“If they weren't solidly real dragons... it wouldn't have been worth doing.”
Jo Walton

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Some NaNoEdMo Procrastination, or Why I Won't Be Buying Swain's Book
Tue 2011-03-08 21:25:26 (in context)
  • 4,237 words (if poetry, lines) long
  • 3.00 hrs. revised

It's March. That means, if I've got my ass in gear, that it's National Novel Editing Month and I'm doing it. I got two hours in today on the revision of Deaths in a Dream (working title, may change) which was what I wrote back in November; that's the good news. The bad news is, I've only got three hours in total and the goal is fifty. Hee hee?

(The low word count refers to the rewrite. I'm taking the rough draft side-by-side with a new outline and notes on each scene, and I'm rewriting the novel into a new yWriter project.)

Doing a bit of procrastination today, I went back to an old standby, Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Method" for writing a novel. His method involves starting with a single sentence, then fleshing it out to a paragraph, then writing out a page of summary for each character, and so forth until you've expanded your single ice crystal of an idea into a snowflake of a novel full of all the detailed pointy bits you'd expect. It's a sort of fill-in-the-blank that gets you to write the shape of the blanks out first. It's a neat idea, but I don't think I've ever really found an occasion to use it. I go into a rough draft with a rough outline, but nowhere near the level of planning Ingermanson suggests, mainly because I write the rough draft to find out what the hell it is I'm writing. And now that I've got a rough draft and a much better idea of what the final should look like, I'm not sure his method goes the way my brain goes. Maybe I'll try bits of it here and there. The character page summaries seem useful; I seem to have less of a grip today on the character of Lia than I did back in November.

I've also discovered I... don't really like Ingermanson's writing style. I'm sorry! But I don't. He keeps inserting jolly comedic bombast that, as a joke, gets old quick. In my opinion. It's not so bad in Snowflake, where he mostly gets it out of the way in the first couple paragraphs and then gets down to business. But I clicked over to his other free article, "Writing the Perfect Scene," and the bombast was something like 40% of the content.

This may seem obvious, but by the end of this article, I hope to convince you that it's terribly profound. If you then want to fling large quantities of cash at me in gratitude, please don't. I'd really rather have a check. With plenty of zeroes.
Yes, this is an example from the beginning of the article. No, he doesn't stop doing it there. I couldn't finish reading the section on "Small-Scale Structure of a Scene" because he would just not stop MY FUNNY LET ME SHOW YOU IT about "writing MRUs correctly." (What's an MRU? Coming to that. Momentito, amiguitos.)

He's also got a little problem with sexist language:

Your reader is reading your fiction because you provide him or her with a powerful emotional experience. If you're writing a romance, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is falling in love herself. If you're writing a thriller, you must create in your reader the illusion that he is in mortal danger and has only the tiniest chance of saving his life (and all of humanity). If you're writing a fantasy, you must create in your reader the illusion that she is actually in another world where all is different and wonderful and magical. And so on for all the other genres.
OK, so, he's got the idea down of alternating "he" and "she" in order to avoid unconsciously treating Male as Default Human. Except... see what he does with the pronouns? Female pronouns for romance and fantasy; male pronouns for thriller. Bets on which pronoun he would have used had he gone on to describe the emotions of science fiction? Bets?

It's a small thing, but it does bug me. Put it together with a tendency to overload every new section with a fresh shmear of LOOKIT ME IN UR ARTICLE BEIN FUNNY before getting around to making actual informative points, and I fall right off the page.

OK so well but anyway he recommends this book, says he's stealing all his scene-building ideas from it. Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. This is where he gets MRUs, or "motivation-reaction units" ("such an absurdly ridiculous term that I'm going to keep it, just to prove that Mr. Swain was not perfect") from. "If you don't have this book," Ingermanson says, "you are robbing yourself blind." All right, already. I go look at the Amazon page.

Would you like to know why I will not be buying this book, robbing myself blind though I might be? Would you like to know? My problem with Swain, let me show you it. Let me rip it straight from Amazon's "Look Inside The Book" feature and show you it:

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.

So. "Man" equals "person" equals "writer." Are women writers? No! They are what Men Writers create. Also, they're nightmares.

This is, perhaps, not entirely unusual given the book was published in 1965. Except no, wait, here are a bunch of other books published in 1965. Some of them are on my shelf. Many of them have caused me less pain, cover to cover, than these few paragraphs did. Swain! More sexist than many of his contemporaries, and possibly proud of it!

According to reviewer T. Velasquez from Beaverton, Oregon, this is no simple unfortunate exception. He goes on like this throughout the book. Says Velasquez,

On the downside, the very dated presentation in the book can made for hard reading to the modern PC crowd. Swain writes very clearly from the POV that his readers are male. He never says that women can't write books but he mentions only one female author and she is used in a negative example. Swain uses the terms 'man/men' interchangeably for people. Of course, Swain was a product of his times but his style of writing borders on the unintentionally insulting.

He refers to a black woman as a 'negress' at one point and his examples portray all wives (and women since this is the only thing he can allow women to be in his examples) as cheating on their husbands the moment that their husband's backs are turned: The understanding being that women are weak and mindless submissive creatures that are easily influenced by other men and must be constantly supervised.

That single female writer he brings up as a bad example? Let's grab another quote from the first chapter of Swain's book. Meet "Mabel Hope Hartley (that's not her real name)...."
...queen of the love pulps thirty years ago.... Old and tired now, she turns out just enough confessions to support herself.
Ah, yes. Ye olde "old and tired," code phrase for "Woman who is no longer sexually interesting to me, and should therefore get out of my face, preferably by hiding herself away in a retirement home or maybe dying so I don't have to look at her." Old and tired. Which has what, exactly, to do with the profession of writer? In any case, old and tired Mabel Hope Hartley's role is to give the hypothetical (male) newbie (his name is Fred) bad advice so that manly Dwight V. Swain (Swain! I swoon) can rescue him and other newbie writers like him (alike to him right down to the male pronoun) from her old and tired badness.

"Modern PC crowd," nothing; Swain's book is painful for me to read as a woman. As one of those female writers that don't exist in Swain's world. As one of those terrible bad-advice-giving female writers who is probably cheating on her husband if he isn't nailing her fins to the floor. And is causing surrealist fetishists nightmares or something, I dunno. Clearly, if Swain were still with us today, I would be causing him nightmares just by existing. And writing. And publishing.

I should note that out of all the reviews on Amazon, most of which are 5 star and say "The writing Bible!" and "Should be required reading for all writers!" (because, Gods know, if women find Swain's writing painful they should just suck it up in the name of Becoming A Writer), Velasquez's review is the only one that mentions Swain's problem with slightly more than half the human species.

Anyway, valuable lesson learned. If a writer with an unfortunate tendency to fall into unconscious sexist language from time to time recommends a book about writing, and recommends it very very strongly as the book he got all his best ideas from, it is not unlikely that the recommended book will be full of a lot more sexist language that's a lot less unconscious. If your mentor is mouthing nasty bigoted stuff about women, or about people of color for that matter, and you learn a lot about writing from that mentor, well, it's hard to come away without having unconsciously internalized some of the nasty stuff.

Choose your mentors carefully to the extent you have a choice, right?

That said: If someone has taken Swain's good ideas, such as still apply today (Velasquez says he has a lot of ideas that don't pertain to today's publishing industry either), and has repackaged them within a writing style that, I dunno, acknowledges women as human beings who might have something worthwhile to say, maybe? then I'm all ears. I have a list, it is currently one author long, that author is Ingermanson. I should like the list to be longer. Suggestions?