The Magic of Wordsmithing

 The practice of wordsmithing is defined as making changes to a text to improve clarity and style, as opposed to content. A wordsmith is a person who works with words; especially a skillful writer. I’ve been thinking of word choice more than usual lately because my daughter is applying to college; and for those of you who do not know the joy of the common application, among other things, it requires each student to fill in a 650-word essay. Every word counts. Literally.  Writers know that every word should always count, and yet I know I’ve been guilty of ignoring that wisdom on more than one occasion. Now that I spend a lot of my life thinking about words: how to order them, how many are necessary, which ones to choose and which ones not to, I have found myself entranced with those writers who do it well. For me, a wordsmith is like a magician: they leave me dazzled, but unable to quite figure how the trick was done.  I want to be one of them; one of those magicians. At least once in a while. So, I’ve been watching for the sleight of hand, the well-timed distraction, the puff of smoke. Although I’m still far from having figured it all out, I think I’ve picked up a few tricks: (1) Read a lot and read a lot of different things. Reading quality work is inspiring, but I do think it’s worth reading books that aren’t necessarily top calibre. Martin Sheen said once that after spending a summer being a golf caddy at an exclusive country club, he learned what kind of man he did not want to be. I think the same can be said of writing. Reading things we don’t like can help us find what we aspire to write. (2) Pay attention to the unwritten word. I love music. A songwriter has very little time to convey a message, an emotion, a thought. It’s amazing how fresh and clever songwriters are. It inspires me. If you like poetry, rap or particularly well-spoken interviewing (think Terry Gross) and reporting, start listening carefully. You may pick up a trick or two. (3) Play games with words. A few years ago I signed up for–and completed–the Improv 101 class at the Upright Citizens Brigade. Yes, it confirmed my longstanding belief that comedians are smarter than the rest of us, but it also taught me that those improv geniuses practice; they practice a lot. One week our teacher asked us to associate as many words and ideas as we could with an object every time we walked down the street. One morning my brain went: dog walker–fire hydrant–bladder–trying to find a bathroom–toilet paper–scented candles. You get the idea. (4) Take your craft seriously. I’m working my way through Harold Evans’ Do I Make Myself Clear? Why Writing Well Matters. You may not agree with everything he says. I don’t, but it’s beyond debate that the man is an expert at the craft of writing. If you want to become one of the magicians, you have to spend some time learning how hide the quarter. Force yourself to double check definitions, punctuation and grammar rules. It’s not hard, and it will improve your skill. (5) Try and fail; and don’t be afraid to fail spectacularly. I’m a terrible skier. Really. When I was ten, we lived in France; and in those days skiing was part of the winter physical education curriculum. Everyone but me was a good skier. I promise you, I was the only one who fell, and, boy, did I fall. I could fall with my skis pointing in directions one would think were physically impossible. After one particularly awe-inspiring fall, my teacher gracefully glided down to me, helped me to my feet and smiled. She told me that only someone who was really pushing herself to improve can fall like I did. Of course, I know she was trying to get me down the mountain, but she did teach me an important lesson. Playing it safe doesn’t teach you that much. (Please leave aside the fact that I’m still a terrible skier for the purpose of this story.) So, that’s it for me. What suggestions do you have for becoming a skilled wordsmith?    

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Black moments

Guest post by Sherry Harris Black Moments

Two weeks ago my daughter and I went to a movie right after I’d spent a weekend with writer friends talking about plotting. Instead of just watching the action, I sat there thinking: there’s the call to action, there’s the black moment, there’s the renewed call, there’s the climactic moment, and there’s the return to what will be the character’s new normal. I still enjoyed the movie, but jeez, I wish I hadn’t analyzed it at the same time.

In this particular movie the protagonist has his black moment in the woods, in the mud, during a rain storm. He wallowed for a bit, before he realized he had to go forward, to accept the call, to become the hero of his journey. It made me think about black moments in mystery writing.

There’s a difference between black moments and giving your protagonist trouble. Trouble is: your protagonist is being chased through the dark, she comes to a river, she finds a raft, she shoves off, a terrible storm comes up, she loses the pole she has for steering, she hears a speed boat pursing her and a waterfall ahead. That’s a lot of trouble.

Where does the black moment fit in to all of this? It could be at the crucial moment where she hears the speed boat behind and the rapids ahead. She lies on the raft thinking it’s all over. The storm hammers her. She will either die at the hands of her pursuers or by going over the waterfall. There is no future, the past no longer matters.

The black moment, therefore, is the darkest point before the proverbial dawn.

And the dawn will come—in a mystery at least (unless you’re talking noir). But your character doesn’t know it, not until the renewed call to action occurs.

Picture the protagonist lying there, thinking of the people who depend on her. She can’t give up so she dives into the water, fights the current, and swims to shore—her call to action renewed! Her pursuers think she’s gone over the falls, so she’s free (for the time being) to solve the mystery.

There are lots of opinions about where this black moment should occur in a manuscript. Some people think it should be at the midpoint of the book, some at the end of the second act, and some right before or during the climactic scene. Whoa! What’s a writer to do? People who are strict plotters will probably disagree with me, but I think it depends on your book. It might be slightly different depending on your story and what your protagonist is up against.

Black moments don’t need to stand out with a big neon flashing sign over your character saying: Attention, this is the black moment. Really, you don’t want your readers to stop and think, aha, the black moment. You want it to be part of your protagonist’s emotional journey. In my fourth book, A Good Day To Buy, Sarah’s black moment is when she realizes she’s about to be caught in a lie and will have to face betraying two people she loves. In the third book, All Murders Final, it’s when Sarah wants to walk away from her investigation and leave it to the professionals.

So far, there’s been no wallowing in mud for Sarah, her black moments have been more subtle. But, hey, who knows. Maybe I’ll give it a try some day.

Writers: Do you think about black moments as you write? Readers: Do you spot black moments in books?

Sherry Harris, a former director of marketing for a financial planning company, decided writing fiction couldn’t be that different than writing ads. She couldn’t have been more wrong. But eventually because of a series of fortunate events and a great many people helping her along the way, Kensington published Tagged For Death the first in the Agatha Award nominated Sarah Winston Garage Sale mysteries. Sherry is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters In Crime, the New England Chapter of Sisters in Crime, and the Chesapeake Chapter of Sisters In Crime, where she serves as President.

Sherry honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. She uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the series. She blogs with the Wicked Cozy Authors.


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Looking for a muse? Maybe you should stop.

A muse, that inspirational goddess of literature, science and the arts found in Greek mythology, is supposed to inspire an artist, writer or musician. But does she? Does anyone wait for the muse to walk into their mind and ignite that spark? I’m not saying that ideas don’t spring to mind fully formed as a random thought during the night, or while walking the dog. Those are the words and ideas that writers rush to put on paper. They may in fact be the kernel of the next great novel or short story. However, rather than putting my faith in the muse, I’m a believer in the creative process. I don’t think that relying on a Greek muse will get me anywhere in the long run. Perhaps it’s because I was trained as an architect, and architecture and writing both rely on a creative process. In architecture you may be designing a house or a library. In writing you are perhaps creating a novel or a short story. A mystery or a memoir. Know this and you’ve started. I’m currently working on a series, so I know the name of my main character, where she lives, who her family is and what motivates her. All I need to do is put her into the current story. In architecture this is the equivalent of picking a site. Now you know the house will face the ocean on a narrow plot of land. You have a start. I think that the most important part of the process is simply beginning. You need the first word on the page; the first line on the page. Once you’ve started, the process continues – this is where it feels like a toss between a miracle and torture. Another layer in the writing unrolls. Perhaps it’s the development of a character, the addition of characters, the development of setting, the addition of details. If you’re writing a mystery, clues are scattered. It’s healthy to look at the exact process other writers use. Do they outline, create detailed backstories for all of their characters, or are they ‘pantsers’ writing by the seat of their pants. But it is also healthy to remember that each person’s process is individual and each person’s mind works in a slightly different way. The most important part of the process, to me, is to keep moving forward. Will you take a left turn on the road to completion, or a right turn? Maybe even a u-turn. You will get there if you keep at it. Keep putting words on a page. Keep reaching for the end, and one day you will arrive.     

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The bonus book

Recently I took a step back in time and read an article on the craft of writing printed in the Paris Review. It was dated Winter 1986, and recounted an interview with E.L. Doctorow on stage in New York City in front of an audience of 500, and I wish I had been there. Doctorow started by saying that he works through six or eight drafts to complete a manuscript. However, there was one time – a miracle time – when he wrote a book in about seven months. The book was World’s Fair and he credits it to God giving him a bonus book for paying his dues over many long years. How did he decide this was a bonus book? Well, according to Doctorow, Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks and Stendhal wrote Charterhouse of Parma in twelve days, and clearly God spoke to them because if it wasn’t God then it was crass exhibitionism. I’m certainly not at the point where I’m due a bonus book, but I like the idea that one day I might qualify. Thank you Doctorow. The entire interview is worth a read. It starts with a demonstration that fame and literal recognition aren’t necessarily hand in hand. The first questioner asks about a Vonnegut book, confusing the two authors. Awkward if you are anyone but Doctorow. As I work on my own manuscript I was particularly drawn to Doctorow’s description of his process. He types single spaced and tries to get as many words on a page as possible. To view the entire landscape, he explains. Small margins get him near 600 words and one page a day is good. Two is worrisome since it might leave him with nothing for the following day. Sage words of advice. Throughout the discussions of what he reads and what he draws experience from the thread of the joy of writing is constant. Writing is all that matters. Experience doesn’t matter. Technique, education, nothing matters except the writing. Also sage advice. Read the complete interview and the others that the Paris Review will publish on the craft of writing. That is, unless you are contemplating a graduate degree in writing. You may want to skip Doctorow’s opinion on that subject. His full interview may be found here:

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