Video Chat: We Begin to Answer Your Questions

Mark Paxson

Below is the video for our latest video chat, in which we begin to respond to the questions/suggested topics from our post at the beginning of the year. Thank you to those who offered suggestions. We really appreciate it.

The last question we address in this chat is a question related to the “rules” of marketing. I wanted to take a moment to provide a fuller answer than I did in the chat.

As I say in the video, I’m not sure what the “rules” of marketing are for writers. So, I struggle with that from the outset, but as I think about it more, I can come up with a few.

Establish a social media presence. I know of a writer who got a publishing contract with a small publisher. They published two of his books — cozy mysteries. But then passed on anything else from him because he didn’t have a sufficient social media presence for them.

This need for a social media presence is something that has been in the background ever since I started my publishing journey. You gotta have a blog! So, I got a blog. And then you have to have Twitter and Facebook and Instagram. And now, you better be on TikTok. Or the world is going to pass you by.

I’m on all of those things. Except TikTok. I just refuse to go there. But, social media has been both a blessing and a curse for me. The biggest problem is that I likely don’t use them the way I should to fully promote my written works. I don’t tweet regularly about my books. I tweet when there is something new to say about what I’m doing. Same with my blog.

Plus, my blog and my tweets are all over the place. They are not focused on my creative endeavors. I write and tweet about politics and food and photography and music and life in general. Which, to be honest, I think is a better way to develop an audience than the artificiality of never-ending marketing and promotion. I am who I am, both in real life and on social media. But the world doesn’t seem to work that way.

I’ve never established a huge following on social media. I’ve never approached viral status. And I’m okay with that. I’d rather develop a following naturally, through interaction with followers, than because of one single post or tweet that thousands see and decide to follow me … and then never interact with me again.

I gnash my teeth at times over the limits of what social media has offered me. But … here is the blessing social media has provided. Without it, my readership would be even smaller than it is now. Through social media, I have met and befriended so many other writers and readers and many of them buy my books when I publish something new. More than anybody else in my life, they are the ones who feed me and encourage me and support me in these endeavors.

Overall, at least for me, as frustrating as social media can be, I’d consider establishing a social media presence to be an overall positive. But I encourage you to make your presence what you want it to be. Be you and let your following grow organically. I think it’s far more rewarding than to develop a following that you never interact with. This, of course, gets to what your objectives may be — maximize sales or establish connections.

I’m not sure what other rules there are to publishing. We could discuss the querying process, the publishing process, and various promotional ideas. One of the things I’ve discovered with my last novel is that the on-line promo sites simply aren’t as effective and beneficial as they where when I started this journey ten years ago. It’s a fundamental reality of this business that there are ever more writers publishing ever more books, which makes it ever harder for writers to get noticed and to get readers to purchase their books.

One of the things I see is that you need to have a newsletter and an email list. And I just think … why? This is the type of thing that would just end up sitting in my email in-box, never being read, drowned by all of the other emails I get. 99% of which are spam and junk. I just don’t see how newsletters help. Somebody who has one and who has found success with it, please share that experience in the comments.

Whatever the rules of publishing were ten years ago, they’ve changed now because of how swamped the marketplace is. In some respects, I think the rules of marketing now are … do what you can. Try to find some niches where you can find readers and pursue them. But don’t expect much, because you are just one small fish in a very large sea. Set your objectives and dreams accordingly. Unless, of course, you are one of those rare writers who actually enjoys the promotion side of things. And good luck!

Tackling One of Your Questions

Mark Paxson

At the beginning of the year, Audrey posted an invitation for you to suggest issues or questions for us to address. A lot of what that produced will be covered in future video chats, but I wanted to take a stab at one of them.

Anonymole ask the following questions:

• What’s your thoughts on writers writing only what they feel compelled to write, ignoring the market or even the concepts of demand? In other words, how much do you think writers should pay attention to their niche, if they even have one?

My answer to each of these questions will begin with the same thing. It depends. Unfortunately, that’s kind of a reality for me and it goes back to something we’ve covered a number of times in our video chats.

It depends on what your objective is.

Personally, I write stories I want to write, without regard to what the market is doing, or what readers are screaming for. At the same time, I write stories that I hope can find an audience. I have no interest in wallowing in my own internal craziness, producing something that would only mean something to me. So, I write stories I want to write with the hope readers will want to read them. 😉

But … if you’re writing because you want to get a publishing contract and get your name on the best-seller lists, then just writing what you want likely isn’t going to get there. You have to bend your art to what the market is looking for. And in the world of writing and publishing, that means what the gatekeepers (publishers and agents) think the market is looking for.

Who am I kidding? I want those things too — the contract and the best-seller. Unfortunately for those goals, I want even more to write the stories I want to write. Sometimes that means a story that might fit in with what the market is looking for, but if it does, it’s wholly incidental.

The story I’m working on, which will likely end up being about 40,000 words — too short to call a novel — could fit into the market. Although I may be a little late to this particular genre. Do you remember Gone Girl, how successful it was, and how it was followed by a number of other books with “girl” in the title? Well, my WIP is what I refer to as a domestic thriller that could very easily be titled … The Girl in the Basement. But, I want to resist that as much as I possibly can. We’ll see.

• Create a “known universe” (including an inviolate canon) or create a series — preference?

Again, it depends on your objective and the type of stories you want to write. The vast majority of what I write occurs in the known universe that we live in. Normal people dealing with situations of our modern existence. Occasionally, I dip into story types that allow for more creativity in what the universe is. I have a series of dystopian or post-apocalyptic stories that have been percolating for a few years.

But, I think the thing I don’t do is build worlds or develop new canons to occupy these stories. Instead, the stories are driven by the characters, who are all ultimately very human and like you and me, and what they’re going through to get through their lives. The world around them and its canons are not the story, they only provide the context in which the story occurs and I don’t do much with the world or its canons.

• Mundane world vs improbable world vs impossible world? Where do your stories take place? What do you think sells better or is more appealing as a burgeoning author? (i.e. The Notebook vs Hunger Games vs Harry Potter).

I think the examples in the parenthetical answer the question. Any and all of those can be successful. My stories all occur in the mundane world. I’ve struggled with efforts to write improbably or impossible fiction. Others who write on this blog have written stories that fit in those categories, however.

But … what sells? Who the hell knows. The gatekeepers decide that and what they look for are books that look like other books, with an occasional new idea popping up. Like Potter, which spawned hundreds or thousands of copycats. Like the Hunger Games, which spawned hundreds or thousands of copycats. But, have those two types of stories kind of run their course? Now, we’re on to something else aren’t we?

I think that’s the key, if your objective is to get published and grab an audience, it’s important to find the wave before it crests and ride it with your own take on what is popular. Or, best of all worlds, be the writer who writes something new that begins the wave — but it is much harder to sell that book to the gatekeepers.

More About The Rules

Mark Paxson

We talk a lot here about the “rules of writing.” In our video chats, in posts. It seems to be a significant issue within some portion of the writing community. The fodder for much of this comes from Twitter and its very active #writingcommunity.

Every day it seems there are tweets from writers of various levels of experience asking questions about the “rules.” Some of it is just for sake of conversation. Some is just to see what kind of response will be generated. And some of it degenerates into “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” kinds of responses.

I’m all for good dialogue and interaction on these types of topics. I think we need more of it, which is one of the reasons we talk about these kinds of things around here. (Hint: we’d like more voices on these topics. Hint: we’d like hear from you. Yes, you. Don’t look over. your shoulder as if I’m talking to somebody else. We want to hear from you about writing, your creative process, and all that goes with it.)

Where I want to jump off the cliff is when the dialogue degenerates into those “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” moments. As I’ve said repeatedly, the only rule in writing is one — write a good story.

But I get that some people need more guidance than that. And that’s what they should look for guidance, not rules.

I recently saw the new Dune movie. It inspired me to read the book again, and once I read the first book, I decided to keep going and see how far I could get into the six books Frank Herbert wrote about the world of Dune. Years ago, I got through the first three books. This time, I’ve made it into the fourth book, unsure if I’ll make it to five and six.

But as I read it today, there are some lines that are very relevant to this discussion about rules and writing. Leto II, the God Emperor of Dune, is talking with one of his underlings, trying to get him to see a point Leto II is making. I’m not going to provide any more context than that to avoid any more spoilers for anybody who might be reading through these books. But, the conversation has nothing to do with writing or with what most people would consider a creative endeavor.

Here is the first statement Leto II makes that struck a chord with me:

There is no such thing as rule-governed creativity.

And the next line:

Rules change with each surprise.

And the final line about Leto II’s one and only rule:

Short-term decisions tend to fail in the long-term.

It’s fascinating to me that these statements are embedded in a conversation that had nothing to do with a traditionally considered creative endeavor. It’s almost as though Herbert was stepping outside of the story and speaking directly to his fans and critics, both of which there were many, and telling them to pipe down. Using his story and this little space in it to essentially say — this is a creative piece and even I don’t necessarily know what is coming next (i.e., things change with each surprise) and considering the lengthy arc of the entire Dune story, one shouldn’t look at only short clips of it, but consider the entire work.

But, that’s not really my point here. My point is that those statements are exactly what I think about the “rules of writing.” Creativity simply cannot be bound by rules. If it is, then it is no longer creation. It is simply following a formula that somebody else established for their own purposes. When creating, you are the god of your universe and you get to establish the parameters within which you are going to create. There is nothing wrong with seeking guidance and input from other writers, or from readers, or from whoever. But always consider it as such — guidance. If it doesn’t fit your creation, toss it aside.

I really like the second statement. Rules change with each surprise. Maybe this doesn’t happen to plotters who have their story outlined, laid out, and fully formed before they start to write. But I know that there are all sorts of surprises that come with each story I write. I have a general idea and I start writing. Sometimes I know the ending, but not much of what happens between the beginning and end. Sometimes I don’t even know the ending. I just have an idea and I want to see what happens.

So, there are surprises along the way and I have to be open to them. And some of those surprises can cause the apple cart to tip over. So, not only do I have to be open to the possibility of surprises, I also have to be open to the possibility that a surprise will completely shift my thinking about the story — meaning the parameters (notice, I try very hard not to say rules) I lay out at the beginning for how I want to tell the story might change as those surprises reveal themselves.

The novel I’m currently working on is a surprise unto itself. A story that started as a short based on one of the writing prompts I posted here a couple of months ago. It has blossomed into 30,000 words at this point and I’m realizing I need to change some foundational things about the story.

It started in first person and when it was just a short story motivated by that prompt, that was fine. But when I got to 29,000 words, I realized that I needed to get deeper into some aspects of the story, reveal more about some of the other characters, and that was going to be difficult do if I kept it in first person. So, I’ve spent the last week or two converting the existing portion from first person to third person. I’m about two-thirds of the way through and now I’m concerned that some good elements that existed in the first person version will be lost as I shift to third person. And I’m toying with going back to first person to keep those elements.

I’m torn between the two versions and one of the reasons why is that there are a multitude of ways to tell a single story. And part of the challenge is to find the right way. The surprises that come along during the creation are one of the things that can make that challenge even greater. If you set in stone the “rules” for your story at the outset and close yourself off to the changes surprises can produce, you may just miss out on the best version of your story.

Which essentially leads into the third statement. Short-term decisions tend to fail in the long-term. I think that’s basically what I just said, just using different words.

Listen to Leto II and his wise words. Creation means bending and breaking the rules. It means keeping your mind open to the surprises that come along the way. Whether writing or painting or sculpting or composing a song. There are all sorts of side paths that can be taken. Colors that weren’t expected. Notes that ring truer than imagined. Those surprises, those side paths are what make these things a creation. Your creation. Don’t let a “rule” stop you from discovering them.

Holiday Greetings and Wishes

Mark Paxson

Happy Holidays to all out there who stop by for a visit here and there. I want to thank Berthold, Richard, Audrey, Lucinda, and Chuck for joining me on this little adventure we’ve embarked upon with this website. I haven’t dedicated the time to this blog that I wanted to and it has grown much slower than I hoped. But I’m hopeful that we can keep working on this space and create a bigger conversation among writers.

For all you writers out there, I hope that 2022 brings you words flowing easily, ideas a-poppin’, the publishing path of your dreams, a cure for the block if you have it, more eyeballs on your words than you ever imagined possible, and success and happiness in your creative endeavors throughout the year and beyond.

Happy Holidays everyone!

How To Help Writers

I’ve used NaNoWriMo to see what I could do with a story that showedup when I did my first writing exercise here on this site. The exercise where each day a random word needs to be used in that day’s writing. The story was called Facilitation, and it was about a woman having an affair who has decided to end things with her husband … and with the man she is having the affair with.

As the calendar moved towards November and NaNo approached, I decided to see if I could make Facilitation more than what it was at that point. Maybe a full-blown novel, the scope of which I was completely unsure of at that time.

Well, 29,000 words later (yes, I did not win NaNo 2021) I was at a crucial moment in the story. Which way did I want it to end. The story is what I call a domestic thriller. Let’s just say that when the woman tells her husband she is done with him, he doesn’t take it well. A gun is involved. Shots are fired. He takes her hostage as the police arrive.

At the crossroads, I viewed there to be four basic options. He dies. She dies. They both die. Neither dies. Over on Twitter I posted a poll to see what people would prefer without knowing much of the story. More people voted for Neither Dies than any other option, but the total votes for an option where somebody dies slightly beat out Neither Dies.

I also posted on a FB page for writers a related question. What if I wrote a story … say, up to about 30,000 words and then published it with four different endings. Readers could choose their preferred ending or read all of them. What did people think of that? How could it be done? And I listed the same possible endings with a very small amount of additional detail. A few people provided thoughtful recommendations, but at least half of the responses were of the “those are all ‘common’ endings, you gotta do better than that.” There seemed to be an underlying level of … scorn? … for what I had posted. And a refusal to actually answer the question I had posed.

Which is fine. But …

Every story there is in the world has already been written. Every ending there is in the world has already been written. Literally thousands of times in each instance. So, telling me that these bare bones endings I’ve described are too ‘common’ doesn’t really help me at all. It doesn’t even say anything at all. At the end of the day, all stories at this point in human history are ‘common.’

After I completed my first novel and thought of shopping it around, I posted a draft query letter on a writing website for critique. One of the site’s editors replied that the story sounded like one that had been written before and that I needed to make sure my telling was unique. I get this concept, but it’s also not necessarily something I think about while I’m writing. To go back to Chuck Litka’s most recent post, it suggests that every story has to up the stakes as compared to earlier versions of the same story. Is that actually necessary? Is it even possible?

One of the things I wanted to say in response on that FB post was … well, fine then, what other uncommon options are there. I mean, literally, the only possible options for ending this story is one of them dies, both of them die, or neither of them dies.

The issue is … how to get from here to there. I know that I need to come up with a way to make a ‘common’ ending compelling. Either in how I present the characters, how I present the drama, how I present that ending. How I get from here to there.

My point is this … if a writer asks for input on something, answer the question they are asking and be as helpful as you can. Telling them their idea is “common,” thereby implying it’s not worthy when they only know about 2% of the concept and how it has rolled out, simply isn’t helpful. To me, it’s more about the commenters’ egos than any kind of help to the writer seeking help.

Of the people who actually responded to my question … what did people think of writing a story with a menu of different endings … one thought it was a horrible idea, one thought it was intriguing.

So, let me seek the same advice here … what do people think of that approach and how would they go about writing it and publishing it and marketing it?

You Do You

Mark Paxson

Earlier today, I saw a tweet from a writer announcing her new book was about to be published. Her tweet identified her publisher and I immediately had a suspicion. I looked up the publisher and, yep, it’s one of those publishers. For a small fee, they’ll do everything to make your publishing dreams come true.

Most of these publishers seem to charge around $2,000 – 3,000 and offer some level of editing or proofreading, a cover, and distribution. But ultimately, actually selling your book rests on your shoulders. This particular publisher had the highest cost publishing package I’ve seen — $8,500.

I immediately wanted to tweet my outrage at this, but I had an epiphany. Much like we talk about there being no rules to writing and that writers should write whatever and however they want, it’s the same with how we each pursue our publishing dreams.

I’ve opted for self-publishing. The tools are out there and it’s easy enough for me to master. I usually pay for some minor editing and with my last novel I paid for a cover for the first time. I’m going to keep doing that for the foreseeable future when I self-publish. The costs for that editing and a good cover are worth it to me, whether or not I make the money back.

But that’s the thing about self-publishing, more popularly known as indie publishing, there are all sorts of variations of it. What you do as an indie author, publishing your own work, depends entirely on what you’re comfortable with, what you can afford. There are indie authors who put books out without much editing (grrrr), who design their own covers (some better than others), and who do everything else themselves. There are some who do a little more, or a lot more. It’s just up to each author, and those who have mastered the marketing/promotion game to find bigger audiences are in the sweet spot of the indie industry.

Between those indie authors and traditional publishing is this vast industry that has popped up. It is today’s vanity publishign industry. All sorts of “publishers” who promise indie authors all sorts of services and the glories of publication. For a small fee.

I’ve been extremely pessimistic about these services for years. I think they are playing off the dreams of writers, pocking their fees, and not doing much to actually earn those fees. I’ve known several people who have used these services. At least four off the top of my head. They paid their fee, progressed to publishing with varying degrees of satisfaction that also came along with varying degrees of delay and disengagement from their publisher. And when it comes to what really matters … actual book sales … they had no better luck than I have.

And then there is traditional publishing, where you’ve got to run the gauntlet. Some publishers accept unagented manuscripts. Most do not. As a result, to have any chance, you gotta get that agent. Plus, a lot of those publishers who accept unagented manuscripts tend towards the small end of the publishing world, which means they may just publish the book and leave the promo efforts to the writer.

The problem with traditional publishing is that it is a gatekeeper system and unless you know the pass code, the secret handshake, and a few other things, it’s virtually impossible to get in through the gate. There are all sorts of indie published books out there that are among the best books I’ve read in recent years. I know of some indie manuscripts in search of a traditional publisher that would absolutely knock your socks off. But, they can’t get in the door. Why? Because traditional publishing is a funnel that moves only towards books that will be popular, easy to sell, that fit neatly into the only round hole the publisher has a peg for.

Okay, I’ve over-simplified all of those options. There are variations within options within choices inside each of those three options.

What you should do with all of these options and their variations is do what you’re comfortable with. If you have the money for one of those publishing companies, go for it. If you’re not comfortable doing all of the formatting and other work yourself, go for it. If you want to keep knocking on the traditional publishing door, go for it. If you want to do it all yourself, go for it.

It’s your dream. It’s your creation. It’s your story. You can put it out into the world however you want. But … please do your research, find others that have traveled the path you are choosing to learn from their experiences, and keep your expectations reasonable. Don’t expect miracles. Don’t expect a bestseller. Don’t actually have any expectations at all. As I’ve been told for the last ten years, only the tiniest fraction of writers actually make a living at writing.

I would like to hear from writers who have used any of the publishing services that charge a fee for publishing your book. What was your experience? Good or bad? Successful or not? What happened once you signed the contract (although I’ve heard interesting tidbits about the “before contrat” conversations)? What happened once your book was published? Anything and everything. If you have any experience with that option, I’d love to put a post up here with your experiences.

A Writing Exercise

One of the things I like about writing is giving stories to people I come across in real life. There are variations on this idea and I’ve written a few pieces that are my attempts to do so.

One morning when I got to work, I learned that there was a body outside our building. A man was dead from a gun shot. I thought about him all day and went home and wrote his obituary. Not really an obituary, but a short story of his life and how he ended up outside our building with a gun in his hand.

There are other examples of this, but enough about my approach to this concept. Here’s your chance.

Pick a character in your real life — the barista, the bartender, the old lady at the corner who never comes out of her house, anybody — and give them a story. Tell us who they are, why they are and how they came to the place where they’re at.

If you do, share it with us with a link in the commets or email at

My Thoughts on Deadly Writer Sins

Mark Paxson

I wasn’t able to join the recent video chat. Something to do with packing up my kid for his latest journey away from the family home. Latest, as in last. I hope.

But here are my thoughts on the topics discussed in the chat. Before I get to the specifics, I just want to say this. I have very strong opinions about writing rules, as anybody who has watched our videos likely knows. And I agree with Audrey when she says early in the video that a lot of that resistance frequently has to do with how they are framed.

I have said that my favorite quote about writing is the one I heard at a writing conference I went to — there are no rules in writing, except for one. Write a good story.

That’s really all there should be. But I get that some people need more. How exactly does one go about writing a good story? To address that question, how about we change the nature of the conversation. From rules to advice. From “must do’s” and “cannot do’s” to “why not try it this way” or “if this isn’t working for you, give this other approach a shot.”

If the discussion is cast in the form of advice, I’m fine with it. Advice that leaves open the possibility that not everything comes from a cookie cutter. Because, here’s the deal, as discussed in the video chat — there is no creativity in a cookie cutter. Creativity comes in trying to write a story that bends the rules, breaks the rules, sometimes shatters the rules. Unless, of course, you’re only interested in writing to the formulas of your favorite genre. But the thing is … these deadly writer sins, the rules of writing that people throw out there, rarely focus on the idea that these rules are what is needed for specific genres. No, they are presented as though they are the magic sauce for every piece of fiction you may want to write.

So, let’s take a look at the first deadly writer sin … location. The author of this particular post that we were responding to states emphatically that the writer must tell the reader where the story is located. She suggests that any change in location needs to be identified from the outset. But … but … but!!

I’m reminded of my experience at the Mendocino Coast Writer’s Conference. Again, something I have discussed before. One writer in our group of 12, when reading and critiquing other participant’s writing, constantly complained that “you didn’t explain this,” “you didn’t tell us that.” She was upset that every action wasn’t explained in detail. And I kept wanting to say that a writer should not have to provide every single detail, fact, and explanation to the reader. Some of the “work” of reading a story is imagining things and figuring them out as you go.

Reading the discussion of this in the blog post makes me feel like writing a story is nothing more than writing an outline. Or, let me change that. I’m an attorney. In law school, we learn the approach we’re supposed to take to analyzing legal questions — IRAC — Issue, Rule, Analysis, Conclusion. The creativity of fiction demands more than that. And you want to know what? The best writing, the best stories don’t have to handfeed every bit to you.

No, instead, the best writers find ways to show you the world they have created without spoonfeeding it to you like a law school outline. If you want to write a good story, you don’t begin your chapter with London and a dateline — unless those things are absolutely critical to the story and the context needs to be established clearly at the beginning of the story.

One final point about location. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a piece of fiction in my 50+ years of reading where I’ve not understand the location of the story or if there are shifts in location, that there are shifts in location. I simply have never noticed this as a problem in the thousands of short stories and novels I have read in my lifetime. So … I’m not even sure why this is an issue.

(By the way, I’m intentionally not linking to the blog post we were responding to. Why? Because this isn’t about that particular person or even about the specific “rules” she covers. It’s more about … well, I guess I just need to vent because I see so much of this on Twitter and elsewhere. Rules. Rules. Rules. And I just think that people who write about these rules as though they are absolutes do no service to writers.)

I’m not going to cover every thing in the blog post. There’s just one other thing I want to address. After covering the four deadly sins, the author reveals “The Top Secret Bestseller’s Tip.” And what is it?

“The vitally first line — and last line — of every chapter. There is one purpose to those first and last lines — and that is to catapult the reader from one chapter to the next, from one page to the next.”

To be honest, this sounds like an agent talking. It’s the old idea of “you have to grab your reader by the throat with your opening line, paragraph or page.” And if you don’t, you’ve lost the battle. Only, it’s that idea on steroids. Every single chapter must begin and end with a line that catapults the reader!

Well, sure. If the rest of the words in the chapter are complete crap, you’ve got to do something to … catapult your reader on. But, come on, if you’ve done your work as a writer, and written a good story, the weight of the chapter, the work you’ve done in building that chapter and the entire arc of the story will keep your reader reading, with or without a compelling first or last sentence.

The more I think about this, the more I think these ideas are really for people who cannot write a good story. These ideas are what you do if you need to mask a lousy story. That’s all I can think of in response to these “rules.” If you write a good story, the rhythm and flow of it, the pull of the world you’ve created, all of this will carry the reader from word to word, page to page, chapter to chapter, beginning to end and all will be good. If you’re focusing instead on the first sentence and last sentence of each chapter, on whether you’ve adequately provided the location and other “facts” a reader needs, you may be focusing on the wrong thing.

What you’ll end up with is a box store like a Home Depot, instead of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

A Writing Exercise, The Final Day

Hopefully, there are some writers out there who have stuck with this. Here we are the final day. If you post your story, share a link with us in the comments. If you don’t have a blog, but would like to share it here, send us an email.

First day’s word … elimination

Second day’s word … irrepairable

Third day’s word … redundant

Fourth day’s word … kitchen

Fifth day’s word … shocker

Sixth day’s word … facilitate

Today’s word … swan song