holy moly! That's why I haven't sold! I've been jumping right into the action instead of setting up the ordinary world! Dork!"

I immediately rushed to the computer and changed how I did things. I spent time in that ordinary world. I did a beautiful job describing where they were, what their issues were, why they were frustrated etc. Chris would have been proud.

Then I sent them out. And guess what? More rejections, and they all said it was a pacing problem. It started off too slow!

I realized I was spending a bit too much time in the ordinary world, so I cut it down.

Still had pacing problems.

Cut more.

Still had pacing problems.

Finally, four or five manuscripts later, after suffering more rejections and hearing editors say they can't stand getting books based on the Hero's Journey, I realized that in today's genre fiction market, there is no place for starting with the ordinary world. You have to start right smack in the middle of the action. In the middle of the moment that will change that character's life forever. What about the ordinary world, you ask? Well, this is ALL you're allowed to do with it: one sentence here. One sentence there. One sentence at a time until eventually, by page 200, you have fully educated the reader as to all the past and backstory and ordinary world that they need to know. My rule of thumb: if the reader doesn't need to know the backstory/past/ordinary world to understand what is going on or why something is important, then they don't need to know it yet, which means you aren't allowed to put it in the story yet. It's okay if the reader is chock full of questions about what's going--that's the whole point of a great book! Unanswered questions make the reader turn the page because they need to know. But the reader can't be so confused that they close the book or think the heroine is a psycho bitch because you haven't explained her motivation. For that reason, you're allowed to drop a hint here and there as is necessary. BUT NO MORE!

My lesson? I learned that the Vogler thing didn't work for me. I shut that book, put it away, and have been happily surprised to learn I'm not the only author who had to do the same thing.

Part Deux: Dwight Swain's scene & sequel

Okay, I admit, I never read much of this book. I bought it, I think it's still on my shelf, but heaven help me, I couldn't get through it. Now that I know more about it, I'm so glad I didn't because I fear it would have set my writing back the way Vogler did. Why? Because of that pesky scene & sequel thing.

Before I completely diss the S&S thing, please note that plenty of successful authors do subscribe religiously to the S&S bit, so if you like it and it works for you, keep it up. But here's my opinion:
scene & sequel is outdated and should best relegated to a museum setting, at least if you're trying to sell genre fiction. I can't tell you the number of editors I have spoken to that have told me that. Why? Because today's audience demands fast paced stories, action, page-turning suspense (even in a non-suspense novel). If you have a sequel in which your character spends several pages ruminating on the previous action scene, guess what? Snore.

Yes, your characters need to have a response to whatever earth-shattering event happened to them in the last scene. But that response should be part of the action of the next scene. Do NOT have the boring sequels where the heroine is pondering the meaning of life while sitting in traffic. Have the heroine pondering the meaning of life as she slams her car into the side of her stalker's truck because she simply won't accept being threatened anymore. So there, you b*stard! See the difference?

So there we go. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.


At 4:29 PM, Blogger Trish Milburn said...

Great post! And very freeing. :)


Post a Comment

<< Home