Monday, November 23, 2020

Wordsmithing the Heck out of Your Revision--Ten Steps to Make It Shine

After the gathering stage, after the storyboarding and brainstorming your book's flow, after the first and tenth drafts are created, comes wordsmithing.

Wordsmithing is the final craft we book writers need to have in our toolbox. It's what makes the actual writing shine and sparkle.

Without the other steps, though, it's a wasted effort. I often think of it like putting curtains up on a framed house--window holes but no walls. The framing needs sheet rock, mudding and taping, sanding and painting, and glass in those windows, before the curtains go up.

So, for me, wordsmithing is the absolute last step on your revision task list.

Thing is, it's often the fun part. The skill we hone in school, in our jobs, in our teaching and classes. We love words--that's one reason we write. Words don't make a book, as you know. You have to also be sure the structure is solid and the content is strong. Wordsmithing focuses on the small stuff after all the big stuff is in place.

Think sentence structure, verb choice, adjectives, dialogue tags. Essential. When wordsmithing is done well, there's a vividness to the prose, and the pacing is just right for the story. So obviously, it's a needed step before sending your manuscript out to beta readers, writer's groups, agents, editors, or publishers.

How do you learn wordsmithing? I learned it the hard way, by being an editor for 18 years at a small press (publisher). I honed other people's writing every day for years before I felt the lessons learned as an editor seep into my own writing. From editing, I learned about pacing, the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. I got better at spelling (still not my best suit). I definitely could tell if a story worked or not--if it sang or slumped--and how to bring it to life. But editing others' work didn't automatically transfer to my own.

One benefit of editing, though: it showed me exactly where my own weaknesses lay. So I could start educating myself.

I studied several excellent wordsmithing primers. I'll list three of my favorites (you have yours, no doubt).

I still refer clients and students to Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King, and Dave King's posts on Writer Unboxed. Self-Editing is an older book but well-loved on my shelf. Even though it's labeled as "fiction" it applies to all kinds of writing that uses storytelling. So memoir and nonfiction writers benefit too.

Another great help was Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark. A very detailed compendium of wordsmithing craft tools.

And I enjoy the specificity of Stanley Fish's How to Write a Sentence.

There are also great wordsmithing blogs online, and my last recommendation will be this one on Pinterest that lists David Michael Kaplan's top tools (from his book Revision--another favorite on my bookshelf). Great charts and ideas there!

But the most common question I get about wordsmithing is whether there's a logical method, an approach, that writers entering revision can use. Yes, and it's also tricky.

Tricky part first. As you start jazzing up your verbs, for example (a classic wordsmithing task), or looking up more vivid nouns in your thesaurus, you may get diverted back to structure. Your sentence-level edits make you realize, sadly and shockingly, that a whole scene actually doesn't work. So it's back to structuring. You pause, begin to rework on a larger scale, and totally forget where you are in the wordsmithing process.

This happens ALL THE TIME so be prepared for it. (By now, if it doesn't happen to me when revising, I suspect I am missing something.)

Enter lists.

When I'm ready to begin wordsmithing, I first myself a list of tasks. I use the above books as helpers--they have great lists to borrow. Here is how I use my lists. You've heard some of this before, if you're a regular reader of this blog, but hopefully you'll see some new stuff below.

I read aloud. I try to read through in one to two days, the entire manuscript. I have a highlighter in hand and I mark anything that sounds awkward. Sometimes I'll note why in the margin, but usually I don't--it interrupts the flow.

Then I start with my list. The list works from chapter to paragraph to sentences to words.

For chapter, I look at the beginnings and endings. I make sure they are varied, chapter to chapter (I don't start every chapter with the weather, for example). I make sure the endings lead into the next chapter's beginning. I make sure the last sentence of each chapter is a cliffhanger, not a wrap up.
I squint at the chapter's pages. I look for white space--there should be a nice variety of it, not just dense blocks of text. That tells me the pacing is good. If not, I highlight the dense stuff to break up later.

Then I go to paragraphs. I count lines (I know, I know, but it's amazing how many writers fall into a sleepy rhythm of, say, five sentence paragraphs). If 

I find that, I mark with the highlighter to break up later. I look at the opening and ending sentences to make sure the paragraph has actually moved the story from start to finish.

Last, I approach sentences. I look at words now. I'll sample out a few paragraphs and count the number of words in each sentence. Again, looking for variation. I mark with my highlighter when I find too many the same--all short, all long and complex.

I work with the individual words after that, starting with the adverbs and adjectives, our descriptors. Descriptors are great, and necessary, but sometimes writers wax lyrical and use descriptors instead of showing character more vividly.I try to eliminate what I can, especially "ly" words.

I look at my dialogue tags (verbs in spoken dialogue) and eliminate as many as I can without confusing the speaker. Also, I make sure I've used "said" and not more intricate tags like "exclaimed"--a mark of poor wordsmithing.

This is just part of my wordsmithing process for my books. It's different for every writer. Check out the resources listed above--full of great ideas too.

Friday, November 6, 2020

How to Send a Manuscript to an Agent--and What to Expect Once You Do

If you've been writing like crazy during the past months of isolation, you may be ready to send your manuscript off to an agent or two in the new year. One of my long-time students is in that scary and exciting place, and she asked for any tips on how to go about it.

(I've written in many past blog posts about how to know if you're really ready. You can search for them on my blog if you want to read them again. Enter "manuscript" or "agent" in the search box.)

Friday, October 30, 2020

Writing Real-Life Characters: How to Get to Know the People You Already Know

I got an email from one of the students in my last online Afternoon Character Intensive. Since the workshop, he'd had a mini-breakthrough about his memoir--specifically the cast of characters he's trying to include. His mixed-up, even dangerous, family history means the players onstage are very individual, with quirks and tendencies. But he knew them so well, he'd not written that individuality onto the page.

It was hard enough coming to terms with their effect in his life. He wanted to write what happened, not who done it.

But he also knew that characters in memoir must be memorable--as memorable as those in a good novel--for readers to really grasp their importance and impact.

As he worked on one of the charts we use in the class to track key character arcs (growth of different characters who matter to the story), the breakthrough came.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Editing-Writing-Storyboard Dance--When to Do Each One to Create the Best Book

One of my past clients has been working hard on her memoir. She emailed me a few weeks ago with a good question about the best rhythm for book writers who are in revision. How do you know what's needed next--more editing, more writing, or the long view of a storyboard or charts? What are the signs that it's time for each of these all-important tasks?

I call it a dance. Ideally, there's a predictable flow between each activity, with markers along the way to tell you when to change partners.

Friday, October 16, 2020

When Your Characters Fade from the Page--Tips to Find Out Where and How to Revive Them

Combing for new ideas, insights, and writing exercises to offer in my upcoming characters class on November 7, I found a scratchy list I'd made while working on a client's manuscript some months ago. It had everything to do with fading characters, why they disappear inadvertently and how to bring them back.

This writer was finishing her first memoir. A good writer, a careful one, and her real-life characters were amazingly depicted--people you'd definitely remember, both for good and not.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Poets and Writers New List of "Best Writing Books"--and My Personal Favs

 Around this time of year, maybe because the back-to-school energy has tempted me, I begin to look at buying another writing book or two. I mark them up, use them in classes, and study them all winter during prime writing time (hibernation). This week, I came across the latest list from Poets and Writers, a wonderful resource for all of us. (If the link doesn't work, go to their website and search for "best writing books.")

It's a very comprehensive list, but I thought I'd add a few favorites of my own, books that have been well-thumbed and underlined over the years. You'll have your own favorites too.

It pays every now and then to get what I call a "smart boost" by refreshing your craft skills. Hard to do when you're neck deep in a manuscript, or trying to meet a deadline, but if you can give yourself a couple of hours this week to go back to a favorite craft book or check out a new one.

A few of my favorite writing books:

Friday, October 2, 2020

Submitting to Contests: Worth It or Waste of Money and Time?

A great way to get your writing out there, seen by readers and possibly your future agent (agents browse literary journals and magazines and website), is contests. Writing contests, if you have the happy experience of winning or even placing as a finalist, can also boost your query letter/resume considerably.

Quite a few of my clients and students submit to contests regularly. "It's great practice to have a deadline," one of them told me. She tries to submit something every month, even has the next submission ready to send as soon as she gets a rejection back. "Rejections are no fun but they're part of the writing life if you want to get published. It helps me not get discouraged if I can keep sending out my work no matter what."

Why contests? They cost. (A past student emailed that she was getting ready to send an essay and some poetry to a Writer's Digest contest. Then she found out about the fee. "They CHARGE you to enter," she told me. "Is this legit?" Short answer: Yup. Many contests charge. There are also a lot of free ones.) But they also give you an entry into journals and lit magazines.

Friday, September 25, 2020

When Your Book Has a Mission--How Do You Keep the Story Personal and Engaging?

Mindy Greiling was a Minnesota state legislator when her son Jim threatened to kill her. It was his first psychotic episode. Mindy's new book, Fix What You Can,is an account of twenty years with her son's schizophrenia and her lawmaking efforts to change policy for people with mental illness.

It launches next week (October 8) from the University of Minnesota Press. (Click on the title for more information or to preorder.)

Mindy came to me for coaching a few years ago, challenged by the teaching points she wanted to bring into her memoir as a member of her state's legislature and the mother of a son. She wanted to make sure the story itself wasn't overwhelmed by the book's mission. She also wanted help on writing about the very tough subject of living with mental illness in her family while working a high-profile job.

After years of hard work, her book will soon be in the hands of readers. It's a book to be proud of. I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

I wanted to interview her for this week's blog post, so readers who are also bringing agendas, or strong teaching points, into their memoir (or even fiction) can learn from her success.

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Character Names: How to Find the Ones That Feel Just Right

A blog reader recently wrote me: "As I write a middle-grade mystery book on pet detectives, I have changed some character names three or four times. I can't see to get that 'feels right' fit for a particular name."

Names are tough for me. Some I just know, even before I start writing. I knew Kate and Mel from a short-story written before my novel, Qualities of Light, that expanded their story, was published. Kate was always a Kate, just because I felt that name was no nonsense, like a pilot has to be. Mel is a dreamy artist and I didn't care for Melvin, which it's short for, but try as I might, I couldn't change him to Jim or Joe or George.

Like my blog reader, though, some characters feel elusive in early drafts. I give them a "draft" name and try to keep it until they tell me otherwise. That might sound woo-woo to some, but fiction writers all know how the characters live inside our heads, often more real than the living folk around us at times.

Friday, September 4, 2020

How Long Can You Go? Word Count Limit for First Books

First-time authors who love epics, such as Tolkien or the Outlander or Game of Thrones series, often ask me about word count for their manuscripts. "I'm at 150,000 words," one writer told me recently, and "I just can't seem to cut anything." Another wrote me this week about her ending--not sure where to stop, she keeps writing. Such dilemmas are common in the drafting stages, and I've encountered them too. Writing can be so satisfying, and trimming not so much.

If you're planning to self-publish, this is not an issue. You don't have to follow any rules but your own and your story can be as long as you want it to be, if you can afford the cost. But if you're hoping to find an agent and publisher, it's good to know the ballpark numbers--what's acceptable in the industry today.

Agents are particularly straightforward about their ability to sell first-time manuscripts that are less than 60,000 or that exceed 90,000 words. One of my early novels was around 45,000 words; an agent I approached loved the story but declined to represent me. "It's just too hard to sell that size book," she told me.